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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 Jr.

By Kathy Bushouse
Staff Writer

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 people?

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.

"I 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 1982.

Turns out, in two decades they've found plenty.

Today marks 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.

The first 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.

Anger over 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 says.

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 black holiday.

"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 says.

"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.

They've become friends.

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."

As Agler puts it, "A sense of familiarity punctures the prejudices."

They 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 hymns.

"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 alive."

Kathy Bushouse can be reached at kbushouse@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6641.

Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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