Urgency, persistence mark UCC King Day observances
The holiday has never come at a time so filled with tumult and hope.
As United Church of Christ leaders mark the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., that fact is not lost on them.
Worship services, socially distanced service projects and UCC speakers at civic events are among this year’s observances. Urgency and persistence are two of their common themes. And the events are going ahead — before, on and after the Jan. 18 holiday — even as:
— Congress impeaches a president for inviting and inciting a white mob that vandalized the U.S. Capitol and walked away.
— Georgia sends a Black man to the U.S Senate for the first time. He is an heir of King’s own Atlanta pulpit.
— The nation prepares to inaugurate a woman, a person of color, as vice president — another first.
— The COVID-19 pandemic rages on — and continues to reveal gaps between rich and poor.
‘Pain and promise’
An invitation to one such special worship service describes the current moment as “the intersection of pain and promise.” Titled “Building Back Hope: A Service of Release and Renewal,” it will be held online at 3:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, Jan. 19. Presented by the national ministries of the UCC, it is open to the public. People can register here.
“We will worship together bearing witness to this past year and pouring hope into the future,” the invitation said. It went out by email and over UCC social media channels. “Hope is the confident expectation that all God intends will come to pass. … We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.”
Joining the UCC’s national officers in leading the service will be:
— Sikh activist Valarie Kaur, Los Angeles, author of “See No Stranger”
— The Rev. Jacqui Lewis, senior pastor of Middle Collegiate Church, New York City
— The Rev. Otis Moss III senior pastor of Trinity UCC, Chicago
— The Rev. Chris Davies, Cleveland, who heads the UCC’s Faith Education, Innovation and Formation ministry
Churchwide events Monday
National and Conference ministries of the UCC are observing King’s legacy in several ways on the Monday holiday itself. Among them:
— “Dismantling the Racial Contract,” 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET., a discussion with Charles W. Mills, professor, City University of New York. He is the author of the book, “The Racial Contract.” Moderators: the Rev. Velda Love, UCC minister for racial justice; the Rev. Gary Percesepe, Metropolitan Association, New York Conference, UCC. Login information can be found at the Association’s Facebook page or in the image below.
— An an online “service of reflection and recommitment” for national staff at 3 p.m. ET. Also led by Love, its speakers will include the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, past executive minister of UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, and the Rev. Trayce Potter, minister of youth and young adult engagement. Attendees can click here at the worship start time. The meeting ID and passcode are in the image below.
Things that ‘cannot co-exist’
The turmoil of recent days gives this year’s holiday a special poignancy and relevance, some UCC leaders say.
One of them, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., keynoted Arizona’s annual “Living the Dream” celebration Jan. 15. He led the UCC Commission for Racial Justice in the 1990s, and, as a young man, had worked with King. In 1962, at age 14, Chavis joined King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as statewide youth coordinator in North Carolina.
“I remember that King’s sermons were calls to action based on our faith in the oneness of God’s creation,” Chavis said. That, he said, means resisting today’s “resurgent manifestations of white supremacist violence and hatred.”
“King’s theological imperative was to stand up to oppose racism and hatred that cannot coexist with the ‘Beloved Community,'” Chavis said. “The love of God through Jesus Christ requires all in the community of faith to be active and to engage in building and expanding the Beloved Community for all of God’s people and creation.”
Freedom books for kids
Despite the pandemic, churches and organizations are finding ways to mark the holiday with that kind of active faith.
In Massachusetts. a UCC-related mission agency is putting books in the hands of young students. And not just any books.
The Worcester Area Mission Society, together with the local United Way, is using GoFundMe to raise money for the project. The drive seeks “new books focused on social justice, freedom and diversity,” according to its online invitation. It said their content should “celebrate the history and strength of Black, Indigenous and People of Color.” Students, kindergarten through 5th grade, will receive the books through the Worcester Remote Learning Hub Collaborative.
Executive Director Karen Luddington said she feels the drive connects well with King’s legacy. “The two things I remember most about Dr. King are his courage and his eloquence,” she said. “If he were here today, he would use them both to oppose the systemic racism that becomes clearer and clearer across our country every day and to stand up for our democracy.
“Dr. King would build new bridges and march across old ones, and he would have the strength and kindness to wear a mask all the while. We need leaders today to make the kind of ‘good trouble,’ as Congressman John Lewis put it, that Dr. King did.”
A march ‘proclaiming truth’
In King’s hometown of Atlanta, UCC congregations are among those marking the holiday in multiple ways.
At Kirkwood UCC, COVID-19 is hindering at least one King Day tradition. “For the past 13 years, we have participated in a community work day helping to clean up or make minor repairs to the homes of seniors in our neighborhood,” said Kirkwood’s senior minister, the Rev. Susannah Davis. “Due to the pandemic, that will not happen this year. We’ve put a celebration video together of our work over the past many years. We’ll share that in worship on Sunday and with our community on Monday.
But COVID isn’t stopping everything. Kirkwood’s Sunday worship on Jan. 17 “will center around the many ways Dr. King shared and demonstrated that incarnational love of God that we know in the first chapter of John,” Davis said. The congregation has studied that biblical chapter since the start of Advent, she said. “This will conclude our time … using the theme of Incarnation: The Nearness of God.”
The next day, Kirkwood will hold its monthly Black Lives Matter march. “We typically march together every month in a different Atlanta community,” Davis said. “This Monday we’ll march through our ‘home’ neighborhood of Kirkwood. We will offer a prayer time along with chants of encouragement and proclaiming the truth that Black Lives Matter.
“We’ll also prepare lunches to share and offer to folks in our neighborhood who are experiencing homelessness or are in need.”
Lights and bells
Also in Atlanta, Virginia-Highland Church’s online Sunday worship will include special musical features and a sermon by the Rev. leea allen, the congregation’s minister of faith and justice.
“We are also hosting a vigil of light at 5:30 Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 11,000 Georgians lost to COVID-19 and 380,000 lost nationally,” said the Rev. Matt Laney, the church’s senior minister. “The vigil is in response to the inauguration team’s request for churches to ring their bells at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. We will do that and much more.”
Virginia Highland has worked hard to protect voters’ rights in recent years, even suing the state on allegations of voter suppression. The church sees that activism, in part, as carrying on King’s work, Laney said.
“On Monday, I’ll be, virtually, at Ebenezer Baptist Church’s celebration of Dr. King’s 92nd birthday,” he said. King preached at Ebenezer. Its current senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, won election to the U.S. Senate on Jan. 5.
“We are proud to see the first Black senator from Georgia come from Ebenezer Baptist, the spiritual home of Dr. King,” Laney said. “What could be more fitting and fulfilling? Seeing Kamala Harris become the first woman of color serve as vice president is pretty great, too.”
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