The medium was different, but the message was the same.
The annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service traditionally takes place in a city church, with inspirational music and a challenging message. However, surging COVID-19 cases transformed Sunday’s event into a digital one that became more of a roundtable panel than a worship service.
Nonetheless, remembrances of King’s efforts and encouragements to continue the work that the slain civil rights leader started decades ago were shared as they always have been, as around 40 people joined a Zoom conference hosted by the Rev. William Hogans, pastor of St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church.
The Rev. Marion Wheeler Jr., pastor of Ruth AME Zion Church in Sharon, recalled King’s love for all people, including his enemies, and how he did not hesitate to act on their behalf.
“I remember his letter from Birmingham, he wrote that some of his own clergy members wanted him to wait, but he said time is neutral,” Wheeler shared. “In other words, it’s time to march right now. Time doesn’t wait for anyone. Time will pass you by.
“So that’s what I like about Dr. King. He had a heart for the people, to do what’s right for the people and today … It’s time right now to continue the legacy of Dr. King. It is good to honor him, but we fail if we don’t continue to fight for the struggle.”
Dr. Curtis T. Walker Sr., pastor of Beth-El A.M.E. Zion Church in Cleveland and presiding elder of the Akron District in the Grand Ohio Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, shared a similar message.
“Yes, we ought to remember by way of demonstrations and prayer vigils and gatherings,” he said, “but one of the things that we must do is not be silent. We must be vigilant, we must move forward, we must press for the passage of the voting rights act — both of them. We must put the pressure not only on the Democrats but on the Republican Party in the Senate, so that there will be people of goodwill.
“That’s what Dr. King was all about,” he went on. “He wanted to prick the hearts and souls of people, even those people who disagree that would finally realize that justice needs to take place in our lives. So he said, ‘Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism, or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.’ ”
Others who joined the meeting shared memories of a time when the civil rights movement had yet to take hold.
Lue Esther Cunningham lives in Cleveland but was born in Alabama “between Tuskegee and Montgomery.”
“I was not there during the beginning of the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said. “I was here in Cleveland at that time. However, I was seven years old when I left there and I remember everything about going to the food stand to get food. We weren’t allowed to eat it there. We weren’t allowed to drink out of the fountain. My mother would buy food and we would walk to my aunt’s house so that we could eat it.
“Riding the bus from Alabama to Cleveland, we had to sit in the back of the bus. I still have relatives there who have refused to ride the bus for years.”
Mary Bell grew up in Greensboro, Alabama, and remembers hearing King speak.
“They marched through the town,” she said. “He spoke at the church in Greensboro. Our parents did let us go to see him there, to hear him speak, but they wouldn’t allow us to march. We were glad just to go to the church and hear him speak there.”
Closer to home, St. Luke member Karen Jones recalled growing up on Bell Avenue on New Castle’s West Side.
“They started busing when I was going to the sixth grade,” she said. “We had to ride the bus from the West Side up to the North Hill. John F. Kennedy was where I went to school in sixth grade. I remember it being devastating to the adults that their kids were going to have to be bused, and there was a big ruckus around it.
“But I thank God that I was a part of that, because it helped me to be around other kids who didn’t look like me, and it prepared me for when I went to work. I was one of three black people on my job, and I was the only black person in my office for several years. So I thank God that I had the opportunity to be around white people so I could learn and understand where they came from, as they learn and understand where I came from. and I thank God that Dr. King’s dream was for white kids and black kids and kids of all colors to be able to walk together hand in hand.”
Walker believes that King also had some words that apply to the very reason why Sunday’s gathering was a digital one. He reiterated King’s observation that “Science investigates, religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power. Religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts. Religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”
“So,” Walker said, “Religion and science walk hand in hand, and because of that, as I heard another speaker say to his congregation, if you love me as your pastor, if you love me as your leader, get vaccinated. Be a good neighbor. Be involved with those things that help save lives. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay at a distance, if you say you love me, because the science proves that if you’re vaccinated, you’re less likely to be hospitalized and face even death.
“So let us continue to share in remembrance, but let us also be actively engaged.”