“Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists,” wrote The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the jail in Birmingham, Alabama.
Snapping fingers affirmed this statement on Eastern Mennonite University on Friday, Jan. 13. Thirteen students, faculty and staff took turns reading the document in the President’s Room as part of the 2017 MLK Jr. Celebration. Six other groups met simultaneously on campus, each reading a different letter, sermon or speech.
“I love his boldness,” said junior Hannah Shultz, who attended the reading circle on the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Shultz says that MLK, Jr.’s differentiation between just and unjust laws, the latter which “in good conscience, I cannot obey,” struck her.
The reading circles were just one of several activities during Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Week from Jan. 11-16.
This year’s theme, “For Such a Time as This,” comes from the Bible verse Esther 4:14, in which Esther’s cousin Mordecai convinces the young queen to intervene on behalf of her persecuted people.
Later that evening, 10 students helped prepare the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in preparation for Sunday’s service. The church is in the historically black area of Harrisonburg known as the Northeast neighborhood, formerly known as “Newtown.”
On Saturday, the EMU community made its fifth annual sojourn to Tyrone Sprague’s barber shop six stories above Court Square for “Barbershop 101,” a discussion about Harrisonburg’s history of racial relations.
Shultz also attended the Sunday service at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Newtown.
“The Spirit was moving through that small church in ways I have not seen before,” said Shultz, a music education major who especially enjoyed the integration of the EMU Gospel Choir into the service. “While The Rev. Dr. Chinita Richardson was preaching, the gospel choir musicians added music to emphasize what she spoke or agree with it. The life and energy that was produced filled the church and I had this sense of awe … I left the building encouraged to be the leper who returned to Jesus and thanked Him for the healing that changed his life.”
“Additionally, we went to John Wesley United Methodist Church and set up tables, and centerpieces for Sunday’s community lunch which followed the church service,” says Celeste Thomas, the celebration committee co-chair and co-director of EMU’s Multicultural Services.
Monday’s formal Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration included a march and chapel. About 50 people gathered to march into chapel “to show gratitude to the work of MLK,” said EMU Black Student Union Co-president Tae Dews. Dews and co-president Oksana Kittrell organized the demonstration.
“While doing so we asked the participants to reflect on the meaning of peace, and how this might show up in their everyday lives,” said Dews.
Junior Cameron White choreographed the Alpha and Omega Dancers’ routine for chapel and sang in the Gospel Choir. White, also program coordinator for the Black Student Union, said later she was impressed by how many “people are willing to help out for the cause.”
The service included a selection by student Maleke Jones; an invocation by Dr. Melody Pannell, professor of applied social sciences; reflections from President Susan Schultz Huxman; a spoken word performance by graduate student Julian Turner; a scripture reading by White; and a greeting from Mayor Deanna Reed, who recently became Harrisonburg’s first black councilwoman and mayor.
The Rev. Dr. Chinita Richardson, of Bethel A.M.E. Church, gave the sermon, focusing on hope and faith through adversity.