On Jan. 21, the LMU community honored the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through its annual Interfaith Celebration, organized this year in collaboration between Office of Black Student Services (OBSS) and Office of Mission and Ministry.
The annual event is made to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and to keep his vision of social justice and advocacy evergreen. Womanist scholar-activist, Dr. Melina Abdullah, served as the keynote speaker for the celebration.
The event opened up with video segments by LMU students voicing their opinions on what peace and justice mean and how society can truly commit to these tenets. This was followed by a virtual group prayer led by Sister Maria Lai, C.S.J.
“Given the challenges of remote education, everything is much more work,” said Father Marc Reeves, S.J. and associate vice president for mission and ministry. This year’s celebration required ancillary creative efforts on behalf of all involved to try and replicate the impact of previous Interfaith Celebrations during a period in history in which human beings are further away from each other than ever before.
Xavia Janisse, a junior psychology major, admitted that getting students to come to the event and actually engage with the program proved to be one of the trickiest caveats to figure out as a team. The group wanted to keep inspiring people, even if brought together only by pixels, and not make it feel like a passive information session.
“I want people to take away the importance of their individual presence and their voice and their knowledge. I don’t want people to discount the equity of their own personal experiences when it comes to discussing things like this," said Janisse.
Jesus “Paco” Estrada Jr., a freshman theology and Spanish double major, said that in spite of the distance he could still feel a sense of community, “especially in the chat when you see people agreeing or saying amen or giving praise to the speakers. Just being a freshman and not knowing anyone and seeing how connected everyone is makes me feel part of the community."
Intertwined with religious citation, — some from King’s own preachings, — the speakers at the celebration brought to light topics ranging from the 1776 commission’s attempts to rewrite America’s history with slavery, to George Floyd, to the #BlackatLMU initiative and the continued fight for a world that is actively anti-racist.
The Interfaith Celebration put emphasis on connecting the multicultural community of LMU. While much religious commentary originated from the Christian faith, notable speakers such as LMU alumnus, ('19) Makeen Yasar, brought to light words of peace and justice found in the Quran.
Abdullah, who is the co-founder of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter, dedicated her time to honoring the victims of people who died at the hands of LAPD police brutality, as well as focusing on calls to defund the police and the need for American society to root out its oppressors before it asks for Black, Indigenous, people of color and the impoverished to come together in unity
She also expanded upon the message of King by reminding those in attendance at the celebration that oftentimes society spoon feeds a sanitized version of his message, and that truly honoring his fight for civil rights may often result in disrupting human comfort and global commerce in order to get the message of racial injustice’s persistence across.
President Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., was also present at the celebration, where he highlighted the efforts made by Black student organizations at LMU in raising money and awareness for racial injustices.
While the easier way to go about honoring MLK day during the era of the pandemic could’ve been a sentimental Instagram post or an online brochure mailed out to everyone’s Lion accounts, Reeves talked about how determined everyone at the Office of Mission and Ministry and at OBSS was to make this happen and give students this cherished space.
“What inspires me is the resilience of the LMU community to say, 'No we’re gonna do this anyway.' This is an important event for the nation and the LMU community,” he said.
Despite the remoteness, Reeves noted that there have been many silver linings found in the virtual platform — ranging from the ability to gather an unlimited number of people willing to attend to the easy accessibility of the virtual event and the ability for anyone who missed out on the event, or wish to see it again, to be able to watch it fully as a recording online.
Reeves added that he’s confident “future events will be influenced by this moment in time."
With the ongoing reckoning of racial injustice that began in the summer of 2020, Janisse says there’s never been a more relevant time to promote an Interfaith Celebration that focuses on these issues.
“I would say it’s crucial during a time like this. With the sociopolitical climate that’s happening and changing in real time in front of us, it gives us this rich background to bring people into open dialogues ... we make it okay to show up and to ask questions and possibly not get things right, but be receptive to gentle correction.”
Janisse believes that the goal of the event is to “highlight the daily efforts that activism mandates in order for it to be functional,” while reflecting upon the legacy of King.
“The true meaning of honoring MLK is understanding the importance of not being content with a superficial appearance of progress where we don’t truly see reform," said Janisse.
Dr. John Sebastian, the vice president for mission and ministry, also spoke at the event. Estrada cited that his main takeaway from the event was Abdullah and Sebastian’s call to recognize the tension and the feelings of discomfort and work through them on topics of race and identity.
“Growing up in a Latinx household, these ideas of feminism, Black Lives Matter, the idea of ‘Latinx,' I didn’t grow up hearing that. I mostly grew up in a conservative Catholic ‘machista’ household. I’m beginning to recognize my own biases and becoming more informed," he said.
Reeves said that King’s bridging of spiritual connection and collective social justice activism remains an evergreen inclination in society and called on a collective human task force to always remember that “as we work for peace we work for justice."
The celebration closed with a prayer led by Joshua Mayfield, an LMU campus minister for faith and justice, and a rendition of the song “Oh Freedom" by William Washington, the gospel choir professor at LMU.