When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. heard the president of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson, speak about a trip he took to India in 1950, King was so inspired by the life and teachings of Mohandas Gandhi that he immediately began educating himself about the Indian leader.
“His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works,” King wrote in his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom” about Johnson’s speech. “Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance.”
King began to research everything he could about Gandhi and how he successfully used nonviolent civil disobedience to change the British-colonial rule in India.
“As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform,” King wrote.
Gandhi’s philosophy completely changed King’s views on peaceful demonstrations.
“Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship,” King wrote. “The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.”
The teachings of Gandhi, who was known to his many followers as Mahatma, or “the great-souled one,” inspired King to use love as the instrument for social reform in this country’s civil rights movement.
In honor of that inspiration, the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta has invited Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, to be the keynote speaker at the Seventh Annual MLK Interfaith Worship Service this Saturday at 6:45 p.m. at Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church.
Rev. Terence Dicks, a member of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta, was instrumental in bringing Arun Gandhi to the Garden City.
“The reason why this particular speaker means so much to us is because Dr. King was so influenced by the example of Arun Gandhi’s grandfather,” Dicks said. “Unfortunately, Dr. King never had the opportunity to meet Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime. In fact, the two were assassinated about 20 year apart, which has always been a source of amazement to me, but Dr. King was so taken by the example of Gandhi because of his peaceful approach to bringing about change.”
Arun Gandhi, who is also an international peace and justice advocate, founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester, N.Y. This institute is dedicated to applying the principles of nonviolence at both local and global scales.
When the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta first began discussing who they wanted to invite to be this year’s speaker, Dicks recalls Rev. Sheryl Padgett, the minister of Christ Church Unity, jokingly saying, “Maybe we can get our own Gandhi.”
“I think she just threw out the name, but I told her, ‘Well, we might be able to,’” Dicks said smiling. “I knew of the M.K. Gandhi Institute, which was in Memphis, but then moved up to Rochester.”
Dicks offered to contact the institute to see if Arun Gandhi was available.
“It took a little while and we went back and forth with the staff and nothing really happened,” Dicks said. “And then, lo and behold, about three or four months later, I got a got a call on my mobile phone.”
It was a call Dicks said he will never forget.
“A man asked, ‘Is this Rev. Dicks?’ And I said, ‘Yes, this is Rev. Dicks.’ And he said, ‘This is Arun Gandhi,’” Dicks said, laughing. “And I said, ‘Excuse me?’”
Dicks couldn’t believe he had actually reached the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi.
“I said, ‘I’m so honored, Mr. Gandhi, for calling me back,’” Dicks said, adding that he had tried to see Arun Gandhi speak back in 2002 during a conference in Seattle, but could not make the trip. “So, this is something I waited a long time for.”
B.N. Roy of the Hindu Temple Society of Augusta said he expects many members of the CSRA’s Indian community to attend this year’s MLK interfaith worship service this Saturday.
“Martin Luther King had a connection with India in a sense that he visited the country, studied there and he followed many of the principles of Mohandas Gandhi, so we treat him as an extension of Gandhi in the United States,” Roy said. “Especially considering his nonviolent tactics that he utilized in the civil rights movement, we feel a connection with him.”
Shortly after researching Mohandas Gandhi’s legacy, King tested those theories of love and nonviolence.
Following the Montgomery, Ala., bus incident, in which Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, King quickly helped organize a boycott of the buses, which lasted for more than a year.
The boycott continued until November 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.
The ruling helped vindicate King’s cause and reinforce Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy.
Rev. John West Jr., rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior, said these interfaith worship services are so important because they draw the community together.
“It helps us realize our commonalities versus our differences and it is a good message to the community,” West said. “And I think the speaker is wonderful. I mean, how often do you get to meet the grandson of the Gandhi?”
Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi of the Islamic Society of Augusta said he looking forward to being a part of the event.
“We are continuously striving for justice and peace and for mutual respect and better understanding of the Muslim community,” Daoudi said. “That is our everlasting goal and Dr. King worked hard for such understanding and peaceful coexistence with others. Not only on the basis of live and let live. But on the basis of live and help others to live.”
Rev. Lisa Heilig of the Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer says the peaceful message of inclusion that King and this year’s speaker, Arun Gandhi, stand for is extremely appealing to her congregation.
“Because we have a special outreach to folks who maybe marginalized by other faith communities, we feel very strongly about cooperating with other faith communities to bring an inclusive message of love, which is what we see in Martin Luther King’s theology and actions,” Heilig said. “And one of the things that is very dear to us is including people of all kinds of different families in our congregation.
“Arun Gandhi has gone on record as being inclusive of folks who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered and that is very important to our community.”
Rabbi Robert Klensin of the Congregation Children of Israel said he is proud to be a part of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta.
“It is the most extensive interfaith worship that takes place in the CSRA,” Klensin said. “And, from what I’ve heard from speakers who have been from larger communities that have come here, they don’t even have such an inclusive group in their communities. Everything is very natural with this group because we all agree there is a respect for each other.”
Klensin also believes that it is extremely important for tributes to King’s legacy extend to the entire community.
“Some of the Dr. King events in the past have been very much Christian events and very much African-American events. Some white people come, but not very many,” he said. “But Dr. King’s message is not just for African Americans. To bring his dreams and hopes into fulfillment is going to take all of us.”
The Rev. Dr. Sid Gates, an ordained Presbyterian minister and one of the cofounders of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta, said the group works hard to bring different traditions together to celebrate one another’s cultures.
“There is much more that binds us and bonds us than divides us,” Gates said. “So, there is kind of a credo of this group. There was a Catholic theologian who once said, ‘There will never be peace among the nations until there is peace among the religions.’ He went on to say, ‘There will never be peace among the religions until there is dialogue among the religions.’”
That is the purpose and the goal of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta, Gates said.
“On a grassroots level, we are trying to foster dialogue and build bridges, but what we think is even more important than dialogue is co-worship,” he said. “This is a chance for mutual respect, love and learning from one another about what unites us.”