Diocesan News

Diocese Pauses to Remember the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Father Alonzo Cox (right), who led the prayer service, said that while African-Americans had not yet reached the promised land of racial justice as King had predicted, “We will get there.” (Photos: Paula Katinas)

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Maria Stange has vivid memories of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. She was only eight years old at the time, but April 4, 1968, is burned into her brain.

“It was incredible. People who didn’t even know each other were hugging each other on the street. That’s how emotional everybody felt,” she said.

Stange was one of a small group of people who attended a special prayer service at Our Lady of Victory Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to celebrate the civil rights icon’s life and legacy.

The midday prayer service was the Diocese of Brooklyn’s official celebration of the MLK holiday. King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, and the national holiday always falls on the Monday closest to his birthday. This year marked the 35th year that King’s birthday became a national holiday.

The prayer service, led by Father Alonzo Cox, coordinator for the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns for the diocese, featured soaring harmonies from the choir of St. Martin De Porres Parish, as well as readings from King’s powerful speeches. Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto and retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq also attended.

One reading featured the prophetic talk he gave at a Memphis church the night before his assassination, in which he described standing on a mountaintop and seeing the promised land. “I might not get there with you,” King told the crowd that night.

During Monday’s service, Father Cox quoted from that April 3, 1968 speech: “We as a people will get to the promised land.”

“These were the very last words of Dr. Martin Luther King delivered just 24 hours before his assassination. King uttered those words 53 years ago,” Father Cox said.

Referring to King’s stated belief that oppressed African-Americans would get to the promised land, Father Cox said, “We are not there yet. But we will get there.”

The turbulence the nation experienced in 2020 — with the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor dying at the hands of police, and the subsequent protest marches — has given this year’s celebration of the holiday new meaning, according to Father Cox.

“No one seems to be hearing our cries,” he said. But King’s message of employing non-violence protest to bring about change still resonates, Father Cox said.

“It is a very different Dr. Martin Luther King Day in spirit but with the same message. May the message of King resonate for all eternity,” Father Cox said.

Keeping in mind that Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister, parishioners recited prayers to capture the spirit of his legacy.

Father Cox is the pastor of St. Martin De Porres Parish, which is comprised of three churches — Our Lady of Victory, St. Peter Claver, and Holy Rosary. St. Martin De Porres Parish includes elderly parishioners who were part of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. “They teach me things,” Father Cox said.

The prayer service was brought to life by the choir, led by co-directors Joseph Murray and Joan Delahunt, which sang gospel-inspired songs that included “Lord, What a Morning,” “Plenty Good Room,” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Lector Nathalie Rudder-Deare read a passage from a speech King delivered at St. Mary’s Church in East Berlin, Germany, in 1964. The Berlin Wall had been built only three years earlier, and King was taking a significant risk visiting Communist East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. In the speech, he talked about being familiar with walls since the U.S. had walls of racism, blocking African-Americans from moving their lives forward.

The pandemic kept the crowd small at the prayer service, but those who did attend said they were glad to be there.

Michelle Joseph, director of religious education for St. Martin De Porres Parish, said King’s life and death have important lessons to teach.

“His sacrifice is extremely important to understanding unity. We really do rise and fall together,” she said.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is synonymous with racial harmony,” Bishop Chappetto said.

King was only 39 years old when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet — something that resonated with Deacon Rachid Murad. 

“People don’t realize how young King was at the height of his movement,” he said.

For Deacon Murad, the 2021 celebration of MLK Day served “as a reminder that we still have a long way to go.”

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