By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 22, 2004
Catholics crowded into the Shrine of Immaculate Conception on the bleak afternoon of Jan. 17 to celebrate the social justice legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to examine anew whether they are heeding prayers for reconciliation and peace and putting them into action in their daily lives.
The annual Catholic celebration, with the theme “Until All Injustice Is Conquered by Love,” preceded the Jan. 19 national holiday marking the 75th birthday of the slain civil rights leader.
The Mass was sponsored by the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholic Ministry, which serves an estimated 8,000 African-American Catholics in the North Georgia archdiocese and which sponsors events for the entire archdiocese, including this annual celebration.
The homilist was Father Ricardo Bailey, parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s Church in Marietta, who grew up in Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, across the street from King’s birthplace.
Transporting listeners back to a time of Afros, polyester pants, big shoes and the 1970s dance show “Soul Train” that he was addicted to in his youth, the priest revived the call to be a people of “peace, love and soul” by building King’s “beloved community. ”
‘It seem to me that we need a ‘Soul Train’ spirituality. We need to remember to celebrate, live and practice daily our love for each other, the work of peace in the world and the salvation of our souls,’ said Father Bailey. “Dr. King said: ‘Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life. Love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.’”
There were no Kool and the Gang hits but music provided by the Archbishop James P. Lyke Memorial Mass Choir, inspiring the congregation and stirring them to clap and sway with traditional hymns like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
For the second year, an additional Youth and Young Adult Celebration was held on Sunday, Jan. 18, with music, dance and poetry by youth from Catholic churches and schools and by college students from the Lyke House Catholic Center at the Atlanta University Center. Performers included Will Thomas, who wrote and read a poem “Divine Revolution,” and Evelyn Osei and the Lyke House Drummers, who presented “An African Tale of Ananse the Spider.”
A warm clothing and blanket drive was held at both the Mass and the following day’s celebration. Donations were given to the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, for the 11,000 to 20,000 homeless people on any given night living in metro Atlanta streets.
At the Mass, the predominantly African-American congregation was called to worship by the Lyke House Drummers, and prayers were chosen from the Mass for the Progress of Peoples.
In his homily Father Bailey noted the irony that for civil rights activists of the past, many “church folks” were the major obstacle, and he challenged congregants to examine whether today they are workers or stumbling blocks to justice.
“As the body of Christ, we must prove to the world that reconciliation is not only a liturgical action for us, but it is a way of life,” he said. “It is so easy to be known as the person not to be messed with. But my question for all of us is, what are we doing to build this society of love?”
“Do we persist as a church and as a society to be inactive in our parishes and local communities? Do we wait for the other person to do the work? Are we the ones who continue complaining, moaning and whining and are not part of the solution? As a church, we pray constantly for the gift of peace in our world and in our church. In our celebrations the basic language of our liturgies expresses the hope that we can be a church and a society not rooted in fear but rather strengthened by courage,” he said. “People have died so that all of us can worship together, live together and exist together in a church and as a community. However, we must continue to work to make certain that the prayers, dreams and blood of these heroes and ‘she-roes’ are not sacrificed in vain.”
He spoke of the centrality of love in King’s ministry and called for people to practice love and work for justice daily as they discern God’s purpose in their lives.
“We must let people know that sexism, racism, class-ism and any other discrimination of any kind is nothing more than a lie and a pitiful attempt to keep us from being the people that the Lord Jesus calls us to be: a loving community. The best way for us to continue this work and to spread this Good News is to begin with ourselves . . . Just allow this Good News that is rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ to empower you; just let the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspire you; just let the words and worship of this Mass renew you.”
King was raised in the African-American Baptist Church in Atlanta and earned his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University. His first pastorate was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., where his career was launched as an activist for social and civil egalitarian change, beginning with his successful leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and from this activist forum he led protest marches against legal discrimination, economic inequality and the denial of voting rights. He was most noted for his passionate speeches for these causes and for his adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence in the pursuit of social change. In 1964 he was Time’s “Man of the Year.” In December of the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price. King’s campaign in his later years before his assassination in 1968 focused substantially on economic justice for all of America’s poor.
Concluding the Mass, Charles Prejean, director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, presented Luella Chambers with the 2004 Father Bruce Wilkinson Founders Award, given to a person for distinguished service in the ministry of evangelization.
A member of St. John Vianney Church in Lithia Springs, Chambers is president of her parish pastoral council, a member of the Atlanta Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, a volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the St. Francis Table at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and is an altar server and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. She has worked to guide the formal organizing of the growing black Catholic community at her parish, with heritages from several African and Caribbean countries.
Following the Mass, a reception was held in the parish hall, where attendees had the opportunity to register to vote, to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or to learn about the Office for Black Catholic Ministry’s poster campaign to promote greater cooperation and understanding between culturally diverse communities in the archdiocese. The first poster features children locked in arms singing at last year’s MLK celebration, with the words, “We shall overcome; we walk hand in hand … We are not afraid.”
Chambers, holding a box of ebony wood she was given, said at the reception that she was “floored” to receive the recognition.
“I just do what I feel God is calling me to do, and I enjoy doing it. I’m just a humble servant,” she said.
Chambers is glad to work to make her church more inclusive by helping the black community to become more involved. “They were really excited to come together and share our cultures …We are all part of St. John Vianney … We are all serving the same God.”
When she lived in Iowa, the King holiday was just a “day off,” she said, but in Atlanta she has learned more about King and his work. Her greatest concern now involves the education of young black men. “Without an education, you can’t do anything, you can’t go anywhere.”
For Simone Blanchard, director of Catholic Social Services’ Parish and Community Ministry, the event was both a celebration of King’s legacy and her first wedding anniversary. She chose her wedding date as a testimony to King’s character and example and had her wedding photos taken at his gravesite.
In her work, “our mission is to connect with the spirit and potential of people and communities to eliminate all forms of poverty—spiritual, physical, emotional and economic. The philosophy of MLK is central to what we do in our office of living out Catholic social teaching and teaching others to live out the social teachings of the church.”
Hulet Neely Sr., 64, grew up in Atlanta and attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
“I’ve seen a whole lot of change. I knew what it was like to ride in the back of a bus,” Neely said.
But he sees how much more change is needed too, and expressed his concern about the growing number of homeless men, largely African-American, he and other volunteers serve lunch to through Our Lady of Lourdes. There are about 250 people showing up for every meal, he said. “It’s been increasing every year.”
Prejean said he hopes those attending the Mass leave with a deeper commitment to work for social justice in their families and workplaces. Regarding the youth celebration, he said that young adults from African-American parishes approached his office with the idea of fostering increased awareness that King’s message is for everyone.
He noted the special challenge his office faces in serving the growing numbers of African and Caribbean immigrants in the increasingly diverse archdiocese, which has doubled in size in the past decade. “We have a lot of challenges with the growth in the Catholic Church and in terms of the cultural diversity.”
John Phillips, special assistant in the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, expressed great enthusiasm for the youth and young adult event, at which educational materials were distributed for Catholic programs, including the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, HIV/AIDS ministry, pregnancy and adoption programs, and pro-life issues.
“The next step is we want people to see that stuff, be impacted and to step out on faith and change themselves … Mohandas Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’” Phillips said. “As they hear these things and are motivated and moved, now get involved and take some action. It’s the time for us to carry on the fight for civil rights and it has not ended.”
Graphic artist Byron Wilson designed the event book that depicted the theme over a heart in red, white and blue. The theme “is played off the red, white and blue to get people to think about America,” Wilson said. “Are we really there yet to achieve the justice our forefathers fought for?”
The name of his company, Rooted Visual Communications, reflects his gratitude for the opportunities created for him through generations past. “If you work hard and do right by people, you’ll recognize opportunities come.”
Chris Slaughter came to the Mass with his grandmother.
King stands for “nonviolence (and how) you have to treat people with respect and speak in love and not of war,” said Slaughter. “His impact is evident everywhere you look.”
Slaughter, 17, who opposed the war in Iraq, said he is concerned about Atlanta’s homeless population. On the King holiday he was going with some high school classmates to pass out clothing to the homeless.
“You have the homeless people out there . . . eating stuff off the street you would never eat. It’s really sad and unjust. You have to give back, and I think that’s one of the legacies of Martin Luther King.”