Inspiration for Sincere Dialogue in Difficult Times

Martin Luther King, Jr., meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Public Domain

“We live at a time when the world is full of violence, oppression and conflict.” “We live in a time of deep division in our own country.” Perhaps both these statements are true of many times, maybe even all times, but they are certainly true of this one. The communication technologies of our period also can serve to make these realities seem closer to us or harder for many of us to escape, even if we’d like to.

One of the reasons we honor and celebrate certain special individuals is because we hope that in their lives, we can find wisdom and inspiration for our own times. In the span of a few weeks at the beginning of the year, we mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the celebration of Foundation Day (the commemoration of the start of the Vincentian Mission), and the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. So much could be said about each of these days and the men and the movements they commemorate. Today, let’s consider what they might suggest to us about relationship and dialogue in difficult times.

In reading the highly acclaimed new biography of Dr. King by Jonathan Eig (who happens to live near DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus), I was struck by King’s relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson reached out to King three days after the assassination of President Kennedy seeking his assistance.[1] Johnson was a highly skilled political operator and said he was committed to civil rights but he knew he needed the help of King, who was then at the height of his mainstream popularity and success. They remained in close contact although neither publicized their dialogue, and both were wary of the other. (In fact, both knew that elements of the federal government were spying on King and seeking to destroy him.) King wept after watching Johnson’s powerful address to Congress after the civil rights movement was met with violence in Selma (and after Johnson had met in the White House with Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace).[2] The address called Congress and the nation to pass the Voting Rights Act. Despite what they were able to accomplish in this arena, as Johnson continued to escalate the Vietnam War, King would not remain silent, despite the advice of many who considered themselves his allies in the movement.[3]

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King stressed the importance of dialogue and negotiations (along with research to identify injustices and to engage in self-purification). Yet King rejected the idea that direct action was in opposition to dialogue and negotiations. King argued that while destructive violence must always be opposed, the constructive tension created by nonviolent direct action was often necessary to force those in power to engage in dialogue and negotiations with the marginalized. King said that while he initially disliked being the label of extremist, he now embraced the need for “creative extremists” for love, truth, and justice.[4]

While the time and place of Vincent was not one of direct action or of democracy, I would argue that Vincent and the organizations he founded relied not only on service, but also on creative calls through words and actions for those in power to accept their responsibility for those on the margins. The call for the powerful in France to live up to the Christian example and not ignore those in poverty stood in stark contrast to the injustices of French society. When Vincent was transformed from a smart young man who was motivated to make a better life for himself to one utterly committed to serving God and those living in poverty, he did not cut off relationships with the elite and powerful in society. Instead, he continued to cultivate them with the aim of using those relationships to fulfill his mission.

I have also been reading a compelling recent book on Abraham Lincoln by NPR’s Steve Inskeep.[5] While Lincoln, like King, is remembered for his powerful oratory, this book focuses on Lincoln’s relationships and dialogues. Each chapter focuses on a different account of encounters between Lincoln and another person who came from a different background than him and with whom he had a significant disagreement. What stands out in each encounter is Lincoln’s willingness to engage with those with whom he disagreed. The results of the dialogue were rarely about one convincing the other, but Lincoln used the dialogues to understand others better. He was a quintessential politician and believer in democracy, and he could use his understanding of the others’ interests to define priorities and create coalitions to accomplish his most important goals. Although as a politician Lincoln would often choose to remain strategically silent as part of this process, Inskeep’s book takes its title from something Lincoln wrote in a letter to his close friend Joshua Speed. Speed came from a slaveholding family and Lincoln “chided [him] for admitting the “abstract wrong” of slavery but failing to act accordingly.”[6] Still, Lincoln remained in relationship with Speed, signing off the letter with “your friend forever.”[7]

We all have different roles to play in life and in the university. Just as the roles and perspectives of a prophetic preacher leading a movement for social change, a politician in an era of civil war, and a saintly founder of a religious order in an absolute monarchy may differ greatly, we may see our own roles differently based on our positions, personalities, or other commitments. I see in each of these examples a call to remain in dialogue and relationship with others, even those with whom I may have profound differences or disagreements. I have seen a call to sincerity in that dialogue which means a willingness to express difficult truths and to listen to them. Finally, I appreciate the role that constructive, creative tension can play in individual and communal transformation when we are willing to channel that tension into dialogue and negotiation.

I am inspired by the people and spaces in the university that help form students to engage in these types of difficult, sincere ongoing dialogues. Among those with which I am most familiar are the Interfaith Scholars program and the Grace School of Applied Diplomacy, but I know there are many others. What are the ways in which you think DePaul engages these questions best and what are ways in which we might be able to do better?

REFLECTION BY: Abdul-Malik Ryan, Muslim Chaplain and Assistant Director, Office of Religious Diversity, Division of Mission and Ministry.

[1] Jonathan Eig, King: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), 351.

[2] Ibid., 435.

[3] Ibid., 514–30.

[4] See Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” August 1963,

[5] Steve Inskeep, Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America (New York: Penguin Press, 2023).

[6] Ibid., xiv-xv.

[7] Ibid., xv.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We are on the move now… Our God is marching on”

“Today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now…. Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past, and Negroes and whites study side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March 25, 1965[1]

The words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose memory we celebrate in the coming week, are an eloquent reminder for all races and ethnicities that dreams have not been defeated. This is not a post-utopian era. Utopias are alive in the hearts of all who struggle to build true democracies in which all people, especially the “most abandoned” (as Vincent de Paul called them), can finally live with dignity. The memory of Dr. King should always awaken a belief that a better world is still possible.

History is a continuum—in the utopia of yesterday, the reality of today was incubated, just as new realities will breathe from the utopias of today. The utopia of one century often becomes a simple fact of the next century. Utopian vision is the beginning of all true progress and the design of a better future. I believe it’s not too late to make real Dr. King’s utopia of a just world in which people of all cultures and races are treated equally and given the same opportunities to flourish.

In our encounters within the Vincentian Family, we constantly realize that our creativity is not exhausted and that we are still too far away from the realization of a world in which all forms of life are respected and protected. We must ensure ‘the most abandoned,’ as Vincent called them, are taken care of, and provided with everything they need to live with dignity.

In a 1965 sermon, Dr. King explained that the “majestic words” of the Declaration of Independence, “all [people] are created equal,” were the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.[2] He did not see that document as a lie but as an unfulfilled promise, “raised to cosmic proportions,” that the movement was now struggling to realize. When we see the unbearable suffering of so many people in the United States, especially so many people of African descent, we understand the current challenges of the movement Dr. King championed.

DePaul University is built on top of this same foundation, this universal truth. Vincentian understanding recognizes the dignity of every human story, and especially those persons that are broken because of systemic injustice, structural poverty, inequity, exclusion, or social and racial discrimination. We recognize the essential equity among all human beings of so many diverse backgrounds.

In many places of the world, I have seen a growing movement of intersectional liberation and social transformation. We, the Vincentian Family, are bearers of just part of this seed of life that has been entrusted to all races, religions, cultures, social classes, and nations of the earth. This seed is hidden in the heart of the Vincentian charism, a charism that belongs to the reign of God and his justice. It is deeply connected with all the other seeds entrusted to humanity to make dignified life on our planet possible and sustainable. The vitality and relevance of the Vincentian spirit can only be guaranteed if a connection with this universal movement is kept alive.

The Vincentian charism is pro-cultural. We are at the crossroads of history alongside the excluded of the earth, and of the earth itself, and our horizon is the same that the universal movement of justice and peace envisions: “a new heaven and a new earth”![3] The systemic racial justice of Dr. King’s utopia is a Vincentian issue that we embrace from our own convictions and for our vocation. His dream is not strange to us. Our Vincentian sociology, theology, and anthropology naturally bring us to this cause. We are on the move, marching with God for a world free of hate. DePaul should be a school where the equitable new world is designed, where students of all racial identities and diverse cultural backgrounds come together “side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom” as Dr. King envisioned in 1965. That is the dream.

In 2022, the memory of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can give us all the elements we need to understand that the emancipatory movement is urgent today and needs support from every angle. It is deeply connected with all social and environmental movements of liberation and transformation.

We are on the move, we cannot stop marching, and we won’t turn around now! We will continue resisting the hegemonic ego- and capital-centric narratives that are destroying our planet, making life unsustainable, and oppressing human beings. It is an urgent necessity that all human, social, and environmental movements of systemic change work together side by side to be effective. As Dr. King said, “The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.”[4]

Reflection by: Guillermo Campuzano, C.M., Vice President, Division of Mission and Ministry

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Our God is Marching On,” speech, March 25, 1965, Montgomery, AL, transcript, https://‌kinginstitute.‌stanford.‌‌edu/‌our-god-marching.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For biblical examples, see, e.g., Isaiah 65:17-19, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1, and Isaiah 66:22.

[4] Ibid.

Fighting for Civil Rights in a Fragile Democracy: The Vincentian Spirit and the Legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963


I am convinced that the very foundation of the Vincentian Spirit began with, and still demands, a specific approach to understanding reality. It is rooted in the experience of all those on the margins of society deprived of their essential rights to food, education, health care, clothing, and housing, as well as all victims of systemic injustice due to their race, sex, sexual orientation, social class or religion. In this sense, I believe that civil rights and democracy are Vincentian themes, and that in these two “signs of the times” we find a concrete Vincentian call for DePaul as an educational institution.

This week we celebrate the memory and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are also witnessing a national transition of governmental power in the United States that has exposed the fragility of democracy. Governmental stability is necessary for the well-being of people living in poverty or on the margins, as social conflict, pandemics, and natural disasters always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Vincent de Paul said that the most vulnerable are “our portion” in life, or our responsibility, our place, our call, and our ultimate vocation. (1)

I believe that the struggle to fully construct our democracy framed Dr. King’s call. He fought for civil rights based on the social contract of democracy—a system that demands we commit to preserve and expand the common good by recognizing and respecting the civil rights of all people as equal. Dr. King fought for the civil rights of Black people and communities in defense of, and to fulfill, the democratic dream that all are recognized and respected as equal in both rights and responsibilities. In the U.S., civil rights are to this day an unsettled issue, as the full incorporation of Black and Brown people into the life of the country is clearly unresolved.

Over the past four years we have seen that democracy is a dynamic—sometimes historic—human-made, socio-political system that is always changing. It therefore never seems to be fully functional. The democratic system demands constant monitoring and oversight to prevent the gradual erosion of its quality. In recent years, as democracy has become a domestic concern for the American people, the U.S. has shifted its priority from defending democracy abroad to scrutinizing itself. Our time of being recognized as the global defender and model of democracy seems to have been lost, and our current crisis is creating questions worldwide. Clearly, strengthening our democratic processes will not only benefit U.S. institutions and citizens, but also the international community.

When leaving the White House, President Barack Obama reminded us “citizenship is the most important position in a democracy.”(2) In the twenty-first century, committed citizens of the world continue to be confronted with the challenges of democracy—whether building it from the ground up, restoring it, preserving it in fragile or failed states, or improving the quality of it in so-called strong democracies like the U.S.

In our society the democratic principles that guarantee peace and prosperity are merged throughout the social, economic, and legal fabric. These principles can be found everywhere in the Constitution, and in the essential democratic underpinnings of human rights, fundamental freedoms, equal rights regardless of gender, freedom of speech, as well as in the elimination of differences of treatment on the basis of race, sex, language, social class, physical condition, sexual orientation, or religion. Dr. King clearly understood that non-racial discrimination is one of these essential principles, without which democracy is simply an unfulfilled dream.

We believe, as Dr. King did, that a fully-fledged democracy, with its legal and ethical basis, is a means to achieve peace, security, economic and social progress, sustainable development, and respect for the human rights of all. I am frightened when I read that more and more young people around the world think there are other means to achieve these goals. They see the failure of the political patriarchal model, the failure and corruption of politicians and political parties, and the severe dismantling of the foundations of our democratic process. For me, it is difficult to comprehend that the civil rights fight Dr. King faced over half-a-century ago, which happened in the context of U.S. democracy, reflects the current outcry for racial justice, and the current context of our democracy. What, then, does this say of our democracy?

DePaul University is a Vincentian institution dedicated to education. We are inspired and sustained by the Vincentian Spirit. The signs of the times are demanding we recognize what has been called “education for democracy” by the United Nations: “a broad concept which can help to inculcate democratic values and principles in a society, encouraging citizens to be informed of their rights and the existing laws and policies designed to protect them, as well as training individuals to become democratic leaders in their societies.”(3) Education for democracy involves an active effort to encourage the full participation of citizens in the different democratic processes. This kind of education demands we attend to the peaceful and non-violent coexistence of diverse societies, including access, equity, social justice, individual and institutional ethical behavior, checks and balances of power as well as individual rights and responsibilities.

Education is also critical in empowering citizens to hold accountable those politicians and political parties that hold positions of power, as well as the institutions designed to create laws and policies that safeguard the rights of all.

Founded in the Vincentian Spirit, DePaul needs to be committed, through its educational practice, to strengthen democratic citizenship and promote effective popular participation. As we celebrate Dr. King and hope for a peaceful and non-violent transition of national power, we must continue our fight for the civil rights of all. The peaceful transition of power is one of the essential principles of global democracy.

We must also not forget that in the U.S. the essential democratic right to vote is yet another unresolved issue. It is evident that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people’s access to free and equal voting opportunities are curtailed through mechanisms such as unjust purging of registered voter lists, lack of access to polling places, and long lines at those polling places that are still operational. We need to resolve this issue, among many others, to restore and protect the meaning of democracy in our nation.

The role of the Black community in the preservation of our democracy cannot be ignored. In recent elections the Black community, again, voted in huge numbers and, in many cases, under unfair conditions. They stood up once more to claim their rights, and in so doing, they helped all Americans regain a vision of the real meaning of democracy. As I remember and honor the life of Dr. King, I want to honor and praise the role of the Black community nationwide, which continues to fight for justice and democracy on so many fronts, and often at high personal cost. It is neither fair nor sustainable to expect Black Americans to continue to bear such a disproportionate burden in the fight for civil rights and upholding democracy.

All citizens are called to defend the principles of our democracy: equality, respect, responsibility, agency, and opportunity for all. But now, in this moment in history, I thank Black leaders like Dr. King for their legacy, the very many activist leaders working for justice today, and all Black Americans who continue the fight to uphold democracy. I thank you for your sacrifices, your contributions, and your critical victories. You are living evidence of the struggle to protect and the resilience to uphold our democracy.

1) Conference 180, Observance of the Rules, 17 May 1658, CCD, 12:4.

2) President Barack Obama, Farewell Address, 10 January 2017. See: https://‌obama‌whitehouse.‌‌farewell

3) Guidance Note of the Secretary-General on Democracy, United Nations, 2005. See: Guidance Note on Democracy

Other Bibliography

Campuzano, Guillermo, C.M., Personal Notes, 2018 United Nations meeting on Democracy.

“Conferencias de San Vicente de Paul,” Editorial CEME, XII:4.

King, Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). See: https://‌www.‌theatlantic.‌com/‌magazine/‌archive/2018/02/‌letter-from-a-birmingham-jail/552461/


Reflection By: Guillermo Campuzano, C.M., Vice President Division of Mission & Ministry