Last month, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the Hebrew Center hosted a Freedom Seder and invited the congregation of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. A couple of weeks later, members of both faith communities traveled together to Atlanta, Ga., and took part in several events based from Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s spiritual home, where his father served as pastor and he as co-pastor from 1960 until his death on April 4, 1968. The Rev. King’s funeral took place at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The trip wasn’t a random pilgrimage put together by the two Island worship communities. The Rev. Cathlin Baker, leader of the West Tisbury church, went to seminary with the current pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock. They’ve been friends for years, and Pastor Warnock visits the Vineyard in the summer, preaching at First Congregational when he’s here.
I’ve known Pastor Baker for a while now, first meeting her when I worked with her husband, Bill Eville, at the Vineyard Gazette. She’s a lovely person, warm and petite and obviously caring. That’s what I thought anyway, before I started writing “Have Faith.” Since then I’ve listened to her talk about social justice, why the West Tisbury church hosts its community supper a month longer than most, and how important it is that the Island’s faith communities work together ecumenically to address economic injustice and hunger. I still view her as a very kind person and lovely inside and out, but make no mistake, she’s got a passion for justice. I spoke with the Rev. Baker when she returned from this latest trip to Atlanta.
“We have been in the process of turning our congregation inside out,” Pastor explained, “where our ministry is to the whole Island. We have a strong focus on housing and hunger issues on the Island, and there are a lot of people struggling on this Island, and so we express our engagement with those issues with community suppers, summer food programs, gleaning with Island Grown Initiative. Our congregation has representatives who sit at different tables that are trying to address affordable housing and homelessness. Our congregation helps to distribute the Island Clergy emergency homeless funds. I see those actions as being a part of that legacy that I’m being shaped by.”
She and Rabbi Caryn Broitman, leader of the Hebrew Center, have brought their congregations together on other occasions, with their shared passion for social justice as a foundation for the unity of the two — one Jewish, one Christian. Pastor Baker said the combined Island congregations share the same values.
“I guess I like to look at social justice as a sort of prophetic tradition that’s woven throughout our faith,” she said. “And again, that becomes another place where I identify shared values with the Jewish community too. The gospel of Jesus Christ is rooted in the Prophets.”
This was Rev. Baker’s second experience preaching at Ebenezer Baptist, although she’s traveled there many times to visit and for special events. “My congregation knows Raphael and his congregation, but I wanted our congregations to mix,” she said. She said from feedback she’s gotten so far, everyone loved the trip, some calling it life-changing.
“The young people that went want to keep doing projects together, building that Jewish-Christian relationship. We want to do more,” the Rev. Baker said.
The group worked at a community garden with the young adult ministry at Ebenezer Baptist, and attended services at a Jewish temple that collaborates with the Atlanta church.
“We did these experiences, working and worshipping side by side,” the Rev. Baker said. Her sermon at Ebenezer was about unity and what it takes to get there, she said.
“I used this text that I love when I preached at Ebenezer, from the book of Micah from the fourth chapter, verses 1-5,” Pastor Baker said. “It speaks to a time of peace and a time of economic security, where everyone has a place to live; they have food and no one is afraid. But that vision comes after God has done some arbitrating and judging; it doesn’t just come out of nowhere. That kind of peace requires a kind of justice.”
The Island may have a reputation for affluence, but Pastor Baker said many people understand that there is real poverty here.
“I do think there’s a bit of illusion that there is no poverty on Martha’s Vineyard, but many of us who live here know that’s not true,” she said. “People depend on a seasonal economy, and this is an economy that can feel very much like shifting sand for many people. I think hunger always feels like hunger. Not knowing where the next meal comes from and not having cash on hand to feed yourself feels the same no matter where you are.”
The Rev. Baker admitted that preaching at the same church where Dr. King preached was pretty amazing. “I do feel like both times I’ve preached there I’ve drawn on the teachings of Dr. King,” she said. “I definitely feel the presence of history and our forefathers and mothers there … there’s a communion-of-saints kind of feeling.”
Maybe our Island is blessed with a few saints of our own.
The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center hosts an important guest the weekend of May 19 and 20. Jeremy Benstein, associate director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, presents “The Ten Commandments as a guide to building a sustainable society” on Saturday, May 19, at 7:30 pm. Then on Sunday, May 20, following a 9:30 am Shavuot Service, he’ll speak at 10:30 am, sharing “Toward a post-tribal Israel: Multiculturalism in the Jewish democratic state.”
The Federated Church in Edgartown, 45 South Summer St., hosts another Community Partners talk, this time with Margaret Hannemann from the Island Food Pantry on Sunday, May 20, at 11:30 am following the morning service. She’ll talk about all the different programs that address food insecurity on the Island. The Federated Church welcomes everyone to come to the presentation, and to bring a nonperishable food item to donate to the pantry.
St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven celebrates May, the month of Mary, with special Masses this coming weekend. One of the Marian feast days, Our Lady of Fatima is celebrated on Mother’s Day this year, May 13. Representatives from the Heralds of the Gospel will be on hand at the 7 pm Portuguese Mass on Saturday, May 12, and again at the 9 am and 5 pm Masses in English on Sunday, May 13.
The United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard holds a Memorial Day bake sale on Saturday, May 26, from 11 am until 1 pm, in the alleyway next to Sharky’s on Circuit Avenue and across from Phillips Hardware in Oak Bluffs.