The Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force’s annual service commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is usually a sweet, hand-holding sort of occasion, but this year, on the eve of the inauguration of a president who has made racial division his calling card, the time was long past for holding hands and singing kumbaya.
In a fiery sermon that raised the roof of Mattituck’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Reverend Natalie Wimberly of Greenport’s Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church called the room filled with local leaders to action in service to Dr. King’s dream.
Rev. Wimberly had been under the weather and losing her voice as the day wore on, but as she warmed up to her impassioned remarks, her voice gained the strength of her convictions. She joked, early on, that she had a getaway car waiting outside if people didn’t like what she had to say.
“Forty-nine years after his death, the consciousness of the nation, especially the church, is not fully awake,” she said. “Dr. King’s dream has not become the nation’s dream or our dream and the nation is perishing because we have too many who do not have a vision.”
“War is still pervasive, as well as poverty. The rich continue to get richer at the expense of the poor and the middle class,” she preached. “There’s a lack of affordable housing, affordable health care and affordable medication. The voters’ rights are being watered down and women’s rights are being targeted again. The mentally ill are being turned out in the streets to fend for themselves and second class treatment of one group over another due to fear or hate is just as alive as when he was assassinated. Mass shootings of children on our streets and in our schools and in our nightclubs are becoming far too common. People are fighting to have guns like poor people want and need bread and the homeless need housing. There is still much work to be done.”
Rev. Wimberly drew inspiration for her sermon from Dr. King’s book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” and from the Old Testament story of Habakkuk, who climbed a watchtower, stationed himself on a rampart, and waited to hear god’s plans.
She said the text spoke of the necessity of vision and acknowledgement that god’s work happens in god’s time, not in the time of men and women.
“Vision calls for seeing and perceiving what is not visible to the naked eye, and for the capacity to dream what might appear to be an impossible dream,” she said. “Vision became an ethical ideal which all ethical and moral persons should strive to make happen.”
Rev. Wimberly had sharp words for Donald Trump.
“The rhetoric of the president-elect in his run for office, the highest office in the nation, ‘making America great again,’ the vision is full of verbal assaults, with anger, hate, xenophobia, sexism, fear-mongering, intimidation, bullying and tweets,” she said. “Yet so far what Dr. King had envisioned for America is nowhere to be found in his cabinet choices and his unwillingness to acknowledge Russia’s involvement in our election. Clearly our nation needs to be awakened.”
“The words expressed by Dr. King express a great deal of hope in a dream but somehow we left the dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,” she added. “There is still a great deal of work to be done. Far too many children go to bed hungry. Far too many people don’t have affordable housing and we’re on the brink of losing what we have already gained.”
“If we’re going to deal with what’s coming down the pike in the next four years, we’ve gotta do more than sing kumbaya. We cannot allow this to happen. When you allow this to happen you are saying you agree with the status quo. I cannot agree with the status quo. The stuff we see every day, the stuff we hear every day, that is not about god’s prayers for his people. You’ve gotta pray not just for yourselves, but you’ve gotta pray for one another… God is not pleased when one of his children is mistreated or marginalized or forgotten.”
“People of god need to take the lead. We’ve gotta stop sitting on our hands and do something,” she said. “We need to commit ourselves to a culture of sacrificial servitude.”
“The church must regain its place as advocates for the voiceless. It must engage in social change to be a redemptive force in the world. We are called to make a difference where we sit,” she said. “What are you going to do from this day forward? What are you going to do? You gotta not just sing kumbaya and hold hands. You’ve gotta put your hands to the plow. You gotta get your hands dirty and put some shoes on your feet that allow you to work. You’re gonna have to get down on your knees until your knees become ashes…. Hear the vision, but also hear each other. My story is just as important as your story and your journey is as important to me as my journey should be to you. We’ve gotta find that common ground.”
Rev. Dr. Peter Kelley of the First Presbyterian Church of Southold, who pointed out that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times in American life, led a prayer for many members of the community “who are awakened at night, moved in ways they thought they would never be moved.”
“They are stepping out. They are reaching out and signing up. They are making reservations on buses and talking to their neighbors. They are stepping out, in an area that, for some of them, is unknown,” he said. “Where there is love, there is your spirit. Where there is acceptance, there is your spirit. Where there is openness to the other, openness to a refusal to make someone ‘the other’, there is your spirit…. And bless al those who are called to uphold the rule of law. Grant them your peace and your wisdom and your spirit.”
Southold Town Councilman Bob Ghosio said that he’s always been touched by the sense of sanctuary provided by Southold’s Martin Luther King Day memorial services.
“One of the things that I find truly unique, because I haven’t seen it in other places, is that when we come together to have this type of celebration, we come to one of our local churches to do it,” he said. “That’s important because, despite our differences, despite the different experiences we have, if we have a belief in god or not a belief in god, we get to come to a place that’s a sanctuary. A sanctuary where you can come to the door and you can leave your fears at the door. When you come to this sanctuary, you can feel peace.”
“Despite what the world would have us believe, which is to not recognize the good and to glorify the evil in the world, we can come here as a community and look at each other and know that there is a commonality in our humanity that I know that we can feel good about,” he added. “I’m proud to be a councilman in a community where we can do that.”