25th Annual Interfaith MLK Jr. Day Commemoration

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While many of Tampa Bay’s outdoor celebrations for Martin Luther King Day were cancelled due to poor weather conditions, The First Baptist Church of College Hill held it’s 25th Annual Interfaith Memorial Service. The commemoration serves to remind Americans and the local community that yesterday wasn’t just a day off work, but a day to keep King’s dream and spirit alive and in motion.

Amid international conflict, intense national debates and pockets of religious fervor around the globe, it’s often too easy for folks to get mired down in the cultural and political divisions. So members of several different religious communities, local elected officials, and musical groups gathered to sing, and celebrate the good they share among each other. US Representative Kathy Castor said this kind of event can bring healing to the country, especially in the shadow of recent events.

“A chance to bring a Jewish congregation together with Muslim congregations and Christians from all over town, all different races. This is a diverse community and it’s important that we celebrate it. And it was also important because I think the tragic shootings in Arizona this past week really disturbed folks and they’re looking for, searching for what’s good in our community and we harken back to the words of Dr. King and President Obama this past Wednesday gave a beautiful speech asking us to live up to the expectations of our children and seek everything that’s decent and good and focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.”

Also attending the event was City Council Char Tom Scott and City Council member Mary Mulhern. There were also a range of religious groups ranging from Christian, to Muslim, to Jewish. Cantor Riselle Bain is the director of the Congregation Schaarai Zedek Koleinu Choir, a local Jewish temple. She said that Jews and African Americans actually share a common struggle.

“We were also made to be slaves in Egypt by Pharaoh. Jews have been treated shabbily, they were exiled from their country dispersed throughout the world. Hitler tried to annihilate us. We have that same understanding of pain and sorrow and being treated differently from other people.”

Roy Kaplan is part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee that organized the event. He said these events foster cooperation throughout the community.

“We are a multi-cultural pluralistic society and we have to learn to live together and cooperate in peace and harmony. That’s what we try and do with these events.”

And while dialogue is important, Kaplan points out that service to the community is a central function to churches, and cross-cultural collaboration.

“Actually I like the idea that they work in service together, service to the community and that way they become part of a team. So if we build a playground, if we beautify a recreation center or a road or something like that, create habitat for people, I think that brings you to closer together. It’s not just, well we’ll have some small talk, we’ll do something.”

Also on the Committee is Dr. Rick Weinberg. He works at USF and with Community Tampa Bay, a group that also fosters interfaith dialogue and community service.

“No matter what your color may be or what your religion may be or what your sexual orientation may be or your level of ability may be, they all have more commonalities than they have differences. it’s from that place of commonality that we derive our strength and our energy to address the unfairness that exists in our community.”

Presiding over the service was Walter Niles, a committee member who works for the Hillsborough County Health Department. He remembers King for his belief that war is an enemy of the poor, and for his strong commitment to peace, and nonviolence.

“I guess the message of nonviolence and peace was paramount. That message shall reach out today. He was against ostracizing and ostracism of any one or any class of discrimination, hurt. He was all about inclusion and equality for all.”

Niles says that while much of King’s dream has been realized, like having an African American President in the White House, The US still needs fair minority representation on the US Supreme Court, and the poor still need to be treated more fairly.

“There are still people who are outdoors, people who are poor and blind and so the dream is yet in progress.”

NAACP member Pat Spencer received an award for her long time commitment to social justice. She reminded everyone at the service that one way to carry on King’s dream is to continue to get out and vote, and to keep friends in family politically active as part of allowing members of the greater community to express their beliefs.

Previous WMNF news coverage of Martin Luther King Jr