MLK Day marked with interreligious prayer service

ROXBURY -- Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley joined with local religious leaders to honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with an interreligious prayer service live-streamed from St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Roxbury, Jan. 17.

The prayer service featured music, readings from one of Rev. King's speeches, and reflections by the cardinal; Boston College doctoral candidate Kayla August; Boston College's campus minister for multi-faith programs, Rev. James Hairston; and Imam Abdullah Faaruuq of the Islamic Center of Boston.

Throughout the prayer service, music was provided by the Boston Black Catholic Choir, directed by Meyer Chambers. Among the musical selections was "Hinei Mah Tov," a Hebrew folk song with lyrics derived from Psalm 133, which begins with "How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together." The event ended with a rendition of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."

In between the speakers and songs, parishioners read excerpts from Rev. King's speech "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," which describes an old world passing away and a new world being born. Father Oscar Pratt, the pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, quoted the speech as he led the opening prayer.

In her remarks, August said she wonders "if the old world truly is passing away or is simply masked under new policies and social conditions. But King preached that the catalyst of change was the people, ready and willing to stand up against the old and step forward into the new. He preached that if we walk with God, we can find the strength to endure pain and create a better future."

August spoke at length about the power and purpose of Rev. King's preaching. Like her, he came to Boston to study theology, and August said she views him as a mentor to her as she studies preaching at BC.

"It's something I feel blessed to do, and he has shown me the power of what preaching can be. His words were always both an address and a prayer, addressing the need for change and asking God to give the people the courage to make that change no matter the cost," August said.

She said she thinks everyone should preach, not only through their words but through their lives.

Rev. Hairston admitted that in the past, like many Black intellectuals of Generation X, he had "a conflicted relationship" with Rev. King and disliked the national holiday in his honor.

"This isn't because of anything that the man himself did, but rather the way in which his identity and legacy has been co-opted," Hairston said.

He saw how white community leaders, from teachers to police officers to politicians, would use Rev. King's words for their own purposes while ignoring or perpetuating the social problems that people of color faced.

But his attitude changed when a fellow seminary student told him, "You're going to be the next Martin." At first, he was taken aback, but then he decided to dive deeper into Rev. King's life, reading his sermons and the accounts of people who had known him. Then he began to understand what she meant.

"She meant that the spirit of righteous anger compacted with love is what I embody, much like King," Hairston said.

In Rev. King's writings, Rev. Hairston discovered a man who called out church leaders for their hypocrisy in remaining silent on civil rights.

"This version of King is who I remembered, not the watered-down version that's peddled out on mainstream news media," Rev. Hairston said.

He emphasized the importance of referring to "Rev. King" rather than "Dr. King" because what motivated the man was not his academic degree but his identity as a clergyman and a child of God.

"When we drop this honorific, we strip away a large part of this man's identity. We strip away the divine calling that was placed on his life to take up the cause of civil rights," Rev. Hairston said.

He noted that cause is still not fully realized, considering lynching is still not a federal crime, and voting is suppressed in many parts of the U.S.

Imam Faaruuq also spoke about the need for change, not only in society but also within each person's heart.

"We want change, but change is not in our hands. Change is in the hands of the Almighty, and he will not change the conditions of humanity until we change what is in ourselves. We must place ourselves in his hands and become the clay that will give shape to the future," Imam Faaruuq said.

He shared his own memories of being a teenager in the 1960s, the decade during which Rev. King, Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy, and Sen. Robert Kennedy were assassinated. He recalled his excitement participating in the March on Washington, where Rev. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech and the emotional impact of President Kennedy's death just three months later.

"Our dream is never going to come true if we decide we're going to sit down and wait for it. Dreams have to be struggled for," Imam Faaruuq said.

He explained that the Arabic word "jihad," a term now associated with war, actually means "struggle."

"I encourage you not to let Martin Luther King's dream die, not to give up praying to the Almighty or struggling to bring about the change that we so desperately need," Imam Faaruuq said.

In his remarks, Cardinal O'Malley recounted his experience of the aftermath of Rev. King's assassination as a young seminarian in Washington, D.C.

On the night of April 4, 1968, Cardinal O'Malley had not yet heard the news of Rev. King's death. He was coming home from his work teaching English to immigrants when he saw riots breaking out in the streets. At the Franciscan monastery, he climbed up the tower to look out over the city, where he could see hundreds of fires burning. He then went out with a group of friars and brought people from the burning neighborhoods to Sacred Heart Parish. About 300 people lived in the church's basement for a week, during which time one woman gave birth. Outside, a curfew was put in place, the National Guard was deployed, and tanks surrounded the White House.

Cardinal O'Malley said he was greatly impacted by Rev. King's death, as well as his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." This open letter was addressed to white clergy and harkened back to the early Church, when Christians "rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed," and ended up changing society.

In comparison, the cardinal said, the Church today is often "a defender of the status quo," whose silence or sanctioning consoles power structures.

He said that Rev. King was like the martyrs of the early Church.

"We have to be willing to suffer for our faith. We have to be willing to suffer for the dream of justice," Cardinal O'Malley said.

He said that racial harmony is not about political correctness but rather solidarity.

"It's social friendship, as Pope Francis is always talking about. It's a discovery that we are all one family -- at times very dysfunctional, but one family nevertheless," he said.