Are We Ensigns of Hope? | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Are We Ensigns of Hope?

Remarks at Annual Martin Luther King Day Services - January 23, 2012


“He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:12)

I thank you for inviting me this evening to participate in St. Lawrence’s annual observance of Martin Luther King’s birth and life. It is also a high privilege to share some reflections of my own thought and learning on the first day of our University’s spring term.

I was a boy growing up in Washington, D.C., when Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I attended integrated schools, which were still relatively new in much of America, at least in the geography of my childhood. I was in high school the day he was assassinated and that night you could read a book without a lamp because parts of the city were on fire as angry rioting broke out. Soldiers were on street corners, military jeeps and trucks patrolled the grand avenues of the Nation’s Capital. About ten years later, I came back to work and serve in a neighborhood that was sorely affected by the urban anguish that left burned-out remnants of the so-called “riot corridor.”

I mention these brief recollections because in a time of both personal and national despair, hope later triumphed and the sirens in the night were muted by the soaring rhetoric of Dr. King’s recorded oratory. It has taken many decades, but the neighborhood I had seen blighted, those streets I knew and often feared for 15 years, where churches courageously stayed as anchors while others gave up, eventually returned to humane vitality and positive community life. Consequently, over the years the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King has become one of my favorite days of American remembrance. It still has the purity of its original purpose while other national holidays have deviated into amplified market days.

The value and purpose of this occasion must grasp, and not merely touch, the memory, the ideas, and the historical essence of Dr. King. Rather, we are gathered from many backgrounds, but pause in front of the singular question, What shall we do? What shall we do with our talent? What shall we do with our lives? Today, it is not about what he said, but what he served. It matters not what is said about him, but what he inspires people to do. And the day is certainly not about the pleasure the songs give us when the notes pass our lips, but what the words do to set our hearts on fire.

I would like us to examine for a few minutes a neglected aspect of Dr. King’s leadership. Yes, it was about serving. But behind that constructive admonition to be useful is more. Unless we give others hope, how effective, truly, do we serve our world? Isn’t that the point of his life and example of service? As an American prophet himself, Dr. King understood the lasting power of an ancient prophesy: “He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” 

Another Martin Luther preached a sermon in the early 16th century, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, on the words of a letter writer knowing the older prophesy; a correspondent who challenges his audience to become “ensigns of hope,” to stand like a flag staff that flies a banner of presence and destiny. It is a pictorial image we can easily visualize here, as the University’s banner and colors are floating over the student center and are raised at the Main Street entrance of Romoda Drive. Are we ensigns of hope? That is really the question of the day to get behind what Dr. King meant by being a servant.

It may help if I offered a working definition of hope. Let me suggest three assertions of hope that may surprise you. First, and with an intentional sharp point, hope is not the opposite of pessimism. Put differently, hope is not merely the cheery smile because the glass is half-full. Hope is the necessity of service. Hope is not glib good cheer or blue sky optimism, but begins in the harsh reality of the way things really are.

Many years ago, before my academic career began, I served briefly as a hospital chaplain. I was assigned to the oncology unit.  I have certainly had my share of bad days in life, but the experience of being with cancer patients over thirty years ago would forever disallow any claim that my bad days could get no worse. I was young, so I thought my main job was to cheer up people who were seriously ill. One late night I called on a patient—Walter Yondorf—someone I will never forget. He was, as I later discovered, renowned as a scholar and analyst of national security. He was fighting bone cancer, the lesions had spread, and so had the pain. I entered his hospital room with every intention of making him feel better, maybe making him smile.

As I sat next to the bed and began the conversation, he put up his hand, the signal to stop. And he said, “Mr. Fox, do you know the story of Thermopylae from ancient Greece?” Yes, I said, I was a history major, so I had read Herodotus. And then he continued, “the battle of Thermopylae was in a very narrow pass that was defended by an out-numbered army of Spartans against an overwhelming force of Persians. There was no question who would win in the end, but tonight I fight with Sparta.” He taught me a valuable lesson about hope. It must be grounded in reality, the realization that the issues and tribulations of life will come at any time, even when things are “against all odds.” Hope would be empty if it were the false bravery of a thin optimism. It begins with brutal awareness that life and the world are unfair in their dangers, injustices, and dying causes.

Secondly, hope is the ability to focus on what matters; it gives a reason to be, to do, to live. It is our hidden drive and capacity to be motivated; it's whatever we call that desire to make a difference. The admissions dean of a famous American secondary school for boys is known to have said that an applicant’s “I will” trumps the importance of his I.Q. Real hope has determination, purpose, and a toughness to carry-on.

The late Peter Gomes of Harvard University was on the St. Lawrence campus twice in one year, my first year as president. My teacher and friend had a long career as the university’s Plummer Professor and Minister in Memorial Church, so had met many distinguished and famous visitors over the years. One of the most memorable moments was the occasion that Daddy King preached at Harvard. As Professor Gomes remembers, “Here he was, the father of the father of the civil rights movement, large in voice and frame…he was up in years and we all knew the burdens he bore, with one son assassinated, another son dead by an untimely accident, and his wife murdered before his eyes by a deranged gunman while she was playing the organ in church.”

As he stood in the pulpit, the congregation rose in unison to begin an ovation like a swelling drumroll overture. It caused him to demur and attempt to quiet the spontaneous tribute. When he was finally allowed to begin his sermon, he said, “I have no bitterness in my heart.” He told the story of his personal tribulations and with each horrible event, he said, “I have no bitterness in my heart.” And like the call and response of his great tradition, he said it over and over. Professor Gomes later reflected, “this was not simply a “forgive and forget” gesture, for how could a rational man do either? Here was a preacher of hope, preaching the good news that there is more to bad times than bad times: here was hope in hope.”(1) Daddy King’s example, against logic and circumstance, is one that demonstrates the possible capacity and resolve to keep the soul free of hatred and bitterness. Hope’s perspective is intensely focused.

Finally, hope is renewable, but not always from the inside. Other human beings carry the spark of renewal when we are uncertain, when we wonder if our efforts are worthwhile. Glimpses of kindness and beauty are often enough to reset our outlook and restore our desire to serve; these are the ensigns of hope that renew and inspire, often when we think we’re all alone or believe that no one knows the trouble we’ve seen.

I was once affiliated with the Claremont School of Theology in California as a faculty member. One of the most revered teachers in that school was Cornish Rogers; I must add he was very kind to me personally. Dr. Rogers and Martin Luther King were fellow graduate students at Boston University and became lifelong friends. About twenty years ago, Professor Rogers gave a long interview in the Journal of American History that focused on the formative years of Martin Luther King. So the question was posed, “What was the basis of his leadership?”

I just reread the transcript and there are many fascinating details about King before he earned his Ph.D. The quality of his leadership, according to Cornish Rogers, was, of course, his charisma and that he “was intellectually endowed.” But perhaps even more importantly, he was not a loner, though many of the portraits represent him in solitary contemplation. Dr. Rogers mentions several times how “amiable” he was and how “he liked to be around people.” Martin, he says, “just assumed a leadership that was not aggressive, but always available…He would speak in the discussions, but…never…insisting that if he said it, it had to be right… [it was] always in the spirit of we’re all in this together and we’re here to cooperate and not compete.”(2) Dr. King’s ensigns of hope were not his own words or the big ideas of the theologians he was reading, but the people around him wherever he found himself. The people he engaged and observed, many with good reason to feel abandoned, were the banners of inspiration that kept him going, kept him strong to serve.

Hope is honest; hope is resolute; hope is present. It hovers over the earth, over every cradle, over green playing fields and quiet desks of learning, over every monument to the past; it stands upon the mountain we are climbing, it finds us upon the trail of life’s sorrows. To serve well we must remember the sources of hope that once gave voice to a man, and only a man, who told a nation that we must never forget, even at midnight, the “eternal message of hope...that dawn will come.”

“He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”


  1. Peter J. Gomes, The Good Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 271.
  2. Cornish Rogers, “Conversation with David Thelen,” The Journal of American History, volume 78, number 1 (June 1991), 45, 48.