Black Catholics mark King holiday with praise, rallying cry for justice

The Rev. Cean James, founding pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship Church in Philadelphia, sees little change in society since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain and feels the King holiday should be celebrated by fighting injustice.

"It's not about service, we should be out on the streets protesting," he said on Jan. 18. "Given the lack of change in society since the death of Dr. King, a true revolution of values is needed. It should be a day of protest against injustice. We have been silent for a long time."

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He was the featured speaker at the Philadelphia Archdiocese's 33rd annual prayer service honoring the legacy of Rev. King. It was held at St. Katharine Drexel Church in Chester.

The joy-filled exuberant singing of the Philadelphia Catholic Mass Choir, an archdiocesan-wide African-American choir under the direction of Kenny Arrington, filled the church the evening of the service.

Rev. James began his talk by revealing past family experience with the Catholic Church. His grandmother was Catholic and when his father was an infant he was deathly sick and sent home by the doctors probably to die the same night. Instead his mother took him to the rectory of Chicago's St. Ignatius Church, where the pastor and the nuns prayed over him through the night. Rev. James' father recovered and in gratitude his mother named him for the pastor.

The rest of his talk was pure fire. It could well have been Rev. King himself.

Rev. James had special scorn for those politicians who might go to a school and paint a wall on Rev. King's birthday and then vote against funding for schools the next day.

In their remarks, Deacon Bill Bradley, director of the Office for Black Catholics, and Father Thomas Whittingham, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel, stressed the theme of charity, as expressed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, which the congregation was urged to study, ponder and practice throughout the year.

Also in the spirit of forgiveness was this quote from Rev. King in the program book: "We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us."

Both messages were absorbed by the congregants.

"I thought [Rev. James] had a lot of good points," said Dawn Chism, a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish in University City who also sang in the choir. "It is not just a day of service, it should be a day of protest and bringing the issues up."

Ted Travis, a member of St. Athanasius Parish in West Oak Lane, thought Rev. James' message was powerful. "Why should we have to wait? We should be living that freedom now," he told CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said. "We have to live our Christian calling by not just doing the acts of mercy one night, it is year-round."

For Allison Walker, a member of St. Barbara Parish in West Philadelphia, the evening was an example of the good work being done by Deacon Bradley and the Office for Black Catholics.

"It was phenomenal having us all come together praising the Lord and giving praise to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," she said.

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