Before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became an international icon for civil rights, he was simply a Baptist pastor.
It was his faith in God that undergirded his life's work and his core belief that in God's eyes, there is no difference between black and white, Jew and gentile, the enslaved and the free. He believed in reaching across religious denominations and other barriers to achieve social justice.
The Bee asked local religious leaders to comment on how King's life and words have affected them, and whether -- as anticipated by King in his "I Have a Dream" speech -- we are working, praying, struggling and standing up for freedom together, crossing denominational, religious and racial lines.
Here are excerpts from the responses:
Step up and reach out
Racism is one of the things I really had a problem with before I became a Christian. Dr. Martin Luther King preached that we have to step up and reach out to one another. That was one of my goals, to carry out his dream.
I think that's happened in our community, especially to a lot of our churches. Not all churches, of course. Many of them have not integrated their staff, but they at least speak to one another and have services with one another. I do find a lot of pastors are open to communication -- white pastors are open to black pastors -- which is good.
-- Charlie Crane, chaplain at Hospice House in Hughson Ahead of his time
Dr. King was a fearless agent of change, and change is an integral part of any evolving organization. In my current work, I am asked to promote and implement change, and yet even the mention of change can bring out the worst in people. Dr. King led with vision and passion that defines great human beings and made him a personal hero to myself and to many others. His ecumenical and interreligious call to action in his "I Have A Dream" speech was far ahead of its time and an inspiration to many of us who work for Christian unity.
-- Tom Ciccarelli, Catholic deacon and chief executive officer for United Way of Stanislaus County Inspired not to waste pain
What I appreciate the most about Dr. King's speech was that his life behind his words was a message to the world; despite all the challenges to bring reformation and peace to America, he didn't stop. Dr. King advanced through adversity. His life and message inspired me through my own personal trials not to be a "pain waster." Because of this, "I still have a dream."
-- Pastor Archie LeVias Jr., Seed of Joy Worship Center in Modesto Prayed for black brothers
I have often pondered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Truly, it is one of the most powerful, persuasive talks I've ever heard, especially the part where he longed for the day "when little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." I remember my young, blond, blue-eyed grandson quoting his speech in front of our predominantly white congregation.
Some years ago, it dawned on me that I had no African-American pastor friends. I asked God to bring some brothers of the darker hue into my life, where we could sit together, pray together, eat and fellowship together, and care for each other.
As I opened my heart and reached out in friendship, I have benefited many times over by the richness of new friends, the fellowship that bridges culture and the personal support in time of need. Dr. Martin Luther King was right. It's a dream all of us need to embrace, and when we do, we will be blessed.
-- Pastor David Seifert, Shelter Cove Community Church in Modesto Working for reconciliation
We can see Dr. King's impact on the world we live in. My view is that the dream has not died. We see strides happening every day. Even looking to the next presidential election, the fact that we have a woman and an African-American as leading candidates for a major party, those are some of the things he fought for. Whether we choose to believe it or not, we are experiencing strides that are directly a result of the struggle in which he made sacrifices decades ago.
I've been in Modesto for 20 years. I think things have gotten better in race relations. I think we should bring back the Church of Modesto, when scores of pastors were linking arms together. We did pulpit swapping, where I would swap with David Seifert and Wade Estes, and we would take our choirs with us and do the sermon in their churches. Improving race relations -- those things should be championed by the household of faith. I've got one string in my guitar and that's reconciliation. That's the only note I play, and I think that's what Dr. King was about -- reconciliation.
-- The Rev. Darius O. Crosby, chief executive officer for Staff of Life Ministries in Modesto King's broader dream
A couple of years after the March on Washington, King's message had broadened to include advocacy for the poor, for the rights of all and for peacemaking. Sadly, his concern for those issues is largely forgotten. We need to wake up to King's full legacy. We need to pray and struggle and stand up together -- across ethnic, racial, denominational and economic lines -- until all our people have equal rights in marriage and family law, until the poor have equal opportunities to education and health care, until we lose our suspicions of those who look different from us.
Locally, we have some promising signs. The "Day of Tolerance" programs in our high schools help overcome barriers and misunderstandings. The world religions course helps broaden students' perspectives. The annual Inter-Religious Thanksgiving Service brings together many faith groups and their different ways of showing gratitude for the gifts of life. We can build on these and similar efforts if we're awake to the full range of Dr. King's concerns. Indeed, we can work, pray and play together -- and move toward King's real dream.
-- The Rev. Grace Simons, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County Feeling his spirit
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became real for me on a New York street in 1989. Twenty seminarians had joined a few dozen people at a sit-in. Our professor, a veteran of civil rights protests in the 1960s, told me that he felt like he was at a Martin Luther King protest. "An entire class of Americans is again without rights," he said. "We speak for them, and we represent the nation's conscience." We were sitting in front of a Manhattan abortion clinic.
Dr. King has taught me how to speak prophetically, both from the pulpit and on city streets. Every year at this time, I join tens of thousands of blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Jews, Democrats and Republicans in a peaceful "Walk for Life" in San Francisco. I can feel Dr. King's spirit urging us to insist, peacefully yet firmly, on every man's dignity. Thus has an Atlanta Baptist minister been a powerful witness to a Modesto Catholic priest.
-- Father Joseph Illo, St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2012.