Tell Them About the Dream

Friendly Reminder: A weekly reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center

Tell Them About the Dream

Last week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day and, as usual, the most quotes I saw on social media were drawn from his “I Have a Dream” speech. The fascinating thing about that famous speech, though, is that the entire dream section was improvised. King and his advisors debated the themes to address for the March on Washington and eventually the “bad check” theme won the day. On the day of the march, King gave his prepared speech using the check metaphor; it was fine but fairly low-key by King standards.

And then, when it seemed to lull, King heard a voice behind him declare: “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” It was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a dear friend of King’s. Taking her encouragement to heart, King went off script, his energy lifted, the crowd responded, and we all received the gift of a history-shaping speech.

This story demonstrates two important leadership roles. One role is to “tell about the dream.” The other is to “tell others to tell about the dream.” Both are indispensable roles and when we have them both in our meetings, churches, and organizations, renewal is not far off.

As Friends, we are sometimes careful about promoting individual “dreams and visions.” It seems a little un-Quakerly, a little audacious. We can’t have “weighty Friends” getting too big for their britches. So we do the “tall poppy” thing where we cut off anyone who stands a little taller or gets a little too excited. It’s wise to be cautious, lest we promote celebrity or veer off from our common commitments. But what if God gave them a dream that the meeting or organization or wider society needs? Sometimes the risk of obstructing the divine dream is greater than the risk of running ahead of the Guide.

I’ve come to appreciate the perspective of Friendly scholar and activist Walter Wink, who wrote: “When God wants to initiate a new movement in history, God does not intervene directly but sends us dreams and visions that can, if attended to, initiate the process.” Good leaders look for those dreams and visions rising among Friends and welcomes them as signs of the Spirit’s work.

What is your dream? Is it time to share or declare it?

Who do you know that carries a dream quietly? Do they need your encouragement?

Are you being called to be an MLK or a Mahalia Jackson?