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MLK legacy celebrated at virtual prayer breakfast

  • Guest speaker and honoree Rev. June Cooper, executive director of City Mission Boston, speaks during the virtual celebration. Pilot photo
  • St. Katharine Drexel Parish’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast was held in virtual format this year. Pilot photo

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DORCHESTER -- St. Katharine Drexel Parish traditionally celebrates the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a prayer breakfast featuring music, a keynote speaker, and readings of excerpts from Dr. King's speeches. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, instead of gathering for a meal, the parish held its 36th annual commemoration of Dr. King in a virtual format on Jan. 18, with approximately 100 people participating via Zoom.

Dr. King would have been 92 years old on his birthday, Jan. 15. The national holiday in his honor is held on the third Monday of January, which this year was Jan. 18.

Father Oscar Pratt, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, gave the opening remarks at the virtual event, which was dedicated to the memory of civil rights activist Mamie "Mimi" Jones.

The theme of this year's commemoration was "Radical Love." Father Pratt called attention to the contrast between that theme and the actions of those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"What we've seen in the past week and a half, the Jan. 6 insurrection, it is in direct opposition to what Dr. King envisioned," Father Pratt said.

One of those attending the online event was Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, who offered an opening prayer and brief remarks.

He said the pandemic "has unmasked so much racism and inequality in our society, and is a very stark reminder of just how important it is to celebrate the memory and the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, one of the greatest Americans to ever live, and who is an example and inspiration to all of us."

During the program, excerpts were read from Dr. King's speeches "Where Do We Go From Here" and "Loving Your Enemies." Music was provided by parish music director Meyer Chambers along with Byron Wratee and Fred Van Ness.

The keynote speaker was Rev. June Cooper, executive director of City Mission Boston, a nonprofit that promotes economic and racial equity for underserved families. She earned her master's degree at Boston College and has taught at its School of Social Work. She is currently the resident theologian of Old South Church.

Rev. Cooper said that the insurrection at the Capitol "comes from the reality that we as a nation have never acknowledged or persistently dealt with our country's original sin, and that is white racism."

"The good news is that the God of history continues to call us to repentance, reconciliation, and justice through prophets like Dr. King," she said.

She spoke about Dr. King's last sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," which she said "is relevant today." In that address, Dr. King talked about the story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for 20 years, during which the American Revolution took place.

"Dr. King says one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amidst great change but yet fail to adapt new attitudes and new mental processes and responses that the new situations demand. Then we end up sleeping through a revolution," Rev. Cooper said.

She recounted how a few months earlier she visited one of her congregations to talk to the pastor about being a guest speaker there. When she, a black woman, came into the church, where most of the people were white, she was initially mistaken for a food pantry client.

"We need to take the time to slow ourselves down and to challenge our false understandings and our stereotypes," Rev. Cooper said.

She said that "radical love" means loving those who seem unlovable.

"We start to be activists not just out in the street but in our homes. Let's stay engaged in hard conversations, listening to one another with the ears of the heart, not merely tolerate differences but let's figure out a way to embrace and maybe even value them," she said.

Speaking out of her experience working with gangs, Rev. Cooper told the viewers, "We have to tell our kids they don't have a right to hate, they have a duty to love."

She said that hitting the "snooze button" is not an option.

"We need to stay awake, because there's a revolution out there. We need to make sure that this is a revolution of love," Rev. Cooper said.

Father Pratt later presented Rev. Cooper with the Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast Social Justice Warrior Award "in recognition of your unwavering dedication to justice for all, overcoming racism and ending systemic homelessness."

After the keynote address, the participants went into breakout rooms for small group discussions. They were asked to consider how Dr. King's legacy has impacted their lives, how they could promote justice in 2021, and how they might explain Dr. King's witness to a group of students in a few sentences.

After the attendees reconvened, Father Pratt and Rev. Cooper together read a list of those who "lost their lives to senseless violence," most of them at the hands of police. Among those listed were Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

"The pain inflicted on them could have been any one of us. Keep them in your hearts and continue to say their names," Father Pratt said.

The program ended with a final blessing from Cardinal O'Malley and a rendition of "We Shall Overcome."

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