Much like the Rev. Martin Luther King let his faith guide him to inspire tens of thousands of people to call for equality in 1963 during the March on Washington, D.C., the same is likely true today for people of faith. Those from the United Church of Christ who traveled to Washington to mark the march's 50th anniversary were reminded just how powerful faith can be combined with a call to justice.
"My faith and social justice are very intertwined," said Thaddaeus Elliott, a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Miami, who attended the anniversary event on behalf of the Florida Conference of the UCC. "I believe our faith calls us to be active much in the same way Martin Luther King and Andrew Young and Al Sharpton were called to be active, to work toward justice and driven by their faith."
Elliot attended Wednesday's commemoration of the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom with the Rev. Sarah Lund, regional minister for the Florida Conference of the UCC, and with Disciples of Christ ministers the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock and the Rev. Ken Brooker Langston.
Elliott grew up in Cleveland while his parents worked for the UCC's national office. He recently graduated in Northwestern University, and served on the student ecumenical partnership team as a UCC representative.
"You sensed it was a historic moment for the March and what that means in today's world," said Elliott, who had visited Washington, D.C., before, but never experienced it the way he did this week. "I've been to D.C. on school trips, and I've seen the Lincoln Memorial, but being in that context and being there with Dr. King's family, and President Carter, President Clinton and President Obama, with celebrities, it changed the mood."
The group listened as speakers touched on how the country has progressed since 1963, opening the door to African Americans in education and employment opportunities. But at the same time, the nation has backpedaled, including a recent decision by the Supreme Court to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional, potentially jeopardizing equal voting opportunities at the polls.
"For me growing up, Oprah Winfrey was one of the first black female role models in my life," said Lund, who watched Winfrey's show with her mother after school. "I really enjoyed hearing her speak of King's legacy, of the continued call for all of us to work together as a community to do this work, and that each one of us can make a difference. She said, ‘Not everyone is going to be famous, but each of us can help someone.'"
Lund also added how the words of Fred Maahs were powerful, but also ironic in one sense. Maahs is the chairperson of the board for the American Association for People with Disabilities.
"I heard him saying there were people who wanted to march 50 years ago, but they couldn't because of disabilities," Lund said. "But you couldn't see him, because he wasn't at the podium. He was invisible, because the podium was inaccessible by wheelchair, and he is in a wheelchair and it took a while for the cameras to find him to show on the jumbotrons. His words really highlighted the importance of accessibility in ministry."
The words from President Obama, Lund said, reminded her that the Civil Rights Movement was a grassroots movement at its core. "He spoke about how change comes to Washington, not from Washington, and that is a reminder as a call for the church to create a community of action, and network for action within our congregations and with our conferences."
Asked what will be most memorable 50 years from now, Lund said, "There was a moment when he and Michelle ascended to the top of the Lincoln Memorial and turned to the crowd, and waved with the image of Lincoln behind them. And then President Carter and President Clinton made their way up and joined them. I had to see that with my own eyes – these were two presidents, from the South (Carter is from Georgia and Clinton from Arkansas), standing there with a black president."
Added Elliott, "What will resonate from that experience isn't the nostalgia and commemorating the march in 1963, but how many participants emphasized passing on the torch to the next generation, to continue working toward that dream, that progress – keeping vigilant to make sure the doors remains open," he said. "You have to keep working and make sure those policies that were implemented stay implemented and aren't forgotten."
Across the nation, churches were asked to ring their bells at 3 p.m. Wednesday to mark the anniversary of King's "I Have A Dream Speech," which he delivered on Aug. 28, 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The UCC's national offices participated, even though the building in Cleveland doesn't have a hanging bell. Instead, the staff gathered in the Amistad Chapel rang handheld bells and used their smartphone chime sound effects to join in. National staff, who felt the need to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, also watched the day's events unfold.
"During the morning and early afternoon, speeches and songs were live-streamed in the Chapel, and everyone in the building was invited to gather at 2:30 to sing, pray, listen to President Obama's address, and ring bells with the rest of our nation and many others throughout the world," said the Rev. Kate Huey, dean of the Amistad Chapel.
In Boston, the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC participated in the Memorial March for Peace 2013, a coalition of faith communities, nonprofits and citizens dedicated to addressing root causes of violence. Among the day's events was an afternoon prayer vigil and memorial march in downtown Boston, as well as an evening interfaith gathering that included special guest Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Memorial March Chairperson.
The UCC's work for racial justice spans centuries. The church and its predecessor bodies have supported policies and structures that affirm the UCC's commitment to racial justice. The denomination was the first to ordain an African-American Minister, Lemuel Haynes, in 1785, and took a stand against slavery in the early 1700s. Learn more about the UCC's Racial Justice Ministry online.