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MLK Message Reverberates at Communities Throughout Province

During the recent national holiday honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most visible presence in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968, tributes to the life, legacy and works of the man inspired by his Christian beliefs and nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi took place at ministries throughout Holy Name Province. More than 50 years after his death, Dr. King’s message of peace, unity and equality continues to reverberate across the country, especially in Franciscan communities.

Participants in Macon’s Prayer walk at Jefferson Long Park adjacent to St. Peter Claver Church and School where the group began and ended the walk.

Hospitality and Prayer Walk in Macon
In Georgia, St. Peter Claver Parish hosted its 29th annual MLK breakfast tribute. As part of the celebration, the Macon parish, for the first time ever, led a prayer walk through its Pleasant Hill neighborhood. For the past three and a half years, Holy Name Province has staffed the parish, which has been ministering in the Macon community since 1903. William McIntyre, OFM, pastor, along with the leaders of area churches of other denominations, led residents, parishioners, students and civic leaders on the prayer walk to advance peace, unity and hope – but, most importantly, according to parishioner Regina Sweeney, to recognize “the good in Pleasant Hill, in particular, its people and history.”

The prayer walk was a symbolic first step, appropriately on the MLK national holiday, towards efforts to improve the once thriving Pleasant Hill neighborhood now beset by poverty and other societal ills. “In the spirit of true grassroots organizing and the power of community churches harnessed so well by Dr. King, hearts were warmed, spirits nourished, and participants prayed for guidance in the work that is to come,” said Sweeney, director of development at St. Peter Claver Catholic School, whose staff and families volunteered and participated at the event.

Before the prayer walk, participants gathered at the parish’s Mother Katharine Drexel Center, as they do every year, for a hearty, traditional southern breakfast prepared by members of True Faith Church of God in Christ, and served by students of the parish school and Mercer University. The 90-minute breakfast featured a program of emotion-evoking performances by the chorale ensemble of Central High School and the St. Peter Claver’s duet of McKinley Starks and Victoria Yrizarry, as well as inspiring speeches by individuals in academia – including former Georgia secretary of state and current dean of nearby Mercer University School of Law Cathy Cox, and others from Middle Georgia State University. “Outside, the day dawned cold and brisk, but inside, the heart of Georgia beat warm and true as Maconites of every race and creed gathered in peace and unity,” Sweeney said. The tribute to Dr. King was only the beginning in this little geographic slice of the civil rights leader’s home state of Georgia, where his legacy continues, just as he would have envisioned.

Fellowship Breakfast and Birthday Celebration in Anderson
In South Carolina, Christopher Dunn, OFM, parochial vicar at St. Mary of the Angels Parish, was among a delegation from the Anderson City Fire Department that attended the Jan. 18 Martin Luther King Jr. fellowship breakfast for the city’s municipal employees.  Since arriving at the South Carolina parish 11 months ago shortly after the death of Aubrey McNeil, OFM, Christopher has been serving as chaplain for both the fire department and Anderson City Police Department. Anderson Mayor Terrence Roberts, an active St. Mary’s parishioner, sponsored the event.

More than 1,000 people attended the fellowship breakfast, where the late William Floyd, a veteran educator and the first African American elected to the Anderson County Council, was posthumously honored with the city’s Community Trailblazer award – which Chris said is presented to an individual who led an exemplary life of service and made a difference in the community.

Three days later, on Jan. 21, St. Mary of the Angels, in conjunction with the Anderson County Ministers’ Association, co-sponsored the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration at the Civic Center of Anderson. The parish, whose pastor is Michael Jones, OFM, was proud to be a co-sponsor of what was one of the largest MLK celebrations in the community.

The attendees were deeply inspired by the stirring performances of the Voices of Hope Community Choir, Anderson University West African Ensemble, and Anderson University Gospel Ensemble, according to Chris, who ministers to  with the large Spanish-speaking population at St. Mary of the Angels which includes work with a new Franciscan youth group for teens and visits to the  Anderson County Jail & Detention Center to celebrate Mass with the Hispanic inmates. The Franciscans have been serving the Anderson community since 1943, when the local diocese asked Holy Name Province to establish a church for the African American community. Ethnic diversity has become a hallmark of the parish, whose Hispanic population has increased over the past two decades.

Barry Langley with an attendee of the service on New York’s Upper West Side.

Interfaith Service for Peace on NYC’s Upper West Side
On one of the coldest days of 2019 in New York City, with a wind-chill temperature hovering around zero, Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Parish held an indoor tribute to the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In lieu of the traditional peace march that usually included stops at places of worship of other religious communities along the route, the parish, on Jan. 21, hosted an interfaith prayer service for peace at the Upper West Side church, according to Lawrence Ford, OFM, pastor, who organized and led the service.

“People of different faiths gathered at Holy Name of Jesus to pray as one for peace, racial harmony, and an end to gun violence in our nation – and to remember Dr. King’s life as a peaceful servant of God,” Lawrence said. Several presentations were made during the service, among them a passage from the Book of Lamentations offered by Rev. Lindsay Borden, pastor of the nearby Second Presbyterian Church; a reflection by Barry Langley, OFM, on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail;” a “call and response” style prayer led by Rabbi Mira Rivera of the synagogue team at Romemu-Sanctuary, and hymns led by parish music minister Peter Adamczyk and cantor David Kelleher-Flight. A petition was circulated throughout the congregation in support of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require background screening for every firearms sale in the country. “While we are not marching to profess our faith in God’s goodness and presence in our lives, we will be signing our names to a petition that seeks to have better gun control legislation. It is a sad reality that far too many lives are lost to gun violence,” Lawrence said during his remarks at the prayer service. “Change is needed to reduce the number of weapons in our society.

“The availability of firearms needs to be held in check, and this legislation is a necessary first step in that process.” He added, “We join Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Bishops – and the people of good will everywhere – in calling for improved regulation and control of firearms in our country.” On Dr. King, Lawrence said, “We are once again inspired by his life, ministry and words. Our African American sisters and brothers, and other people of color, continue to be disproportionately represented in our prisons and the victims of violence and crime. It is important for us to come together to bring to our hearts and minds Rev. Dr. King’s powerful words and actions – which are equally valid and even more urgent today 50 years later.”

32nd Annual Lecture at Siena College
Outside New York’s capital, a weeklong series of commemorations to MLK kicked off on Jan. 23 and culminated with the centerpiece event on Jan. 30, when renowned anti-racist activist, author and educator Tim Wise took center stage at Siena College’s 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Lecture Series on Race and Nonviolent Social Change. Students, faculty and residents of the Capital Region filled the Marcelle Athletic Complex for Wise’s presentation, titled “Challenging the Culture of Cruelty: Understanding and Defeating Race and Class Inequity in America.” The Center for Academic Community Engagement, Damietta Cross-Cultural Center, Diversity Action Committee, and Greyfriar Living Literature Series were among the campus programs that co-sponsored the lecture.

Siena established the lecture series in 1988 as a way of preserving Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolent human and civil rights advocacy. Wise, who appears regularly on major news networks to provide insight on race issues, is the author of several books, his most recent titled Under the Influence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America. Host of the podcast “Speak Out with Tim Wise,” he has trained corporate, government, entertainment, media, law enforcement, military and medical industry professionals on methods for dismantling racism at their institutions.

Students from Brotherhood and Manhood recited excerpts from King’s speech “The Other America” on Jan. 23.

Among the weeklong series of MLK events were a special Eucharistic celebration, day of service, and Gospel concert. But recognition of MLK began in early January when the Siena lecture series, in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute, hosted the annual anti-bias conference at the campus Sarazen Student Union for more than 200 students from dozens of Capital Region middle and high schools. In small and large group settings, the students participated in discussions, activities and action planning around issues of prejudice, tolerance and respect so that they could become more involved in helping to extinguish bullying, intolerance, and racial, religious and gender discrimination in their schools and communities. In addition, a special reception and celebration of student achievement was hosted on the same day at the student union of the Loudonville campus for the hundreds of Capital Region students who participated this year in creating artwork, essays and poetry in honor of Siena’s MLK commemoration. The works, whose theme is generated from the work of the previous year’s lecturer, were displayed on campus during this special exhibit and reception for students and their parents and teachers.

Sit-in Against Contemporary Injustices at SBU
Students at St. Bonaventure University made a loud statement about injustice without raising their voices. Instead, their actions spoke volumes, as students marked MLK Day by participating in a weeklong sit-in to protest and call attention to contemporary injustices that plague society. The students sat in silence at the “Sit-in for Justice,” which began Jan. 22 and ended Jan. 25. Organized by the Damietta Center for Multicultural Student Affairs and held in the main lobby of the Reilly Center, each day focused on a distinct injustice, including racial and ethnic inequity in the U.S. criminal justice system (African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Caucasians); sexual assault; gender wage gap, and equal rights for all.

“We have an obligation as a university that cherishes individual worth as one of its core values to never lose sight of the injustice that still exists in our society,” Dennis DePerro, Ph.D., president of St. Bonaventure University, said in a press release distributed in advance of the event. “This isn’t someone else’s problem. This is a problem we all must address, and events like these are important to remind us that there is still so much work to be done.”

Organizers said the sit-in was inspired by Dr. King’s challenge to Americans to think beyond themselves, and to look past their differences and work in concert toward equality. St. Bonaventure students united in these words and took action. On the final day of the sit-in, Parker Suddeth, coordinator of the Damietta Center, met with students to brainstorm on initiatives that could raise awareness of injustice throughout the year. In addition to the sit-in, the Damietta Center hosted a guest presentation on Jan. 23 in the Walsh Amphitheater, where Tiffany Nyachae, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of elementary education, literacy and educational leadership at SUNY Buffalo, lectured about injustice and what the SBU community can do moving forward to bring justice to an unjust climate. For information on how to become involved with the Siena community in raising awareness to injustices, contact the Damettia Center at psduddeth@sbu.edu.

Day of Community Organizing in Buffalo, N.Y.
While organizations across the country were engaging in community service as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., St. Columba-Brigid Parish pursued a different way to honor the late civil rights leader. “We like to say that we are one of the only parishes – maybe the only parish – or organization of any kind in the nation, to host an MLK day of community organizing. We believe that community organizing is a more fitting tribute,” explained Jud Weiksnar, OFM, pastor.

After parishioners at the Buffalo parish gathered in prayer and song and heard a reflection on the life of Dr. King, Jud led them in the key steps of community organizing. Small groups worked together to identify important and challenging local issues, evaluated who in the community has the influence and authority to effect change, and then developed a proposal to present to the appropriate individuals. Jud reports that the community organizing exercise has already bore results, as parishioners have gotten the city’s department of public works to replace a stop sign near the church. The lesson learned – even with simple issues, change is the product of passion and advocacy.

“Parishioners experienced firsthand how critical local organizing efforts were to Dr. King’s success,” said Jud, noting that the community-organizing event has picked up the mantle from St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, N.J., which began the tradition of community organizing on MLK Day in 2010, leading to the formation of a task force comprised of middle school students that won local, state and national awards for their community organizing efforts.

— Stephen Mangione, a writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. Jocelyn Thomas provided research.

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