By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 21, 2010
The tragedy unfolding in Haiti was on people’s minds as the Atlanta Archdiocese remembered the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
The devastating earthquake on the island country and the deaths of an estimated 100,000 or more were spotlighted as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, assisted by some 13 priests and five deacons at the annual Mass, said the community honors the memory of King at the same time “fully aware of the great suffering of the people of Haiti.”
Catholics crowded the pews of the downtown Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Saturday, Jan. 16, to celebrate Atlanta’s native son, slain in 1968.
Representatives of the Haitian community from Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, glided up the center aisle with the accompaniment of music with a Caribbean beat. They carried baskets of food and toothbrushes and other personal items to the altar for a blessing. The items were later given to the homeless.
Denise Jules and her husband, Lemercier, leaders of the Haitian community at the Decatur parish, said the past few days had been overwhelming, but faith sustains the community.
“We are still with God. God means everything to us,” said Denise, who wore a red and blue sash in the colors of the country’s flag.
Msgr. Henry Gracz, the pastor of the downtown church, said in times of crisis God’s grace emerges. Haitians are undergoing trials both here and in their homeland, so “be for them, living grace,” said Msgr. Gracz.
The Mass highlighted the diversity of the archdiocese. Prayers were said in French, Spanish, Creole, Korean. The Archbishop James P. Lyke Choir, under the direction of Jack Tilson, led the congregation in singing. A thumping drumbeat gathered the faithful together at the start of the service.
The Saturday Mass was one of three weekend activities marking the life of King. The archdiocesan Black Catholic Ministry organized the events.
On Friday, Jan. 15, college students and young adults gathered at the Lyke House, the Catholic Center at the Atlanta University Center, and schoolchildren celebrated King’s accomplishments at St. Peter Claver Regional Catholic School in Decatur, Sunday, Jan. 17.
Father Edward Branch, the chaplain at AUC, linked King’s message with Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Charity in Truth,” and the film “The Polar Express” in his homily at the Saturday Mass.
Father Branch said he feared King’s compelling, prophetic words are being sanitized.
Americans only see the King national holiday as a “day off instead of a day on,” he said.
But for King’s vision of America to become a reality, it would be costly, he said. People would have to confront why the poor remain poor, why spending the country into debt is accepted when it is for war, but not when it is for social programs, and an ethic of retribution would have to be abandoned, he said.
The community must “put poor people on our lips and do charity with our hearts and our hands,” he said.
Father Branch also urged more white Catholics to attend the King Mass, which was celebrated with nearly an all black congregation although the archdiocese is more than half white.
“Just because Martin Luther King Jr. was black does not mean the celebration of that gift he was for all of us is only a black thing,” he said.
Father Branch said people need to be invited to the Christian faith and should not be afraid where that faith takes them. People need to be invited to commit to the vision of King’s “beloved community” of economic and racial equality, just as Jesus prayed for unity, he said.
“The victory is assured. We shall overcome because it is woven in our hearts. We know in the end we are going to win,” he said.