“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
(From “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
“Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope”- the first time I focused on this phrase in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was when I visited the King monument in Washington, D.C. about five years ago. I recall being struck by the nature of the stone – raw, simple, and yet majestic. I was deeply moved by the figure bursting through the stone in the person of Dr. King. I could feel the skill, determination, and power it took the sculptor to interpret the life of this civil rights leader in this manner – bringing life out of rock. As with many artistic decisions, only part of Dr. King’s statement was written by the sculpture – “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” The full sentence in his speech was “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” “With this faith” – these words reflected the foundation of Dr. King’s hope in his quest for justice through non-violent resistance. His faith in the resurrection power of Christ sustained him through unimaginable and insurmountable “mountains of despair.” I was, however, equally struck by the word “hew” – a word with which I was not so familiar. To hew means to strike forcible with an ax or other cutting instrument; to make shape or smooth with cutting blows. It takes an extraordinary amount of work to hew rock – to cut into it, giving it a shape that resembles anything that would offer hope.
In many ways, this quote captures the spirit of what we have witnessed and experienced over the past six months. Our church leaders and our community leaders have hewed and created images of hope in the midst of images and mountains of despair. Our congregations and community ministries have found ways to ‘be church’ – a light of hope in the world – even as COVID-19 and the surging racism has caused many of us to lose the balance of our assumptions. “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Our leaders have found ways to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the infirmed, and accompany those mourning. Our pastors have become directors and producers of weekly worship using digital platforms – bringing together people in sacred and meaningful gatherings. “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Resisting the 7 deadly words of the church “we never did it that way before,” our leaders have risen to the challenge of staying creatively connected in this extraordinary season of dual pandemics. Neither COVID-19 nor the pandemic of racism has stopped the faithful witness of the Church of Jesus Christ. And it is clear that our faith has served to be foundational to the hard work of hewing – striking the mountains of despair – chipping away – giving it new shape and possibilities where others might simply see lifeless stone – unmovable and unchangeable. What an extraordinary and resilient people you have been. “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
And now, as the summer season gives way to the colors of autumn, I am mindful that there is still more hewing to do. The mountain of despair looms before us – as the two pandemics continue to challenge our resources and our witness. We are still navigating how to be church during a time of social distancing. We are still navigating how to be a voice for justice – resisting violence and economic disparity embodied in blatant acts of racism especially as that violence is disproportionately experienced by our Black siblings and other People of Color. We must do the work to bring hope in concrete ways to those for whom hope is but a distant dream.
But on this day – I am also reminded of the courage. I am reminded of the faith, courage, and hope embodied by Dr. King as he led the Civil Rights movement, speaking truth to power, resisting and reframing the assumptions of his time. I am reminded of a courageous people on September 11, 2001 when another unspeakable act was visited upon our nation. Out of the ashes of that tragedy and violence rose a spirit of renewal and determination. Above all, I am reminded of the great faith we have been given as a people of Christ – a faith that brings forth extraordinary renewal in the most ordinary of people. “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
And in this spirit, I leave you with the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans – for I, too, am convinced and convicted that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). May we be a people who lean into this truth with resilience and courage.