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Celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Worship service participants display the diversity of the PC(USA)

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

The memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — “With this faith we shall be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” was the theme for Wednesday’s special online worship service commemorating and celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The theme was a quote from Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the 1963 March on Washington.

Watch the 56-minute service here.

As the Rev. Rebecca Barnes, coordinator for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, issued the call to worship, she reminded worshipers, “We celebrate the strength and resilience of people while also naming the honest injustices and oppression of our time and throughout history.”

As Barnes continued to lead participants through a centering breathing exercise which was a part of the call to worship, she said, “We think of the breath that has gone before us … We think of siblings who have not been able to exhale in safety and those who have had breath stolen from them. Travon Martin, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor … so many siblings. And as we breathe we think of those unnamed or unknown to us but those who can’t breathe because of anxiety and fear, because of racial violence, those whose air is polluted or clouded because of ash or soot because of where they live, those whose lifespans are shortened because of structural racism in system of education and health care and more.”

The scripture for the service, Psalm 118:22-24, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” was read Jessica Kelley.

In a truly interpretive moment of the service, the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, Associate Director for Theology, Formation and Evangelism, introduced “From Stones of Hope”, an original piece of art created by the Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity, one of the founders of A Sanctified Art. In her explanation of the piece, Threadgill said, “The background for the art is photography of stone Lisle took a few years ago. There’s a large crack in the stone forming the shape of a cross. Lisle added portraits of figures, each embodying a range of emotions from despair to hope. They are leaning on each other — from collective despair can also come collective hope and healing. Purple doves appear from the cross-like crevice and fly out beyond the image. They serve as a reminder of the new life that can emerge from brokenness.”

This years’ service was different from previous services in that it shared an international perspective and reiterated the fact that oppression and injustice are global issues and not unique to America.

The Rev. Rola Al Ashkar said, “I come to you, a Christian from Lebanon, a country where the absence of justice … where inequity, malpractice and corruption have taught me to appreciate any voice promoting justice and human dignity. I am honored to join my voice with yours in celebrating the legacy of a justice-seeking champion in this country, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Offering her perspective as a young Black female, Jasmine Johnson said, “Dr. King did not sugarcoat the message. He made people be responsible and accountable for their actions. Having someone who is Black like me speaking power to so many people in that time makes me feel empowered. King’s speech is powerful. Seeing a Black person of power stand there and demand freedom for so many at the time was truly amazing!”

The Rev. Calvin Chinn, a retired pastor from the Presbytery of San Francisco, addressed the rash of violent attacks in the United States against Asian Americans, especially since the outset of the pandemic.  Chinn, who as a young Asian American participated in the March on Selma with King, reflected on his experience.

“In 1965 I went to my parents seeking their blessing on my decision to participate in the Selma March. Their response was, ‘Why would you want to help those Black people? We have enough problems of our own,’” Chinn recalled. “Racism in America is an enormous, formidable mountain of despair. For me, participating in the Selma March was transformative in that it became my stone of hope.”

In her reflection, Ruling Elder Yenny Delgado said, “When I think back about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his work and legacy, it is impossible to not reflect on his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. However, his memory and prophetic voice goes beyond this one speech and is still relevant today. Dr. King spoke truth to power and advocated for justice and equality for all. He provided real-time responses to the needs of not only African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, but for all immigrants, women and all workers.”

In a powerful story of his childhood experience dealing with “milk money and bullies,” the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, shared an experience of his large-framed father showing up at his school to give him milk money in front of the bullies after the bullies had been taking Johnson’s milk money and served up other indignities. Johnson said it was his father’s presence and booming voice that stopped the bullying. “People of faith, we are connected to something larger,” said Johnson. “No matter how insignificant we think we are, God hears our cries and makes God’s own presence known. This is why justice is so important.”

Following the reflections of the various worship participants, Ruling Elder Phillip Morgan, Director of Music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, used his melodic baritone voice and piano gifts to render a moving rendition of “We’ve Come this Far by Faith.”

As the service drew to a close, Young Adult Volunteer Mikyle Johnson; the Rev. Samuel Son, Manager of Diversity and Reconciliation; and valerie izsumi, Assistant Stated Clerk and the Manager for General Assembly Nominations, offered the Call to Justice.

In their closing, the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard, Coordinator of Gender and Racial Justice, said, “Today we gathered to honor the life, the legacy and the living embodiment of justice that was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King served a life well lived in giving his very being to the work of creating a better tomorrow for those most marginalized in our community.”

A song performed by musicians at Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City summed up the true meaning of and spirit of the service: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can clear the way. Hatred cannot drive out hatred only love keeps hate at bay.”

Other worship participants included the Indonesian American Presbyterian Church Choir.

The planning committee for the service included Leonard, who provided leadership to the team; Barnes; Simon Doong; the Rev. Marrissa Galván-Valle; the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell; the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo; izumi; Alonzo Johnson; Mikyle Johnson; Kelley; and Threadgill.

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