By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 21, 2016
ATLANTA—Catholics remembered the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as singing, dancing and clapping showcased the diversity of the Atlanta Archdiocese in the one prayer of the Mass.
Scripture was read in Korean. Prayers of the faithful were proclaimed in the African language of Yoruba. The St. Philip Benizi Church choir filled the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta, with black spirituals.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the main celebrant of the Saturday, Jan. 16, Mass, called the celebration a “wonderful display of the richness and diversity of this local church.”
Hundreds of worshipers, from gray-haired seniors to pint-sized youngsters, filled the wooden pews at the downtown parish, just a mile from the birth home of the civil rights leader assassinated in 1968. He would have been 87 this year.
“It was multicultural. It was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes,” said Lina Stephens, a member of the Jonesboro church choir.
The Saturday observance was part of commemorations organized by the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity. College students and young adults met at the Lyke House Catholic Center at the Atlanta University Center Jan. 14. School students gathered at St. Peter Claver Regional School, Decatur, for an arts program Jan. 17. The weekend’s theme was “So we, though many, are one body in Christ.”
Mary Jane Cooper, known as “MJ,” who for 10 years volunteered as a rape victim counselor, served at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta, and advocated for criminal justice reform, received the annual Father Bruce Wilkinson Founders Award.
“It’s my life’s calling to do God’s work. I’ll continue to serve him as I serve others,” said Cooper, who is 58 and attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta. She joined the church as an adult after growing up in the Baptist tradition.
“It is humbling. It makes me feel like I need to get up earlier and do more,” she said.
Named for the main founder of black Catholic ministry in the archdiocese, the award honors outstanding efforts in evangelization.
Said Luella Chambers, in honoring Cooper with the award, “She truly epitomizes the meaning of servitude in all that she does. She is worthy of recognition because she evangelizes not only through her words but through her actions.”
Chambers, too, was recognized for her efforts. A member of St. John Vianney Church, Lithia Springs, she received the Charles O. Prejean Sr. Unity Award for her continued work in connecting parishioners from various cultural backgrounds with one another. She has for many years chaired the Father Bruce Wilkinson Founders Award committee, drawing in a number of parishes, parishioners and pastors through the years. Her efforts also open the King celebrations to a variety of communities. She is an active member of the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary and of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.
The first award was presented last January to Prejean, as he retired as director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry where he served from 2000 to 2015.
In mid-2015, the new Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity was formed as part of implementing the archdiocesan Pastoral Plan, bringing together black Catholic ministry and Hispanic ministry in one office.
“Why is God silent?”
The annual King weekend Mass started with the sound of a horn calling the congregation together. With a Knights of Peter Claver honor guard, five deacons and eights priests joined Archbishop Gregory at the altar. Women from the Cameroonian community in traditional dress chanted “the word of God is in my heart,” and slowly danced up the aisle as one carried on her back the book of Scripture to the waiting archbishop.
Father Henry Atem, the pastor of St. George Church, Newnan, spoke to the congregation, reminding people of King’s quote, “Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It’s an age-old question, where is God when the world suffers, why is there silence, asked Father Atem, a native of Cameroon.
In the Bible, when people feared God was absent and Moses was missing, they built a golden calf to worship, Father Atem said. Even when Jesus was with his apostles, they were still afraid when they faced terrible storms and the winds.
“That is a legitimate question. Why is God silent? Somehow man suffers, while God sleeps,” he said.
But what people see as silence is how God teaches something profound, he said. “God has not abandoned the human family. Indeed, God continues to walk the earth. God has always been a part of it,” he said.
“We are called to be light. We continue to make God a reality in the world,” he continued. “Each one of us is called to recognize our strengths. Each one of us is called to recognize our unique talents. Each one of us is called to recognize our unique gifts.”
People are called to bring their talents to help shape “a society that makes room for everyone.” Justice is needed in every part of the culture from the family to the community and its institutions.
Said Father Atem, “God is in you and in me. Because God is in you and me, each one of us can enhance the human story. The responsibility lies in your hands and in my hands.”
The King observance reminded people to be attentive to the needs of all, especially those who don’t look or pray like them. Peter Boateng-Poku, a member of St. Patrick Church, Norcross, said King’s message in 2016 still carries weight.
“As a Catholic, we should fight for justice for everyone. People should make an effort to be here. It celebrates justice for all people.”