Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel was this year’s keynote speaker. Pictured here speaking at the 2019 Interfaith Tampa Bay Annual MLK Service.
BY GABRIELLE SETTLES, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Many of us consider Sunday to be a time of reverence, worship and prayer, and this past Sunday, Jan. 17, was no different as members of Interfaith Tampa Bay gathered together for the Annual MLK Day Presentation.
The yearly event serves as a platform for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths to gather together to pray, sing, and contemplate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work. Despite the event being virtual this year due to the pandemic, Interfaith members were in no way hindered from sharing this year’s theme and message: Creating A World That Works For Everyone.
“Our purpose is to come together to work for the betterment and get acquainted with one another, to educate one another and speak on behalf of peoples of all faith and peoples of goodwill,” said Imam Abdul Karim Ali, who presided over the event and introduced the speakers, including Mayor Rick Kriseman, who said that of all the events he got to attend, Interfaith services were some of his favorites.
“Our faith community is integral to who we are in St. Pete, and Interfaith gatherings like this reinforce our values and who we are as a community,” Kriseman said.
Kriseman noted that the organization recognizes all citizens’ shared humanity and denounces racism in all its forms. As Kriseman’s term soon comes to an end, this will be his last Interfaith event as mayor. However, he hopes the work he’s done with the local faith leaders will continue after leaving office, which centered on creating a community of equality for all St. Petersburg citizens, no matter race, religion or background.
“I know if there’s any group that can continue our progress, continue this important work, it is this group,” Kriseman said to the Interfaith members. “You embody the values of Dr. King, the positivity, the love, the peace. As Dr. King said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’”
Nilah Abdullah of the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association gave an Islamic prayer, and Sister Bridget Siegel of Temple Beth-El, sang a prayer in Hebrew called “The World Will Be Built From Love.”
Rev. Kenny Irby, senior pastor of Bethel AME, prayed and read a portion of Dr. King’s 1957 sermon titled “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma.” In the sermon, it defines agape love as a type of unconditional love that works for the goodwill of all men and asks for nothing in return, is the antidote to heal civilization.
Also on hand was the winner of the 2021 Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Contest, sponsored by the MLK Commemorative Organization, Inc. This year’s winner, Miss Lyon, recited her essay, highlighting the similarities between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
In her essay, Lyon described the dedicated work that both movements have done to end racism and creating a world that works for everyone. Both movements, she noted, faced difficult hurdles.
“Imagine, just imagine, being Black and actually feeling like we’re free and not afraid of getting killed just walking down the street. Or afraid of your house getting busted into while you’re trying to sleep. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is what we protest, but are people really listening to what we preach? Did they listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s when he led the Civil Rights Movement? Or did they have to march miles and miles and wait for years to finally get his point proven?” Lyon asserted.
Following Lyon’s impactful recitation of her essay, the event’s keynote speaker, Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel, shared that the power of words can make a significant change.
Weintraub said the power of words helped him and a fellow faith leader, Rev. J.C. Pritchett of Faith Church St. Petersburg when they encountered racism during a bike ride. Weintraub recounted that as they rode their bikes down a neighborhood street, a woman driving a car pulled up. Weintraub said he moved over to one side of the road, and Pritchett pulled over to the other side to let the woman pass. Instead, she stopped and rolled down her passenger side window to ask Weintraub for directions.
Nothing seems strange about this story at first, Weintraub said, but he pointed out that the woman chose to roll down her passenger side window and speak to him, rather than to do the easier thing and roll down the driver’s side window to speak to Pritchett — who is Black. Had the driver spoken to Pritchett, Weintraub said, she would have been able to get clear directions because Pritchett is a native of the city and knows it extensively.
“But there’s one defining factor that this older woman saw: the color of our skin,” Weintraub stated. “You could tell that I’m a little bit paler than he is. And the driver’s skin was also rather pale.”
Weintraub noticed this, and after the woman drove off, he and Pritchett spent the rest of the bike ride having a conversation about engaging with racism. Words have the power to build relationships – such as Weintraub’s and Pritchett’s conversation — or words can be used as weapons to destroy.
Weintraub further solidified his message by reading verses from the book of Genesis, in both Hebrew and English: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was unformed and void, and there was darkness over the surface… and God said, let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness night.”
“In just a few words, and in Hebrew even fewer than in English, light came to be. In just a few words, we come to be,” Weintraub said. “And while our words may not create the universe, they create the universe that is around us. They create the universe of people that we love, the people that walk around us.”
Imam Ali closed the event with a word of peace to everyone.
“We say in the Hebrew language, Shalom Aleichem. We say it in the Arabic language, As-Salaam Alaikum. May God’s peace be with you,” Ali finished.