MLK prayer service recalls civil rights milestones

DORCHESTER -- At an Evening of Prayer and Song in Remembrance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at St. Katherine Drexel Church, Jan. 20, the archdiocese's Office for Black Catholics celebrated more than just the legacy of the civil rights leader; it also marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln.

The speaker this year, Rashaun Martin, Grand Knight of the Knights of Peter Claver in Boston, read the proclamation instead of a King speech as in years past. He noted the significance of the document in the United States.

"It is a document that is really unsung in the annals of black history in America. It sets the stage for the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment," he said.

One of the first African American units to serve the Union during the Civil War, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched out of Boston on May 28, 1863.

"It sets the stage for the eventual 13th Amendment officially ending slavery in America. It sets the stage for the Civil Rights movement, for Brown versus Board of Education, and it certainly sets the stage for an African American, to not only once but twice, to be duly elected President of the United States," Martin said.

As in years past, the Archdiocese of Boston Black Catholic Choir provided music for the prayer service, but this year they were joined by the Boston Community Choir for the second time since the archdiocesan celebration began in 1992.

"This is particularly meaningful because we have got these two big landmark years that we talked about, the 150th year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the 'I Have a Dream' speech. So, with all of that coming together, to think that 150 years was when there was emancipation and then now we are talking about a president who is a man of color in office, which would have been something that could not have been imagined 150 years ago. Interestingly it couldn't have been imagined 50 years ago and it has occurred, both things within my lifetime," Dennis Slaughter, the artistic director of the Boston Community Choir, said.

"It is always a great honor and the Black Catholic Choir is renowned. We know of them quite a bit from various choirs that we sing in. So, it is a great appreciation. It really is," said Philip Clinton, who directed the Boston Community Choir that night.

Deacon Avery Hanna, a seminarian at Blessed John XXIII Seminary, presided and preached the homily at the prayer service.

"Quite often at the seminary you would hear these words, 'I am not worthy.' But my question is: Who is? By ourselves we are unworthy. Through faith, and God's help we'll just make it. But we can never lose sight of that," Deacon Hanna said.

Beginning his homily, Deacon Hanna first presented the example of the apostles as flawed people but chosen to stand up for Christ.

"Besides Matthew, the majority of them, their occupation was fisherman, which didn't carry a lot of weight. You were somewhat the lowest-of-the-low. You could not appear in court to give testimony, and that's who Jesus chose. Jesus is not looking for ambition. He is looking for humble, faithful service," he said.

In his homily, Hanna said the culture of today does not encourage the long-term commitments required to advance the common good as Martin Luther King did, but rather what one feels like doing at any given time.

"Feeling like it' is leading to more and more deaths every day. 'Feeling like it' is leading to more and more abortions. 'Feeling like it' is allowing people to completely disregard the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. That is what 'feeling like it' is all about," he said.

He said Christian values, on the other hand, call people to think beyond this simple framework of selfishness. He cited the Ten Commandments.

"We have to return to those principals, because we are reaching a point in our society where the lines are now so blurred, you can't see them anymore," Deacon Hanna said.

Deacon Hanna also stressed the role of Christian faith in the life of Martin Luther King as he worked to advance civil rights.

"Stand up, stand up for Jesus. My brothers and sisters, Dr. King knew that so well. He was truly a man of faith. During his day, did Dr. King realize he was making such a difference? Well, I really don't know the answer. I'm going to say, 'Yes, he knew.' But I say the 'yes' because he also understood the dangers, and when we stand up for Jesus there are dangers," Deacon Hanna said.

After the homily, Rashaun Martin read the Emancipation Proclamation.

Martin, who previously taught history at Boston Latin School, said he would remind students that Jan. 1 not only welcomes the New Year, but also serves as the anniversary of the proclamation.

"I always remind them as they head out to Christmas break, that when New Year's Eve comes and when the stroke of midnight comes to raise a glass for freedom and remember the emancipation," he said.

The day after the prayer service, Jan. 21, St. Katherine Drexel Church hosted the Red Cross for a blood drive in the church hall. Held each year since 2003, the blood drive is seen as another way to honor King's memory by giving the gift of life.