On one side of New Light Congregation’s pulpit sits an American flag, on the other an Israeli one. For one night, flanked between those flags, stood gospel-singing church members.
“I am really excited about tonight,” said Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, New Light’s spiritual leader, of the Jan. 15 service commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “[It’s] a dream come true.”
For much of his life, Perlman has been a self-described “fervent observer of the Martin Luther King holiday,” attending MLK programs and celebrations nationwide. After years of traveling elsewhere to celebrate, Perlman stated, “I decided it was time to have one of my own.”
With that desire, Perlman contacted the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church and asked about hosting a joint MLK Day program.
Perlman chose the 1,500-member church because of an already established relationship: Last December, he had spoken to members of Rodman about hospice-related work.
Following Perlman’s request to partner, Rodman and New Light worked together to create a program that both honored King and showcased local talent.
As the event began, Perlman welcomed those gathered. He briefly addressed King’s legacy and current racial relations.
“We still have a far way to go,” he acknowledged. “[We] live in a divided America, an America fixated on race.”
Following his remarks, 10 members of Rodman’s Ensemble Choir ascended New Light’s pulpit, while Alton Mitchell, Rodman’s director of worship and arts, stood below, behind a keyboard.
Mitchell informed attendees that the choir would be singing “some spirituals they sing in their church.”
As congregants from both New Light and Rodman listened, the choir lyricized, “You are the source of my strength,” and, “You are the strength of my life.”
Mitchell later explained that the group was deliberate in their song selection.
“We wanted to sing songs that were inclusive and not offensive and sing the songs of our faith,” he said. “It’s something we prayed about and worked at.”
Midway through the program, Rev. Darryl T. Canady, Rodman’s pastor, took the pulpit. Canady, a graduate of Morehouse College in Alabama — King’s alma mater — spoke about King’s legacy.
“I graduated 40 years after Dr. King arrived at Morehouse, 15 years after his passing, but still felt his presence,” said the minister. “Gains have been made, but more needs to happen to reach that dream.”
Over the course of his remarks, Canady outlined a four-step plan for reaching “that dream.” Elements included being fit and focused as well as possessing fortitude and faith.
“Dr. King has been dead for 46 years,” he said, “but the dream is alive in each of us.”
The program continued as the choir and congregants jointly sang songs encapsulating the civil rights movement. At the back of the room, a light dessert reception was set up.
Prior to concluding the program, Perlman announced to the still-singing crowd, “The event was meant for fellowship, so keep on talking, keep on walking and keep on eating.”
The program was warmly received by attendees.
“Loved it,” stated Barry Werber. “[I’m] used to Jewish traditional music. To hear some of the gospel sung in our synagogue was a thrill.”
Michelle Denson, a choir member at Rodman for 21 years, said, “I’m honored that we were asked to come, honored to be here.”
“I thought this was awesome,” echoed Kontara Morphis, “[There was] an emphasis on black history, Dr. King, the music was awesome.”
Earlier in the evening, Imara Brown, a ninth-grade student at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, performed a liturgical dance before the crowd. Reflecting on the program, Brown stated, “I loved it. It was very nice and sweet and caught my attention. We should do more things like this.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.