ST. PETERSBURG – Interfaith Tampa Bay held their annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service Sun., Jan 15. Christ Gospel Church, where Bishop Preston Leonard tends his flock, played host to this year’s service honoring the life of Dr. King.
Bishop Preston Leonard welcomed the crowd, along with Interfaith Tampa Bay President Joran Oppelt, who said he was pleased to witness the leaders of the various faith communities in this region working together in “new and meaningful ways.”
“It’s been said that how we do anything is how we do everything,” he stated. “And our mission of dialogue and religious literacy and nonviolence is expressed in the ways that we interact with each other and the ways that we lead our individual communities. This mission of love and nonviolence toward our neighbors, toward one another—it’s the same mission to which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated and ultimately gave his life.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman gave the greetings and reminded everyone of one of Dr. King’s famous quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“We must never assume our work is done, for the pursuit of justice is unending,” the mayor said. “In fact, too often it seems that as soon as we take a breath, something transpires that draws us back into the fray in order to keep that arc of the moral universe bending towards justice.”
Expressing his hope that service becomes a way of life in St. Pete and the country not only on MLK Day but every day, Kriseman said we need “an engaged citizenry and all hands on deck” to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King.
St. Petersburg Chief of Police Anthony Holloway was on hand to talk about his Park, Walk and Talk initiative, in which the city’s officers get out of their patrol cars to engage the citizens on a one-on-one basis to encourage communication between residents and police.
“When those officers get out of those cars for one hour they’re not to make an arrest,” the chief explained, “they’re to get out of that car and talk to you, to get to know you, so we can take this wall down one brick at a time.”
Holloway stressed that once the wall is down, trust, honor and loyalty can be built back in the community.
“We don’t want our young people running away from the badge, we want them running to the badge so we can all work on this together,” he said.
Virginia Scott, president of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Committee, introduced this year’s MLK Essay Contest winner. Gibbs High School freshman Daniela Pepe read her essay “Be Heard” that won her $200 and tickets to the MLK Leadership Breakfast where she sat with family members of Dr. King.
The sanctuary responded in agreement when she said racism seems to be a constant in this country in forms such as segregation, cultural appropriation, lack of basic human rights and “most predominantly in this day and age, police brutality.”
Keynote speaker Jason Charos, a senior at Gibbs and the 2015 MLK Essay Contest winner, is also an accomplished jazz musician and even played a selection on his trumpet before delivering his speech.
“I’m not an activist, not a social justice warrior, not an expert on current events or social issues,” he said. “But I’m a person who cares about the people around me and is committed to bringing unity within diversity.”
He related how his forefathers were caught up in the genocide in Smyrna, Greece in the 1920s and were either burned alive or fled disguised in women’s clothing, since many of the men and boys were being slaughtered.
“Do our hearts become callused because injustices have always existed?” he asked.
As a young man standing at the precipice of his future, Charos said, he must consider the problems that plague our society such as poverty, discrimination, unfair wages, lack of opportunities along with problems in the education, welfare and justice systems. Dr. King, in a letter from his Birmingham jail, said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Charos noted.
“He then expounded upon this profound statement by saying that we are caught in a ‘network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,’” he said. “‘Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.’ This is absolutely true. We cannot ignore issues because they do not affect us personally. Eventually, we will be affected personally if nothing is done.”
Charos underscored the importance of not remaining silent but taking action against the injustices of fellow human beings. What must be done and how? he asked. He paraphrased Dr. King in stating that in any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification and direct action.
“Facts must be represented with honesty and integrity so it can properly be determined if an injustice has taken place,” he said.
If negotiation has failed, then self-purification follows in preparation of direct action, he said, and if we bypass the step of self-purification “we are at risk of failure because our hearts may be impure.”
The aim of direct action, he said, is to bring an oppressor back to the negotiating table to solve an injustice and can take many effective forms, such as rallies, letter writing campaigns, vigils, petitions, fasts, marches, boycotts and civil disobedience—”the refusal to obey unjust laws,” Charos averred.
“Martin Luther King’s call to direct action would require the presenting of their very bodies as a means of laying their case before the conscious of the local and the national community,” he said. “The social tension that this creates is not one that is destructive, but one that is constructive. To draw a parallel, music is full of tension and release. It is the tension, though, that drives the music forward.”
Through these four steps it is possible to “set free the oppressed and lock in chains the system of injustice,” he said.
In his closing remarks, Imam Abdul Karim Ali, chair of the MLK Memorial Service Committee, praised Charos.
“We knew there was something special in him in 2015,” he said. “And look what we have here today! Our future is in good hands.”