Tim Wise offered inspiring words at our MLK service

I remember crying on the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. That seems like such a long time ago.

So much has changed since that dark day in 1968 when I was still in fourth grade, but so much is still the same. Racism and prejudice remain a great challenge. It is good to have sacred moments to mark both the accomplishments of the civil rights movement and the work that still awaits us. It is fitting to celebrate Dr. King’s life and to pray for the courage and strength to continue the fight for justice.

In this way, tonight’s annual community celebration on the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday was a powerful and very moving experience. I had never before been to a service on Dr. King’s birthday at the Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, as my congregation only moved to town two years ago and hadn’t yet gotten in the groove. But this year, as I planned to attend for the first time, I was honored with the privilege of offering the benediction. The text of my benediction is reprinted below.

It was a pleasure to do this, but quite honestly, I felt quite tongue-tied as I approached the podium. Following a musical presentation by the church choir that was utterly breathtaking, I was in tears. Then, the guest speaker for the evening rose to the podium observing how he had a “very hard act to follow.” He then proceeded to give one of most moving, courageous, provocative and inspiring speeches I have heard in a very long time.

The speaker was Tim Wise, author (among other titles) of the recent book, “Between Barrack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama.” He was amazing. He reminded us of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. Wise eloquently affirmed the feeling of the African-Americans in our community that racism is still very real and pervasive in America. The white minority at the service lent our voices to this affirmation and vowed by our applause to share the prayers and efforts of the congregation to continue to transform our nation toward justice and peace. I was proud to be a Jew in that moment, for our religious teachings that insist that we strive to transform our world in justice and righteousness. And I was humbled by the challenges, especially as a white American.

I can’t wait to read Tim Wise’s books and to teach his messages in my community. It is a painful and difficult subject, but it is so much more meaningful to be engaged in the fight for justice than to stand on the sidelines.

So, talk about a “hard act to follow” – several people told me afterward that they thought I had the most difficult job of the evening. Yes, but I wouldn’t have given up the opportunity for anything. This was a sacred moment of shared humanity. It was a privilege and an inspiration to stand before the assembled congregation at that moment.

I pray for more opportunities to reach out in friendship to the community at Fountain Baptist Church, and to work together for the sacred task of transforming our community.

Benediction For

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Celebration Service

January 18, 2010

Fountain Baptist Church, Summit, NJ

Rabbi Amy Joy Small

Hineh Mah Tov U’mah Na’im Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – How good and how pleasant for brothers and sisters to dwell together.

Holy one of blessing your presence fills creation, and your love surrounds us. We pray that the love abundantly filling creation may continue to sustain us as we work to transform our world. Be with us, God as we open our hearts to each other, melting the barriers of hatred and division.

May the inspiration of Dr. King’s life and accomplishments continue to guide us to complete the work of the civil rights movement that he prophetically inspired. With your gift of wisdom and courage, may we join hands together in building a world that is just and loving.

As Dr. King so beautifully taught,

We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

We know that we cannot merely pray to You to end prejudice, for You have given us the power to create a society that provides equal opportunity for all people. May we firmly, but lovingly, use that power to promote an ethic of caring and compassion throughout our culture – that our towns and cities, schools, and workplaces may be a place of friendship, compassion, generosity, openness and hope.

Our fount, our loving parent, caring one, help us to fulfill the vision of your prophet, that justice shall flow like water, and that we may swim in that mighty stream of righteousness – together.

We ask Your blessings upon us as we continue Dr. King’s work. Let us join hands in friendship, inspired by the Divine spirit. “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit shall we all live in peace.”

And let us say, Amen.