Florida Methodists join others to mark King legacy

Students Danielle and Carolina in the Branches program are part of a 2014 beautification effort in Florida City in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Looking on is AmeriCorps worker Avid Huggins. Photo from Branches.

On the third Monday in January of each year for nearly three decades, communities across the country have celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights icon and an ordained minister dedicated to social justice, nonviolence and a faith-driven life.

Parades, community festivals and community service days are among the events planned statewide to observe the federal holiday on Jan. 19 in honor of King's birthday. (Click here to read about the 2015 MLK Day of Service at Rogers Community UMC, Bradenton.)

Orlando got an early start on Jan. 11 with a candlelight vigil and march from City Hall to First UMC, Orlando, for an interfaith service.

Hundreds of people gathered for the short walk to the downtown church. The interfaith service sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Central Florida and the Mayor's Martin Luther King Jr. Commission has been a tradition for nearly 20 years.

First UMC hosted the first Interfaith Multicultural Celebration and has done so many times since. The service brings together people of all faiths including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.

"There is something very significant in having all these traditional religions meeting in a Methodist church. In part, it's geography. We're nearby to City Hall," said Pastor Tom McCloskey. "But part of it is the Wesleyan tradition of open heart, open mind, open doors. It's part of our strength and I cherish that."

Several more events in Orlando are planned throughout January, including a re-enactment of Brown vs. Board of Education, a concert sponsored by the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation, a luncheon, a parade and a community clean-up day. 

Orlando participants in a city march approach First UMC Orlando
Participants in Orlando's commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s contributions to civil rights justice make their way through downtown to First UMC.
March participants head into First UMC Orlando
 A march through downtown Orlando in memory of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King ends with participants streaming into First UMC for an interfaith service. Photos courtesy of City of Orlando.

Brandy Hand, a member of First UMC, is co-chairwoman of the mayor's commission. The theme of the interfaith service - "Give Us the Ballot" - was inspired by King's speech in 1957 commemorating the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

Church volunteers at First UMC served on the welcoming committee and provided technical support for the live performances and guest speakers.

"I am so very proud to help the mayor's commission and so proud of my church that feels so strongly about this," Hand said.

Among this year's performers were the Nap Ford Community School Drummers and Khamryn Hammonds, a youth ambassador and 2014 winner of the Foundation for Orange County Public Schools Top Talent competition. An estimated crowd of more than 500 attended.

"To see the faith leaders of all faiths come together with their congregations to celebrate the life of a man who was not only a great American but an ordained Christian minister is powerful and impressive," Hand said.

The annual gathering underscored the need for faith and unity and served as a call to action, Hand added.

"And if we can all remember that we have much more in common than differences, we'll go a long way to making our state, community, nation and the world a better and peaceful place to live."

Statewide, more celebrations are underway or upcoming at Methodist churches and ministries. Some, such as the education and anti-poverty ministry at Branches in South Miami, will begin with community service days in January and conclude Feb. 28 with the second annual MLK Remix.

MLK Remix includes a parade and outdoor community festival that is part of a month-long celebration of Black History Month.

Pastor Tom McCloskey addresses interfaith service
Pastor Tom McCloskey of First UMC, Orlando, speaks to visitors during an interfaith service reflecting on the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Branches was founded in the early 1970s as the urban and social justice agency of what became the South East District of The United Methodist Church. It has evolved into an outreach agency supported by the Florida Conference and several Methodist churches in the area, including Branches UMC, Florida City.

It supports student achievements, family services and financial stability programs aimed at lifting people out of poverty.

On Monday, the nationally designated holiday, Branches Florida City will sponsor the fifth annual "Florida City, Love Yourself," a day of community service.

About 150 volunteers, Branches staff  and AmeriCorps members will fan out into the neighborhood to pick up litter. Volunteers also will head to Homestead Middle School to repaint classrooms and reorganize the library and computer lab. More volunteers will help with home repairs at the residences of three families served by Branches.

"It's a very grassroots event, a special day," said Isabelle Pike, development director for Branches. "We come out to beautify the neighborhood." 

Branches South Miami will hold its third annual "SoMi Lights MLK Day of Service," with help from about 75 volunteers, including members of Mount Olive Baptist Church. Projects include painting, landscaping and clean-up near the Branches location.

Girls in Branches T-shirts twirl batons in front of MLK Remix stage
The MLK Remix draws community participation in South Miami. Photo from Branches.

"They've been wonderfully embracing of us," said Pike of the Mount Olive congregation.

Both Florida City and South Miami are racially and ethnically diverse. Many Latinos from Central America have settled in Florida City, while South Miami has a majority black population. But residents in both neighborhoods struggle with poverty, high crime rates and violence, Pike said.

King's holiday is an opportunity to bring communities together in positive activities to improve their neighborhoods.

"There is so much turmoil and violence," Pike said. "Branches believes education is really the pathway out of poverty, but that begins with the community and the support for youth, and for tolerance." 

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa. 

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