e-mail us


Celebrating an elder in King’s mode


Had she lived another couple of weeks, 86-year-old Jane Emerson would have stood at one end of Christ the King Church in San Diego on Sunday, Jan. 20 giving a reading, while acknowledging the portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. at the other end of the church.

But she was buried the Tuesday before.

That gave the pastor, Jesuit Fr. Eduardo Samaniego, the opportunity during the festive, two-hour long King celebratory Mass, to make the connection between what we see as heroic lives of extraordinary people like King and committed ordinary lives like Emerson’s. For decades, this mother of 12, grandmother of 32, great-grandmother of 20 had been the primary force behind most things done by the Catholic Worker in the city (NCR, Nov. 13, 1998).

Samaniego suggested that such lives are not so different, for they have the same commitment in common.

With the Caribbean-hued Jesus on the altar wall behind him, the 20-plus-voice choir’s phrase, “Lord I am available to you,” and the trumpets, sax, drums and piano still echoing, Samaniego took the day’s readings down King’s and Emerson’s Christian-commitment road. It is the road all Catholics, all Christians welcome and dread -- the Way that unflinchingly leads from answering the call, to feeling driven, to becoming destined, to finally letting go in order to be freely carried along to wherever and whatever the Word and will of God leads.

What a torturing way. What an agonizing yes. What a severe mercy.

“I have seen hate,” said Samaniego, quoting King. “Do what you will to us. We will still love you. We will tire you out with our capacity to suffer.”

That was King, and the courageous souls around him.

“But what about us -- as chosen?” the pastor asked. “Have we the confidence to speak out against injustice? Are we blessed with a vision? Jane Emerson said ‘Here I am, Lord.’ ”

Samaniego said the Isaiah reading for the day (49: 3, 5 and 6) skipped a verse, and he’d looked it up. It was, “I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing.” To be certain we’re not toiling in vain, he said, “we need to pray for the gift of discernment.” Discernment helps us decide, he said, whether we move into action or quiet service. Either way, the same requirements remain: commitment and humility.

“We need humility in order to be transparent before God, transparent to one another,” said Samaniego. “We ask why do we do what we do? And the answer reveals who we are.”

It is at this point, the “who we are,” that Martin and Jane -- and other committed Christians -- have the most in common. King did not want to lead, did not see himself as extraordinary. King biographer David Garrow wrote recently that King’s “reluctance to be a leader” was “coupled with a lifelong ambivalence toward praise and honors.” Those traits, Garrow wrote, “shaped a most remarkable and commendable man.”

Similarly, Jane Emerson would bristle if anyone referred to her as the parish radical. To her, it was elementary, not radical, that to be Catholic means caring about the poor; elementary that the church has to risk alienating people, including its own.

Probably a third to a half of all Americans alive today were born after King’s 1968 assassination. Emerson’s death is a reminder that in the next couple of decades those with the active memory of King’s life will be gone.

How then, does the memory, the work, the reality live on?

King and Emerson themselves provided the answer. As they developed in their missions and vision they were able to talk -- King about Gandhi particularly, Emerson about Dorothy Day particularly -- about the continuing human linkages of the vision that, for both of them, began with Jesus’ words.

King, following on Gandhi, became a reference point and a starting point for justice in this and other countries. Emerson, in a far smaller setting, is a reference point, too, for all those younger people in the Christ the King faith community who remember the elderly white woman with the close-cropped hair.

King was one of the martyrs.

Emerson was one of the elders, said Samaniego.

They knew her, they saw her, and they understand what she did and why.

It is sufficient.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002