Province Communities Observe Martin Luther King Holiday

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province, Justice and Peace

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo courtesy of

In January, friars, congregations, and partners in ministry throughout the Province, like those across the nation and around the world, commemorated the life of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life was cut short in 1968 by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39.

Most of the tributes and dialogue focused on the messages of King that people had read about in newspapers and books or seen on television news clips.

But one Holy Name Province member was able to reflect on a personal encounter he had with King in the early 1960s in New York City. This friar also shared how the impact of his experience with King inspired him to establish a social services organization in Harlem that continues to flourish and help thousands of people on the fringes of society.

Benedict Taylor, OFM, told the poignant story of his personal encounter when he was the guest speaker at the Jan. 20 annual Peace Event of Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Church in New York City. He said his conversation with King in 1962 became his “calling card” to go to Harlem as a Franciscan six years later in 1968.

Two years after his ordination in 1960, Ben met King at a banquet sponsored by the Secular Franciscans, which was honoring the civil rights leader with its peace award. The event was held at a venue near St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street, where the young friar was stationed at the time. Ben approached King and said he felt as if he wasn’t doing enough, explaining that as a recently-ordained friar, he could not travel to participate in King’s civil rights demonstrations.

Ben recounted King’s response – that these marches would only last for a while. “What will remain is the need to build up a community, a school, various other institutions. Be ready for that,” Ben recalled what King had told him.

“What Martin Luther King taught me, and all of us was compassion,” Ben said during his presentation.

Just a few years after Ben’s encounter with the minister and activist, he founded CREATE, Inc., a Harlem-based non-profit that provides outpatient and inpatient substance abuse treatment, as well as transitional and permanent supportive housing for young adults, and other assistance programs.

“It was most moving to hear of Ben’s direct encounter with him that led to the wonderful work of CREATE, Inc.,” said Christopher Keenan, OFM. “In 1968, just six years after he talked to Dr. King, Ben moved to Harlem with several friars and with the financial support of the Third Order Franciscans at St. Francis of Assisi.”

Spirit’s Response — Conduit of Peace
At the end of Ben’s talk, which was recorded by Lucy Schnell – a student at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx – the pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church, Larry Ford, OFM, reflected on Ben’s life and the courage he demonstrated.

“I think you get a sense of why I think it’s important that we hear from such an insightful and gentle person,” said Larry, who serves as chair of the board of CREATE. “Through what Ben learned from our Franciscan charism and from the words of Dr. King, he devoted himself to creating justice. It is about compassion.”

Prefacing his remarks by saying he wasn’t intending to cause embarrassment to the guest speaker, Larry continued, “I think there’s an additional story here. The Holy Spirit acts and speaks in very unique ways, and usually in surprising ways. For an educated African-American man to approach Dr. King with humility – and a little bit of guilt for not doing enough – was remarkable. The Holy Spirit’s response was to see him as a conduit of peace. For the next 50 years, Ben gave of himself to help the poor and to walk with them. Ben is an inspiration. Let’s all do what is ours to do.”

At Holy Name of Jesus Church, Christopher Keenan describes to students the work of CREATE. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Schnell)

Larry said that the audience members seemed captivated by Ben’s presentation. “Young and old, they all seemed enthralled by his words. Afterward, as he chatted with people, I could see how much Ben enjoyed sharing his experience. He is always very humble.”

The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural audience of more than 150 included people from other parishes and a group of 25 students who will be receiving the sacrament of confirmation in May.

“Our event had just the right balance of history and current information,” said the pastor, who included a shared reading of the Prayer of St. Francis.

The MLK holiday program that Larry organized at the Upper West Side parish also included listening to a commemoration that was aired earlier that day on the CBS Morning show of King’s children and a grandchild reading a speech of the civil rights leader.

“It was so awesome to hear how Ben’s encounter with Martin was the ‘prophetic calling card’ and the movement of the Spirit, leading him to offer the gift of his life more than 50 years ago to families and street people of Harlem that were being destroyed by unemployment, homelessness, and addiction,” said Christopher, who has served on the CREATE board and now lives with Ben and other HNP friars on the campus of Mount St. Vincent College.

Christopher noted that Ben and HNP affiliate Ralph Perez founded the seven programs that comprise CREATE to address all ages, from children to senior adults. In October 2018, the seventh program was transitioned to “New Hope House” with 11 apartments for young men coming out of prison and challenged with substance misuse. This housing allows many of these men to be reunited with their spouses or partners and their children, re-establishing their family life and using the medically supervised substance misuse program next door.

Last year, Ben commemorated his 65th anniversary of his first profession.

At Other HNP Locations
Around Holy Name Province, others marked the 2020 King holiday with varied remembrances.

Pat Sieber in a police van on Martin Luther King Day (Photo courtesy of Pat)

In Pennsylvania, Patrick Sieber, OFM, joined members of the Brandywine Peace Community to protest the activities of Lockheed Martin, a weapons manufacturer in King of Prussia. He and four other activists were arrested for disorderly conduct as they expressed their ideals and attempted to deliver copies of the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to company officials.

“Lockheed Martin claims that their work is of, for, and by the people, just like the government,” Patrick said. “But Lockheed Martin is the number one weapons-maker in the world. Our names are on every weapon, and it is always important to remind them to take my name off their death machines, like cruise missiles and drones. If individuals and churches remain silent, they condone and bless this work because their ‘silence is consent.’”

The group of protesters displayed banners, prayed, and shared a statement of commitment. In part, the statement read: “At Lockheed Martin, we honor Dr. King anew, remembering what he described as the intertwined ‘evil triplets of American society: racism, materialism, and militarism.’”

The protesters were also quoted in articles circulating on the Internet, in part saying, “We are not here to talk about Donald Trump or his lies, greed, and vicious policy actions. We are here to defy what Donald Trump represents and all that support and have profited from what hate bestows. We are here to resist Lockheed Martin and to uphold the U.N. Nuclear Ban Treaty.”

The Brandywine Peace Community, formed in the spring of 1976 by a group of Vietnam War resisters, comprises anti-war peace activists seeking to continue resistance to U.S. war-making and militarism. Every year, the organization demonstrates in memory of King and the commitment to the philosophy and practice that he introduced and advanced during his life. A group has protested annually at Lockheed Martin since 1995.

In Western New York, St. Bonaventure University singled out two individuals with the institution’s first annual MLK Justice Award. On Jan. 22, at an MLK celebration at the University Chapel, Jim Mahar was the recipient of SBU’s inaugural faculty/staff MLK Justice Award for his work in creating an organization through which students provide service to communities in need, while Paul Nana Aful, manager of the Warming House in New York, was presented with the first student MLK Justice Award.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mahar founded BonaResponds, a campus-based organization that does relief work locally, nationally and internationally.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned working with BonaResponds,” said Mahar, asking a student to stand up to show off the words on her T-shirt, “it’s ‘Tout moun se moun’ – which is Creole for ‘All people are people.’”

Mahar added, “If they learn nothing else in their time at St. Bonaventure, I hope our students learn to love and respect everyone.”

SBU’s MLK celebration was titled “What Does Justice Look Like?” and featured performances from several members of the Chattertons Poetry Society, including Akim Hudson, Marisol Woods, Dwight Coleman and Anahiz Rivera, and Sydney Best, president of SBU’s Black Student Union.

On Feb. 25, Siena College plans to hold its an annual Martin Luther King lecture on the Loudonville, N.Y., campus. This year’s speaker is Winona LaDuke, who will deliver a presentation about “Native American Women: Finding the Voice to Safeguard Mother Earth.”

Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.