On the day when the nation inaugurated its first African American President for a second term, local Catholics gathered to celebrate the man who helped make Barack Obama’s political history possible.
The 28th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration was held Jan. 21 at the Cathedral of the Assumption, and the crowd of about 500, who braved falling temperatures and a brisk winter wind, heard a rousing testimony not only of Dr. King’s legacy, but of the hand of God guiding the slain civil rights leader.
Deacon Royce Winters, director of African American Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, presented the homily at the service, and his soft-but-strong baritone voice filled the cathedral and led to frequent waves of applause and “amens.”
“If Martin were here with us today,” the deacon said, “he would say ‘I was just a reflec-tion of the dreams of the people.’ He would tell us that he was not the dream himself, but a part of the dream” of equality and social justice.
“It is quite a feat that in our lifetime we could have a black president,” Deacon Winters said. “But the inauguration of Barack Obama shows that the dream is still alive. It is not, and never was, just one person.”
Monday’s annual event was again sponsored by the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry, and there were readings and prayers from individuals representing the various cultures present in the archdiocese. The theme of this year’s celebration was “Man of Faith and Conviction.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz also addressed the gathering, and told those attending that “we should all be grateful for the work of our various mentors to bring about the peace and justice to which Dr. King dedicated his life.”
But the overriding message of the day, stressed by Deacon Winters, was that the efforts of all of those who work for social justice — even someone as transcendent as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — are guided by the words and hand of God.
“Martin knew that the words came from above,” the deacon noted. “We heard the words of Jesus from the Scriptures proclaimed to us by Martin Luther King. He spoke and our lives began to change. It wasn’t about Dr. King; it was what God said.”
In a brief interview before Monday’s service began, Deacon Winters said he recalled Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he heard as a boy in his mother’s living room.
“I remember thinking that this was important,” he said, “and I realized that it was eloquent, that it was well done. But I think I was too young to know at that time that it would turn out to be such an historic event. We’ve obviously come a long way since then, but we still have a long, long way to go.”
And that uncompleted journey to justice was also a central part of the deacon’s message to the Cathedral crowd.
“Sometimes people don’t live their lives with the same fervor that they sing their ‘hallelujahs,’ ” he said. “We need to understand that you can’t elect a black president in the United States of America unless you have the help of people of every race, color and language. And we need to understand that our work is not complete.”
Generations of prophets have told us that a world of peace and justice can be achieved, he said, but only if “collectively we take a stand against a system that consistently victimizes and misuses the poor.”
“It takes all of us to stand together and say we’re not going to stand for it anymore,” he added. “We’re not going to stand for it when men and young people are killing each other on our street corners every day because they’re living lives in the midst of despair. We need a hope that transcends poverty.”
As a nation, he said, we must realize that there are 49 million people living below the poverty line in this country. “We know it’s not possible to raise a family on $22,000 a year,” he said. “It can’t be done. We need to stand up and be willing to effect change. It troubles me that we of faith do not use our voices to demand change.”
Change must be demanded and accomplished “by being charitable,” he added.
“We must stand up like all those men and women down through the ages who faced up to billy clubs and attack dogs and fire hoses to bring about change,” the deacon said.
And as he concluded his homily, Deacon Winters filled the Cathedral with his voice — and filled those before him with emotion — by singing the 121st Psalm. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” he sang, “from whence cometh my help…”