January 23, 2019

Multifaith Service Honors M.L. King, Celebrates Diversity

By Donald Gilpin

A congregation of almost 300 packed the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton on Monday night to commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Hosted by the Princeton Clergy Association (PCA) and the Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA), the multifaith service was conducted by more than a dozen faith leaders from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, with several area choirs and musicians also participating.

Ruha Benjamin, chair of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Princeton and  Princeton University associate professor of African American Studies, delivered the sermon: “The Year is 2069: What in the World Have We Done?”

Reflecting on King’s message for our time, Benjamin urged, “Nothing short of a revolution of values, in King’s words, can lead to a shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

She was unsparing in providing facts and statistics revealing the forms of oppression in our society — a black child is 30 times more likely to be incarcerated in New Jersey than a white child, for example — but she insisted, “The facts alone will not save us. We have to foster a radically different imagination.”

Benjamin called on the gathering to imagine a scene 50 years into the future in 2069, offering a lens to examine the present world and the possibilities of shaping it into a more just society. She returned to the theme of imagination, noting, “We must refuel ourselves for the work of making this vision real.”

Alluding to a scene from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Benjamin described the creation of “a sacred space in the wilderness as we reflect on how Dr. King’s message continues to speak to the freedom struggles of our day.” She added, “A new kind of world requires a new kind of people to build it.”

Claiming that King’s approach resonates powerfully with the teachings of the Baha’i faith and its founder Baha’u’llah, Benjamin emphasized that the message of King is neither simple nor entirely comforting. “I’m not talking about the watered down, feel-good sound bites that get trotted out once a year,” she pointed out. “The message I’m talking about is the deeply discomforting diagnosis.”

Benjamin went on to explain that King’s “dangerous diagnosis” forces us “to connect different forms of oppression, racism, militarism, and economic exploitation.” King’s message, she said, is about “how we treat one another and how systems of power treat us all.”

Citing numerous historical and contemporary examples of oppression, racism, and racial domination, Benjamin stated, “Everything will have to be reimagined and reorganized with justice at its core, because right now we are prevented from seeing and knowing the truth.”

The important message of King, she argued, comes in part from the way he “powerfully connected the many forms of oppression that stifle human potential and showed how it affects all of our insides and outsides.”

Describing us all as “pattern makers” weaving a tapestry, Benjamin argued, “We need a different tapestry, a more vibrant social fabric that warms us all, that leaves no one out in the cold. We are pattern makers sewing love into everything that we do.” She concluded, “The year is 2019, so let’s get to work.”

Commenting on the 90-minute service, CFPA Executive Director and PCA Treasurer the Rev. Robert Moore noted the “uplifting and empowering” spirit of the event. “The diversity of the crowd, racially and across the spectrum of the faith community, is also a great strength,” he said. “Everybody feels uplifted.”

He continued, “This is a special opportunity to come together in our diversity. It’s not just about seeking greater social justice. It’s also about being a stronger community for change. We get strengthened through diversity.”   

Moore, one of the lead organizers of the event, said, drawing on Benjamin’s message, “we need to imagine another world if we’re going to transform things.”