Have Faith: Remembering M.L.K

The Hebrew Center and First Congregational Church came together for a Freedom Seder.

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Gabrielle Mannino

I’d never been to a Seder before, let alone a Freedom Seder, until last Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center hosted the event combined with the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. The leaders of both faith communities led the discussion, with Rabbi Caryn Broitman explaining the meaning of the food and drink that was shared and the Rev. Cathlin Baker talking about some of the social justice initiatives her church is involved with. The two made sure that people from each congregation were able to ask questions about each other’s faith along the way.

The tradition of a Freedom Seder comes from Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s initial Freedom Seder on the first anniversary of the Rev. King’s death. Rabbi Waskow founded the Shalom Center in the early 1980s, which still works for environmental issues, against the concentrations of power in the hands of the super-wealthy, and for peace. A Seder memorializes the Jewish slaves’ liberation from Pharaoh, and it has a common theme in all trials of liberation — past and present.

Every long table was filled at the April 4 Seder. Rabbi Broitman opened the evening saying that she still feels the intense tragedy of Dr. King’s death and also feels, 50 years later, that the prophecy of one man’s words “continue to inspire and remind us of the work we have to do.”

The Rev. Baker said that two Island congregations had been building a relationship over the past 10 years, and the Freedom Seder was the fruit of that relationship. “The relationship between the congregations is a sign of beloved community,” she said.

The food at a traditional Seder represents elements of the Jewish experience: a lamb shank bone for the temple sacrifices, a roasted egg for sacrifice and birth, sprigs of parsley dipped in salted water as a symbol of tears, a mix of apple, nuts, and wine (haroset) representing the mortar and bricks used by the enslaved Jews, horseradish for the bitterness of being enslaved. The Wednesday night Seder included those foods, and the Jewish and Christian Islanders shared them at the tables, that in itself came across to me as its own beautiful revelation. People asked questions of the rabbi and the pastor, including what’s the history of the interfaith movement, and what’s up with that Easter rabbit. Members of each congregation took turns in reading aloud relevant excerpts and quotes, and then there was time to discuss them.

A special guest, Rabbi Brian Walt, part-time rabbi of Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca, N.Y., spoke about his upbringing in South Africa during apartheid. He said when he was in high school, he studied the Book of Amos, and was struck by it. The Seder featured a reading from that book: “I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings — or your meal offerings — I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Rabbi Walt said, “Religion needs to be about justice.” He said that if beautiful gathering spaces are disconnected from what’s going on outside their walls, then they miss what they’re supposed to be about.

Throughout the Seder there were references to and quotes from Dr. King, including this one from “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967: “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

At the end of the gathering, everyone stood and held hands while the words of Dr. King played loudly on the sound system: “I have been to the mountaintop … I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

People from both the Hebrew Center and from the First Congregational Church will travel this week to Atlanta, Ga., where the Rev. Baker’s friend and colleague, the Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, is pastor of Dr. King’s former church, Ebenezer Baptist. The group will visit significant sites of the civil rights movement, and will take part in services together. We’ll catch up with them once they return.

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What does Meals on Wheels provide, and whom do they provide it to?  How much do you pay for the meals? How often are the meals delivered?  These questions will come to the forefront next Sunday, April 15, when Michele Dupon from Meals on Wheels will be guest speaker at the Federated Church in Edgartown at 11:30 am, following the morning service. The community is invited to come and ask their own questions and enjoy a cup of coffee with their neighbors.