28th Annual MLK Interfaith Community Program in Tyler, TX

28th Annual MLK Interfaith Community Program in Tyler, TX
January 23, 2014 by bohemiotx |By JD Meyer

This year’s MLK Day celebration was held in the gym of St. Gregory Elementary because the Immaculate Conception Cathedral is getting new pews. The traditional march from the Downtown Square preceded the service. Today’s theme was “America–Where Opportunity Meets Responsibility.” A packed crowd witnessed a truly interfaith presentation complete with speakers from Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Unity faiths. The MLK program was sponsored by the Tyler Together Race Relations Forum (TTRRF).

Once again, the Korean War Veterans Association/Leroy Batey Chapter 286 did the Presentation of the Colors. Dr. Otis Webster of Tyler Junior College sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” before the audience sang “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing;” the lyrics were provided in the flyer with the program. This song is nicknamed the “The Black National Anthem.” Bishop Joseph Strickland welcomed the audience by noting that we are all children of God, regardless of race or religion. Martin Luther King stood for brotherly and sisterly love.

Judge Joel Baker was the next speaker; he noted that Tyler has held a Martin Luther King Day celebration since 1986. It has united the community. Dr. King served humanity. Judge Baker asserted that that we may be “inspired, enlightened, and perhaps permanently impacted.” Dr. King stayed with love in part because hatred is too big a burden.

Mayor Pro-Tem Martin Heines followed the judge, and his theme was, “We cannot walk alone.” The Tyler councilmen walk together. Opportunities for children are increasing; a new technical secondary school is on the way in Tyler ISD. There are more mentoring and literacy programs as well. For example, the Boys and Girls Club has evolved into a faith-based nonprofit.

Anwar Khalifa gave the Moslem perspective. Born in Egypt to medical doctors, Anwar’s family moved to East Texas when he was eight. His mom was a pulmonologist in Henderson for 20 years. Contrary to the stereotype of East Texas, Anwar has found this area to be very friendly to his family despite being Moslem immigrants. Some countries have closed societies, bad economies, and repressive governments–but not the USA. We serve God by helping others. We’re responsible for the hungry and homeless. Giving back is what makes our country great, and it’s commanded by God. Mr. Khalifa proclaimed, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” He recalled when he was invited to join the Tyler Interfaith association. This led to meeting his future best friend, Neal Katz, Tyler’s Reform Jewish rabbi. The actions of the 9-11 terrorists have made life difficult for good Moslems in the US, so Anwar has tried to showcase the normalcy of the Muslim community. Importantly, Mr. Khalifa observed that the previous Civil Rights movement made life easier for Muslims in post-2001 America.

Four men from the Texas College (Tyler’s HBCU) choir performed an a capella version of “Roll Jordan, Roll.” Reverend Darryl Bowdre of the Church of Christ asserted that Dr. King’s dream was exemplified in the audience today. Be sure to apply the words to your life. Then we had four high school students read a portion of “I Have a Dream,” Mark Hubbard, Sheldon McGowan, Kinza Ashraf, and Danielle Richards. All but Ms. Ashraf are from John Tyler High School while she is from Whitehouse. Early in this speech is a rebuttal of the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. King’s more militant critics may have felt his faction was too mild-mannered. Injustice was compared to quicksand while brotherhood is like a rock. Militancy should not lead to a distrust of all whites nor degenerate into violence, bitterness, or wrongful deeds. The destiny of other races is tied up in ours asserted Dr. King, as is the fight for freedom. Segregated motels and restaurants led to fatigue. Mobility has to be more than just moving to a bigger ghetto. The “White Only” signs must end. One day the descendant of the slave and slave master will sit down together, and the content of one’s character will mean more than one’s skin color. Dr. King made references to particularly bad conditions in Alabama and Mississippi. Eventually, the hills and valleys will be made level and we’ll let freedom ring. At that point, the African-American will be able to sing “Free at Last.” The four students did a wonderful job reading their portion of the speech. Crowd reaction indicated that the second speaker, Sheldon McGowan, was the most charismatic.

Reverend Judith Lee Taylor of the Tyler Unity Center followed the “I Have a Dream” speakers. Judith complimented the speakers’ talent. She noted that the US influences the rest of the world. We’re here to better represent the best of America. MLK’s words are so poetic that they can be a balm to the heart. Do we still experience emotional segregation and trust issues, asked Rev. Taylor? We need to open our hearts and apply these words beyond MLK Day. We are seeds for the transformation.

The entire Texas College Choir, roughly 20, performed a song before another message from Bishop Strickland. The bishop mentioned the new pope, Francis from Argentina, a man of the Americas. Bishop Strickland predicted the immensely popular new pope would like Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Bishop Strickland encouraged us as residents of East Texas that we can make a difference–even though we don’t live in more prominent, heavily populated areas such as New York City and London. The bishop complimented Reverend Taylor by asserting that her words challenge us.

The program winded down with brief statements from three other ministers. First, Reverend Jerome Milton (Baptist) proclaimed that nobody would have believed that such a festival could have succeeded in Tyler or East Texas 28 years ago. We have a new drumbeat.

Then Max Lafser, head minister of Tyler Unity expressed his agreement with all the speakers, and hailed Tyler as his favorite city in which to live. Max reiterated his theme of CPR–Compassion, Persistence, and Reverence–that he’d said on the square earlier in the morning. Reverend Lafser called attention to the sponsoring organizations listed on the back of the program. Now there’s a Cultural Diversity Gathering on the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 5:30 in the Tyler Library Auditorium.

The benediction was given by Rabbi Neal Katz. First, the rabbi noted that he ran the MLK program with Reverend Milton for six years, and there are more interfaith programs in Tyler, such as an early February event at Liberty Baptist, the Art of Peace in September, and the new monthly Celebrate Diversity events. The rabbi’s prayer was that however, we come before you; we all recognize the flame of divinity in all, and treat people well. If we seek an echo chamber of sameness; we’ll have failed the test. Let’s go beyond our comfort zone. The conclusion was based on a Jewish prayer for travelers.

Once again, the Martin Luther King Jr Interfaith Community Program was a popular success. The team approach to speaking opportunities coincidentally was like this year’s Kwanzaa; a real keynote address wasn’t mandatory here either. The traditional stew was served outside the gym. For more information on Dr. King, go to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute, King Papers Project mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/king

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