2020 Interfaith Memorial Service

Civil rights attorney Hassan Shibly

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Held last Sunday at First Baptist of St. Petersburg, the 2020 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service was themed “Vision for Humanity in 2020.” 

Newly elected City Councilwoman Deborah Figgs-Sanders presided over the afternoon while Interfaith Tampa Bay president Rev. Doral Pulley and First Baptist of St. Petersburg Associate Pastor John Rice offered opening remarks.

Civil rights attorney Hassan Shibly headlined this year’s memorial service, speaking on defusing antagonism, ignorance and distrust through educating one another to share a common humanity. 

 “Our diversity is a gift from the most high,” he said. “[There are] many nations and tribes, not so that you hate each other, but so that you learn from each other.”

Shibly emphasized that it is not one’s outward form, nor their wealth or titles held that determines success, but instead the ability to take action and to help those in need that determines self-worth. By uplifting humanity, fighting for the oppressed, and striving to serve the purpose for which we were created, people of all races can achieve the goal set forth by Dr. King so many years ago. 

“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a white person have any superiority over a black person, nor a black person any superiority over a white person,” explained Shibly, who is also the chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida.

 “The only thing that separates you is your service to others, your sincere actions.”

Shibly believes regardless of religious denomination, if worshippers were to combine their traditions and learn to interact with each other, humanity would be better off. By choosing to love others as we would ourselves or our children, society will see fewer disagreements and instead create a source of passion that can work toward the betterment of humanity.

He took the discussion one step further and proposed it wasn’t enough to not be racist, a statement that rings true with Dr. King’s message that it isn’t the words of our enemies that we remember, but the silence of our friends. 

“If you are truly antiracist, what are you doing to fight racism day in and day out,” he asked. “Today is not only a reminder of the beauty of our diversity, but it’s also a reminder that sacrifice is a necessary price to pay to protect our ability to celebrate diversity.” 

Shibly believes people are tested with the freedom to be racist, to oppress, to hurt and be greedy because that also means they have the opportunity to sacrifice by fighting racism, poverty, and injustice in the world. 

“When we are willing to sacrifice, we can do what it takes to create the change that is needed to make the world a better place.”

Shibly urged those in attendance to bring their daughters, sons, and grandchildren to the event next year so they can be educated in the history of how many sacrificed not only their sweat and blood but also their life to bring about equality. To be able to drink from the same water fountains, eat at the same table as whites, and sit where they wanted on public transportation were the building blocks to the dream of true equality. 

Readings and prayers for peace, justice, love, and hope came from Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church (Christian), Rabbi Philip Weintraub, congregation B’Nai Israel (Jewish), Rev. Dr. Frank Tedesco (Buddhist), Sepideh Eskandari, Baha’i Community and Rob Howland, St. Petersburg Meeting (Quaker). 

Courtney Erickson, co-founder of Sew Much Hope, was this year’s recipient of the annual love offering (passing the plate). Her organization is a community group and social enterprise founded on the principles of social justice and the necessity of hope for all. 

Sew Much Hope is a co-op made of women who are refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and the volunteers who have taught them how to sew. They all work together to make and sell women’s accessories such as totes, purses and necklaces made from upcycled items. 

Even though they just recently started selling their products, the group has been meeting for more than two years, practicing sewing skills needed to launch their business concept, practicing English and building friendships. 

The offering was earmarked for the organization, but one of its member’s 11-year-old-brother was hit by a car last Friday. He sustained a broken back, and as of Sunday was in intensive care. 

The Sew Much Hope member belongs to a single-parent household where the mother recently lost her job. Since the family is in desperate need to cover basic necessities, proceeds from the collection went to a fund to help the family.  

Closing remarks were given by Imam Abdul Karim Ali of the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association, and songstress Keisha Prime provided musical presentations.

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