By Rick Wolcott*
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
That quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., printed on the bulletin cover, set the tone for the commemorative celebration of King’s life that brought nearly 200 people to Calvary Baptist Church in Boardman for an ecumenical worship service January 19.
Remembering What is Civil and Doing What is Right was the theme of this year’s celebration in the Mahoning Valley, planned by the Martin Luther King Holiday Celebration Planning Committee.
In her greeting to worshippers, Calvary Baptist Church Pastor the Rev. Dr. Rosie Taylor gave thanks for the life and legacy of King.
“We are blessed because he lived. He was a vessel, just like each one of us is a vessel, but if the vessel is not willing to be used, you’re still just a vessel,” she said. “He allowed himself to be used. He allowed himself, every time he got empty, he allowed the Holy Spirit to fill him back up, because that’s the only way he could have triumphed and did what he did in a non-violent way, in a loving way, was if the Holy Spirit was with him.”
Clergy and laity from the Baptist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Missionary Baptist Church and other faith traditions led the service in which Bishop Tracy S. Malone of the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church preached the sermon.
“Participants in today’s celebration come from various faith traditions because Dr. King fought for the lives of all people. We all celebrate his work, his life, and his legacy,” said the Rev. Kenneth Simon, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.
“Dr. King wasn’t here for one denomination. He was speaking to the whole world,” shared Penny Wells, executive director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past.
Retired Presbyterian Pastor the Rev. Jim Ray told those gathered, “We’re here to celebrate our opportunity to be God’s non-violent people.”
“We know that God is already doing a new thing among us, just by us being together. The Spirit of God is ushering something new if we would but show up and be present to receive what God has in store for us,” Malone said early in her message.
The bishop lamented that it’s been 52 years since King was assassinated “and the battle still has not been won.” She said that race and racism continue to exist and play a role in American society – whether we are willing to admit it or not – in our school systems, church systems, political systems, law enforcement, health care systems, prison systems, immigration policy, and more.
“I am convinced, and I continue to be convinced, that if we want to pay tribute to Dr. King for having a dream and galvanizing the nation to strive toward freedom and equality, we can keep having celebrations like these every year, and it’s all good. We can keep on singing ‘we shall overcome,’ and it’s all good. We can walk away feeling good. Lift every voice and sing, and it’s all good. But if we want to keep the dream alive and commit to the work and the vision of King, we have to face the current realities of our times and admit that we have a societal problem, and we have work to do,” Malone declared.
Click the photo above to hear Bishop Malone’s message in its entirety.
She decried the media and our nation’s political leaders for purposely perpetuating the polarization that already exists between peoples and political parties and groups, which causes more divisiveness, perpetuates fear, and creates suspicion, mistrust, anxiety and violence.
“I am convinced that the failure to admit that racism and the lack of civility is a societal problem is what is fueling the segregation. That’s what’s fueling the hate and the disrespect between people and nations and groups and races and religions and society,” Malone said.
“As a people of faith and as a people of conscience, we have a moral obligation to love the Lord with all our hearts and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have a moral obligation to keep King’s dream alive, the dream that is embedded in God’s vision,” she proclaimed. “This wasn’t King’s vision. King had God’s vision of being beloved community, of being a civil society,”
Malone reminded those gathered that King said, “it’s not enough for the church to be active in the realm of ideas but to move out into the arena of social action.”
The bishop said it doesn’t matter how many worshippers a church has on Sunday morning because when the people of God come together, recognize the resources we have – instead of focusing on what we don’t have – and organize, we are a mega church with unlimited potential to engage in ministry with the poor, with the marginalized, and with the disenfranchised – and to become a voice for the voiceless.
“What if, we had an undying passion for the marginalized? What if, we had the courage to be beloved community when it really matters? What if, we were bold enough and courageous enough to do what is right when it feels good and when it ain’t good? In season and out of season,” the bishop challenged. “When is the last time you spoke up, or you stood up for what is right? This can be your day, and your moment when you accept the invitation and the call to always do what is right.”
The bishop’s message resonated with all, including Stefanie Williams, youth director at Canfield UMC, who attended with youth and adults from their church.
“Not saying something is just as bad as not doing something and the bishop’s message is a reminder to me that I need to take more action than I have in the past,” she said, before adding that we all can learn to do better.
“We need to carry this forward into what is going on in the church right now and to be role models and model how we want to be treated and how we want others to be treated and speak up when we think something is not right. Like the bishop said, ‘Even if you’re the only one stepping out, do it anyway. Be uncomfortable.’ That’s what we need to do to show the love of Christ,” she said.
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.