Remembering Dr. King With Service and Prayer

I grew up in a family where the value of service was emphasized and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. … Continued

I grew up in a family where the value of service was emphasized and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an outsized figure of reverence. I heard my father tell stories of his work with Dr. King in the 1950s and Dr. King’s tragic murder stung deeply. Together with the losses of my uncles John and Robert Kennedy, his death seemed to form a string of grief that was played out on the world’s stage but also on my own personal one. As a child, I could only wonder at the meaning of so much violence.

To celebrate Dr. King’s legacy is not only to pay tribute to his work but also to create something from the grief surrounding his loss. It is for us not just to engage in the actions that would bring about the justice he longed for but also to search for the source of inspiration that powered his vision. After all, his legacy continues to inspire less because of his political achievements —enormous though they were—than his personal attributes: his cadences, his distant eyes, his invitation to an unknown future of harmony and light. King is relevant today not because of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, but because he continues to invite us to explore the language of our hearts—our deepest desires for a more hopeful world.

Every year, we hear calls to celebrate this holiday with a day of service. I won’t disagree with that invitation.

But I can’t make sense of all that legacy without prayer—reflective, plaintive, hopeful, confident prayer. Not only is King himself unthinkable without prayer, but I could never find the hopefulness he represents without prayer. And it doesn’t matter what religion you embrace: King quoted the prophets of Israel, followed the philosophy of a great Hindu, and preached Christ crucified and risen. His words were awash in prayer.

In our time, service and prayer may seem like opposites. Service is about getting active, effecting a difference in the world, getting outside yourself. Prayer, on the other hand, is about getting quiet, focusing on one’s relationships with what is beyond the world, getting inside yourself. Prayer is often practiced alone or in small moments of focus; service is often in crowds or in hectic moments of action.

But the perception of opposites obscures the transformative power of both service and prayer. The best prayer is the kind that reorients our whole being to a divine purpose—to peace, to justice, to mercy, to love. Some people think of prayer as asking God for things, but the deeper prayer is listening for the “still small voice” of the divine. That type of prayer isn’t confined to bedtime, but is rather a constant awareness of one’s deep longing for the ultimate.

That type of prayer can make service a prayer all its own. Service as prayer makes it less about serving the meals at the kitchen and more about elevating the dignity and humanity of both server and recipient. To be open to the dignity of the other—no matter how difficult the circumstances—is to humble one’s self and recognize the divine in that humility. To look across that soup kitchen table and see the face of God is the only really valuable form of service. Anything less is only about the food and not about the love.

It’s not an accident that many of the Bible’s calls to service are followed by promises of light and joy. Too frequently, religions teach that these rewards will come to us in a later life, not now. I think the opposite: when Isaiah asks the people of Israel to “share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched into your home…” and promises that “then your light shall burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly,” I believe the prophet is referring to the ways in which the self-emptying actions of service can produce transcendent experiences of joy in the one who gives. The real invitation to service is not to fulfill an obligation or discharge guilt but rather to release the divine gifts of joy and light within us.

So it’s easy to see why service and prayer go together. Haven’t we each heard people say, “I got back more than I gave?” It’s hard to articulate just what that means. The gifts we get back are so powerful that we just move on knowing that something good happened to us, but not being able to say exactly what.

So I will celebrate this King Day with my family by praying for a heart that is both quiet enough and engaged enough to experience the divine in every act of service that seeks justice, dignity, and peace. Try it: go ahead and volunteer on Monday at the soup kitchen; help a neighbor, work for political justice, donate to a cause that protects the earth; lend a hand to someone who needs it.

But pray while you do. Look prayerfully at the man who needs a sandwich, at the elderly neighbor unable to walk, at the person with a disability unable to read, at the grief-stricken parent living amid violence and desperate for peace. Before you try to solve their problems, pray to remove whatever blinds you to their beauty, their divinity. Pray to see clearly God’s presence in the tears, in the vulnerability, in the limits.

That’s service as prayer. That’s the kind that unites the human family, that humbles the proud and elevates the lowly, that can create the belief that someday, divisions of race and religion and nation can be overcome. That’s the kind of service that Dr. King invited.

If you practice prayerful service, you might even find yourself, in the twinkling of an eye, experiencing a peacefulness the world cannot give. Reaching out your hand to that child, that neighbor, that pain that you so dread, you might find yourself free in a way you never expected. And maybe you will hear the cadence of the hymn welling up within you: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.”

Timothy P. Shriver is the Chairman of Special Olympics, Inc. In that capacity, he serves 2.5 million Special Olympics athletes and their families in more than 160 countries. He’s also a TV and film producer. His credits include co-producing “Amistad” and “The Loretta Claiborne Story.”

Timothy Shriver
Written by

  • Soja John Thaikattil, Sydney, Australia

    Dear Mr ShriverYour essay moved me to tears, especially knowing the kind of service you offer to humanity. I wish you great success in whatever you do.I thank God for souls like Dr King, whose message transcends national borders.I wish to bring to your notice a very special monk who lived a simple life and served humanity in his own quiet way, a visionary for our times: Dom Bede Griffiths ( Soja John Thaikattil

  • Elsy

    Awesome article on MLK named “MLK and the Establishment’s Dream” on the blogzine Savage Politics. You can get it at

  • Paul Habib

    Action Speaks Louder than Words…

  • Paul Habib

    Action Speaks Louder than Words…

  • Robert

    I’m not praying. Prayer didn’t make nonviolence work. Guts did.

  • BJ

    What a beautiful tribute and call this is. I thank you deeply for publishing Mr. Shriver’s essay — the best I have seen today to mark this holiday and to invite us to live in an engaged, vibrant way.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t there ANYONE else in this nation qualified to say anything other than someone from the Kennedy, Bush or Clinton clans? Can we get AWAY from this whole stupid ‘dynasty’ thing and let others have a say. There’s ONLY 300,000,000 of us out here….Maybe we should let France run our country, they do a much better job at everything, and have no royalty or political dynasty families.NO MORE DYNASTIES!

  • keith duane williams

    i totally agree with your assesement about prayer

  • Margaret Glavin

    Just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

  • Jeff

    Mr. Shriver:Thank you. Thank you for personal and poignant reminder of the timelessness of Dr. King and the source of his eloquence.Jeff

  • David P. McKnight

    Thank you for this message, which was so very effectively stated. Indeed, we haven’t heard enough about the healing power of prayer this past weekend. Sometimes it seems that we need a reminder that Dr. King was in fact a minister whose walk took him to the front lines of social equality and justice in America.

  • Bill Smith

    Very profound insight, Tim. I’m impressed with your mature observations. They must have been bestowed upon you by the Holy Spirit, as there are far too many folks who have not been so enlightened.

  • Republic neo-con Fed Rat

    I will always remember Rosh Hashanah 2001. Belief in Fraud is the primary fallacy from which all other fallacies are derived. For LBJ so loved the N-word, he sacrificed the blood of millions of gookish, slopish, slantish peoples for as to give cover for Israel to sneak into Jerusalem, like a thief in the night.

  • Anonymous

    By all means. Whatever you do, do what makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. You might even find that feeling warm and fuzzy inside is much more important that all those time and money-consuming acts like actually ladling out food in a soup kitchen or canvassing for candidates committed to improving the lot of the less fortunate. Then it’s a short hop to knowing that what God and Jesus are all about is the salvation of your eternal soul. Good deeds in this mortal world mean nothing. Believing in Christ as your Lord and savior will guarantee your admittance to heaven. So pray, brothers and sisters, pray.By the way, does lighting candles to the Virgin Mary work equally as well as prayer? Or fingering a rosary?

  • GeorgiaSon

    Oops, there I go again, neglecting to include my name. I’m the “Anonymous” whose comment appeared on January 22 at 6:27 AM.

  • Craig Arban

    This is a truly beautiful meditation on the power and meaning of prayer.

  • Craig Arban

    This is a truly beautiful meditation on the power and meaning of prayer.

  • Craig Arban

    This is a truly beautiful reflection on the power and meaning of prayer.

  • Rachel

    Prayer gives hope, and hope sustains our service when the world kills our dreams. Thank you so much for this reflection.

  • Jeff

    “…someday, divisions of race and religion and nation can be overcome. That’s the kind of service that Dr. King invited.”

  • Jeff

    “…someday, divisions of race and religion and nation can be overcome. That’s the kind of service that Dr. King invited.”

  • Robin Majeski

    I am so delighted to read Tim Shriver’s comments about the power of prayer as a centering practice and its relationship to service. As someone who has practiced vipassana or mindfulness meditation for years, I feel that inner transformation is often a necessary pre-requisite for external or social transformation. I feel the more we are aware of our own inner light, our struggles, and our vulnerabilities, the more we will be aware of and compassionate towards the inner light and struggles of others. At least this has consistently been my own experience. The Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, revered Dr Martin Luther King. He saw Dr. King as a man who radiated holiness and sacredness in his very presence. I think Dr. King’s awareness of the sacredness of life pervaded all of his work and he is a spiritual guide for me. P.S. I especially appreciated your comments, Tim, since I an old classmate of yours from the MA in Religious Studies (spirituality concentration) program at CUA! Robin Majeski

  • artistkvip

    very thoughtfull well spoken words i feel compelled to echo them because eye think they are important….and add my personal point 2 illuminate,…christians should remember Jesuas actually fed the hungry multitude gathered before him ….before… he taught them to fish or in the same short period of time… he aslo like many other great speakers in the old and new testiment talked about …peace beyond human comprehension… which if i remember rite is the gift of the spirit of God when heard, understood and expressed in and from the heart of us humans….my personal experience is that prayer at the actual time of indecion or worry may be the best time 4 it… abraham lincoln said that …many times i have been driven 2 my knees by the overwelming conviction that i had no where else 2 go… this saying saved me in many a tough real life experience.. i did a painting called no where else to go which meant a lot to me as fa as i know it still hangs on the wall of a little african american primitive babtist church one of whos members i donated it 2 4 that purpoise. i will always own the visual right 2 the work but not the actual painting but more important i own the memory of being homess and abandonded and being a decent human being while enlarging my spiritual life and growing as a person and seeing the words of someone who lived before me and had left some directions or heartfelt truth. that iz what i try to bring to my work of love …art..i was blugeonded by well meaning but incorrect idiots with thier “tough love” who sought to deepen my very real crosses to bear instead of mearly stepping out of the way or actually helpin me… tough love eye think is one of the most destructive false teachings of our era… what part of love is tough? tough goes with the word that starts with s and end with t and is a four letter discription of what someone in my opinion is full of if they think they know what is best 4 another human being in Gods world. that would be playing God and actually breaking one of the ten comammandment by worshipping oneself and following the wisdom and teaching of oneself instead of God. if someone does not what to actually help someone or feels it wouldnt be right 4 them.. let them tell the truth instead of 2 many times blaming the victum or the truely needy 4 the boarish and selfish or many time cruel tortuous behavior of someone who should be showing gratitude 4 what they have by giving part of it a way. a gift has no stringss, agift can be squandered by the recipiant without it reflecting on the giver… one who pretend 2 give while seeking to rule the life of another is hiring an emplyee for tr they expect something from thier investment or worse… they are purchasing a slave in the modern era by conquering the helpless and the needy instead of helping them stand 4 themselves… they are actually useing the weak and downtrodden 4 fuel for thier dim torches and to feed thier extravigant tastes instead of shining the lite like they pretend 2 or honestly think they are doing.. please check state ments 4 truth as eye am just a destitute artist and Iam inn know weigh a sym-bowl ov suck-cess…