Interfaith service in Boca fulfills the dream of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Interfaith service in Boca fulfills the dream of Rev. Martin Luther King
January 18, 2004
BOCA RATON -- On a
Sunday morning in January 1984, the Rev. Henry Willis walked into the small
sanctuary of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church and saw white faces among the
mostly black congregation.
His first thought: Who are these
He knew why they were at the church -- for Ebenezer's first
interfaith service honoring civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But he didn't expect to have much in common with the visitors.
remember quite vividly [thinking], ĀWhat are we going to talk about?'" says
Willis, the church's pastor since 2001 and a member of the church since
Turns out, in two decades they've found plenty.
the 20th anniversary of the church's joint service with Congregation B'nai
Israel in Boca Raton to honor King, a relationship that now has grown into an
embodiment of King's vision -- people of different races and backgrounds coming
together regularly to worship and serve their community.
interfaith service at Ebenezer came nearly two decades after Jews and blacks
worked shoulder-to-shoulder for civil rights, and also came at a time when
relations between blacks and Jews were tense.
then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson's derogatory reference to Jewish
people and differences over affirmative action and Israel had weakened
once-strong ties between the two groups.
All the more reason to join with
Ebenezer for joint religious services in King's memory, reasoned Rabbi Richard
Agler, B'nai Israel's senior rabbi. Agler and then-pastor the Rev. Anthony
Holliday started a religious exchange program to better understand each other's
faiths. The services grew from that.
"There was just a lot of static
[nationally] so we said, ĀLet's be a model of cooperation,'" Agler
The annual service epitomizes King's vision and commemorates the
day set aside to honor him. Agler says people should not view the day as just a
"It's an American holiday," Agler says. "It calls us to
see each other as equals. ... I think this joining together helps us to be
elevated by the holiday."
The congregations have learned to look past
religious and racial differences to learn about each other as people, Willis
"When you really think about it, bridging racial and religious gaps
-- that's amazing," Willis says. "I think we learn through our fellowship that
when you start to get to know people, you get past the differences ... And
that's what America needs to do."
They have put their words into action
as the partnership between Ebenezer and B'nai Israel grew beyond the annual
service. Now, members of Ebenezer's congregation participate in Mitzvah Day, a
day of community service at the temple in the spring. They participate in
Passover services. The congregations work together to feed homeless people on
Thanksgiving, and they recently bought jointly a 25-seat bus that will be used
by both congregations for getting children to Sunday school at Ebenezer, getting
older people who can't drive to Friday services at B'nai Israel and taking
children from both congregations on field trips.
Ebenezer member Eddie Gaskin, 64, says he met a B'nai Israel
member while the two volunteered at a Thanksgiving feeding. Gaskin says he has
now recruited his friend to be a driver on the church's new bus, and they speak
regularly on the telephone. "This guy, I would have never even approached,"
Gaskin says. "That's what this kind of relationship has done for us."
Agler puts it, "A sense of familiarity punctures the prejudices."
try to understand each other's religions, but know they're not going to convert
each other and don't try. Willis says he's never known a Baptist church to
worship with a Jewish congregation.
Neither Ebenezer nor B'nai Israel
change their services for the other, Willis says, but his church's choir has
learned songs in Hebrew and B'nai Israel's members have sung Christian
"I think the key word is respect, that's all," Agler says. "We
respect that we're on different paths."
They have learned to be
comfortable with their differences.
"Just hearing Rabbi Agler when he
speaks, some of the things that he says is exactly what we say," says Ebenezer
member Charlie Mae Brown. "When the choir sings, they might be in different
words, but if you look it up, they're saying the same things."
And in a
way, they keep King's teachings alive.
"We're raising a generation of
children that doesn't see color," says Stephanie Shore, cantor at B'nai Israel.
"Where, when I was a child, somebody might have said, ĀOh, you see that black
man?' or ĀYou see that black woman?' Someday my daughter might say, ĀMommy, you
see that woman that's wearing red?' It's something that is very, very powerful,
to think that even on a small level, we are helping to fulfill and carry on the
message of Martin Luther King.
"I pray that we can do our part to keep it
Kathy Bushouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida