By Robyn Lebron
As we ponder all the different messages that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left as his legacy, there is so much to learn from: his call for freedom and justice for all people, his comments about peaceful protests for a righteous cause, and his profound quote about unity. “We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
There were countless celebrations and activities honoring the different facets of Dr. King’s legacy on Martin Luther King Day this year, but we will focus on two events that focused on his call for unity.
The Interfaith Roundtable of Kaua’i (IROK), a Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative, commemorated with a celebration of cultural diversity with the theme One Garden, Many Flowers. Al Albergate, co-chair of IROK, shared that the planning team chose this theme because of a desire to focus on unity.
“Coming out of the environment of the United States where it’s divisive…we said, ‘Well,…we’re living in a society here in Hawaii, which is not perfect, but…over the last 125-150 years many people have come from different places to live here…We have found a way to live together harmoniously,’” he said.
With that thought in mind, the team came up with the idea to bring diverse people together to share what each have added to Hawaiian culture. Their five months of planning culminated in the celebration at the Lihue Community Center on January 15.
They began with a Hawaiian blessing, which is traditional in all gatherings. After which was a viewing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech because IROK felt their celebration represented that dream. This was followed by various cultural presentations, including speakers, native dances and a smorgasbord of cultural foods, which were donated by various attendees and participants. Tieing into the event’s theme, the venue was decorated with hundreds of native Hawaiian flowers.
“We filled it to the max. We feel we had about 200 people,” said Annaleah Atkinson, the other co-chair of IROK. “We had two mayoral candidates, out of the three…and both said ‘I learned so much.’ People came and [performed]they did their numbers, and they brought food,” she said. “…We offered reimbursement, and nobody asked for it…. I guess that gets down to what I took away from it…they want the peace!”
The event was done in collaboration with several other community groups, including youth from Kapa’a High School Key Club who were eager to be involved and enthusiastically helped with everything from setup to kitchen duties.
“We want the children to grow up knowing each other’s cultures and be comfortable with them,” said Atkinson.
When asked what touched each of them the most during the event, Albergate said it was the native Hawaiian dance that was done in a unique way.
“The tone of it was very serious. You could just feel it in the beat of the drum and the gestures of the ladies. It was still very artistic, but wasn’t what I’d say is a typical thing that a tourist would see at a luau. This [was] deep into their culture and spirituality…it had me fixated.” he added.
Suzanne Stover, Treasurer of IROK was impressed with the essays that the youth wrote and read out loud at the celebration. “They were fantastic! Really beautiful statements…examples of what the day was all about,” she said proudly.
Atkinson said the most powerful lesson she came away with was that people want peaceful coexistence, “This is something everybody wants! People want to live in peace with everybody.”
Miles cannot separate us if we share a common purpose.
Over 4,200 miles away, in Johnson City, Tennessee, Greater Love International Mission and URI Northeast Tennessee, a Cooperation Circle of URI North America, held a Unity Walk where community members walked together for unity, harmony and love before sharing a meal together.
Pastor Mike Cummings from Greater Love International Church said they chose the Unity Walk theme because, when he moved to Johnson City 12 years ago, the Tri-City area was three different cities not really working together, and he set about to change that — and this year’s Unity Walk was a part of that!
“I saw a gap in…people coming together, helping each other on a broader scale,” he said. “[I wanted to] engage people from all different walks of life.” Pastor Cummings explained that the Unity Walk crossed racial barriers and drew people in from all different types of demographics.
In honor of Dr. King’s legacy, he added, “We should all be about human rights, not just one particular nationality.”
Communities in the Tri-City area have been doing an annual Unity Walk for four years now, and with the support of the URI Northeast Tennessee Cooperation Circle, it’s been getting better every year. City officials and police were very engaged and are thrilled with changes that have taken place in the area in recent years: crime is down and police are viewed in a different light because they walk with the people every year.
This year’s event began at Greater Love International Church with an interfaith prayer given by Father Pete Iorio, facilitator of the URI Northeast Tennessee Cooperation Circle, in front of a sanctuary filled to capacity.
Pastor Cummings shared that this prayer was the moment in the day that touched him the most.
“Father Pete…his prayer is my favorite prayer. He does a prayer that is really outside of what people normally pray…He does a prayer that encompasses everybody. With hundreds of people sitting there, they get an opportunity to respect each other, wherever people may be.”
Following the prayer, various people from all different backgrounds spoke about brotherly love and unity and afterward, the group raised their voices together in song and celebration.
For the second stage of the event, the group joined together for a walk around Johnson City. A car lead the way with a URI banner attached. The group — with people of diverse cultures, creeds and colors — walked together for approximately 2 miles, some hand in hand. They stopped at each corner and an imam, priest/pastor and rabbi would take turns praying for peace and strengthening their commitment to continue the progress toward peace and love. Pastor Cummings described it as “claiming the city”: making it their own unique place of unity and peace.
As the group walked through the town and the neighborhoods, other people began to join in.
By the end, there were over 300 people making their way back to the church to fellowship and enjoy food and warm drinks together and continued to share the warmth of unity and peace that enveloped the day. And the group is already thinking about plans for next year, with Pastor Cummings insisting that each year they need to reach out to new and different people.
Pastor Cummings wants Tri-City area residents to focus on service to others, and energize people for the coming year to live out Dr. King’s dream, and ask themselves, “What can I do to help someone? What can I do to care, and have compassion for somebody other than myself?”
“We can reach out to different types of people that would never ever come to an event like this…Let’s show this city, this region, this country, that it can be done,” Pastor Cummings added with pride.
If you are interested in getting involved in activities like this and would like to talk to any of the organizers featured in this article, email [email protected] If you would like to get involved in interfaith work and/or the United Religions Initiative, click here to find the Cooperation Circle nearest you.