Communities Come Together to Honor the Life and the Impact of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Rick Wolcott*

January 15 was the 90th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. The life of the Baptist minister and civil rights activist was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, but his words and actions continue to be an inspiration for people today.

“Dr. King’s teachings are more relevant than ever, and they relate to the racial tensions, the political incivility, and everything else that is going on today,” said Rabbi Frank Muller at the January 18 interfaith shabbat service at Congregation Rodef Sholom in Youngstown honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The theme of the service was Building Beloved Community in a Troubled, Fractured and Fearful World. Clergy from the five churches of the Youngstown team ministry of The United Methodist Church (Boardman Lockwood, Youngstown Centenary, Mahoning, Richard Brown Memorial, and Youngstown Trinity UMCs) and the pastors of Union Baptist Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, and First Unitarian Universalist Church joined Muller in leading the community service.

“The economy has interconnected us, but we have not interconnected ourselves,” said Youngstown Team Ministry Pastor the Rev. Dawan Buie during his sermon titled “The Beauty of Difference.”

“What would the world look like if we went beyond being interconnected by goods and used it for good?” he asked. “We are all God’s children in God’s house called the earth, we might as well learn to live together or, as he warned us, perish as fools.”

“I think it’s important to learn to get past our differences. As Pastor Dawan said in his message tonight, God has blessed us all with extreme diversity and until we can learn who each other is and learn the things that make us unique and special we’re going to be fearful of each other instead of embracing one another,” said Youngstown Team Ministry Pastor Greg Calko.

“It’s really exciting to see our Youngstown team ministry be involved in this interfaith effort because part of our vision for it is to be deeply connected to the wellbeing of Youngstown, and as we’ve talked about tonight, that means it can’t just be the wellbeing of me and people who are like me, but it’s got to be the wellbeing of the whole neighborhood and the whole city. Particularly in light of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, it’s important for us to stand with people of other faiths as well as value human beings in God’s sight. In troubled and dividing times, just showing up incarnates the life of Christ,” shared Mahoning Valley District Superintendent the Rev. Abby Auman.

The service ended with worshippers singing together the Pete Seeger song “If I Had a Hammer.” Muller choose the song because it was written 70 years ago.

“In the Bible is says that man’s life is three-score years and ten, so that’s 70. I made the connection that 70 years – a lifetime – later we are still fighting for the same ideals of justice and freedom.”

After the service, the clergy participated in a moderated panel discussion over dinner during which the conversation repeatedly came back to trying to find hope in a divided country.

“I understand that my perspective on hope comes from a privileged place,” said the Rev. Gayle Catinella of St. John’s Episcopal Church. “It would be easy for me to say that I find hope in this gathering, because I do, but I am looking for a world where everyone has hope in equal measure, and where everyone works toward that with equal intensity.”

Pastor Michael Harrison of Union Baptist Church said, “Where there is an absence of God, there is an absence of opportunity. This is the reason that things are in the condition they are in right now. The only way to change things is through relationships. We have a right to be different. God created you to be who you are. We have to recognize that, and elevate that, and also recognize that in order for dysfunction to stop we’ve got to collectively work together.”

There is still much work to be done.

In her keynote address at the 26th annual MLK breakfast celebration at Ohio Wesleyan University on January 21, Bishop Tracy S. Malone, resident bishop of the Ohio East Area of The United Methodist Church said, “King’s dream has become the dream of many. We see this dream manifested in the ongoing movement for peace, equality and justice across this nation and around the world.”

She shared that, “As a nation, we still spend more money on mass incarceration and military defense than on public education. “If we truly want to keep the dream alive; If we want to strive toward being the Beloved Community; If we want to commit to the world as a vision of King, we have to face our current reality of our current times.”

“We have to continue the struggle,” the Rev. Dogba Bass of Aldersgate UMC (North Coast District) told those attending the church’s 3rd annual Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday program.

“The dream is not fulfilled. We can not rest as if it is,” he said. “You and I and all of our neighbors and friends and families have to continue the struggle, or we do not fulfill the dream, we betray it.”

Those in attendance wiped away tears and rose to their feet in applause as Tracy Togba-Bass was joined by two elementary school students midway through reciting the “I Have a Dream” speech that King gave August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideas were not always popular. He thought it was very important to help everyone have equal rights. He stood up and stood out to lead people to freedom,” said fifth-grade student Jordyn as she read from the essay she had written about befriending a new girl in school who was bullied for getting straight As.

Her essay was co-winner of the fifth-grade category in the Stand Up! Stand Out! Be a Leader! essay contest sponsored by the church.

In his entry, fourth-grader Braylen wrote about how overcoming the feeling that he was different when he was younger helped him identify with others who found themselves feeling that way.

“Dr. King inspired me to have courage and be a leader to help other people,” he read.

“Martin Luther King was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, schooled in theology with his doctorate in theology from Boston University. Everything that he said and did flowed from his understanding of who Jesus Christ is and who we are in response to the example that we see in his life,” said North Coast District Superintendent the Rev. Dr. Steve Bailey. “I hope as you think about what Martin Luther King, Jr. means to you, he also emerges as an enormous spiritual leader who shows us a way to live and how to build bridges and how to work toward a beloved community where everybody is valued and included.

Keynote speaker Dr. Evan Morse, DVM was a 20-year old student at Tuskegee Institute in 1965 when he was inspired by a family poem he had learned as a child to join the march from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL.

“My experience growing up in a segregated South instilled in me the determination to fiercely fight for justice, liberation and equality,” he said, as he pulled out the green army jacket he wore on the march and put it on.

The friend of slain civil rights and voting rights activist Sammy Younge Jr. concluded his speech with a challenge to all.

“Wake up everybody. Keep on pushing. Walk humbly. Seek justice. Vote without ceasing. You are somebody. Selma is everywhere.How long? Not long. The march ain’t over.”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.