‘King Sunday’ takes on new meaning

Worshipers of Temple Oheb Shalom and Bethel AME Church hold hands during services at Bethel AME Church in Baltimore on Sunday. Churches across the U.S. celebrated the coming holiday. Luis M. Alvarez, The Associated Press

AP

Worshipers of Temple Oheb Shalom and Bethel AME Church hold hands during services at Bethel AME Church in Baltimore on Sunday. Churches across the U.S. celebrated the coming holiday. Luis M. Alvarez, The Associated Press

By Errin Haines

ATLANTA – The third Sunday in January, known as “King Sunday” in Atlanta after Martin Luther King Jr., easily could’ve been called “Obama Sunday” this year.

King’s words again filled the pews and pulpits at black churches across the country, only this time, they found new weight with Barack Obama’s pending inauguration as the nation’s first black president.

Many black preachers touted the moment – the 23rd federal observance of King’s birthday falls on the eve of the inauguration – as a mark of America’s progress toward a racially just society. Black worshippers sang “We Shall Overcome” and prayed to protect Obama’s family and to help the country follow Obama’s leadership.

At Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached from 1960 until his death in 1968, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock was met with applause as he praised Obama’s victory and swearing-in.

“Praise the Lord as we look forward to Tuesday,” Warnock said. “We ought to all celebrate this morning … that we’ve moved closer to who we say we are.”

Churches in Obama’s former city were also celebrating.

Erma Cannon, a 54-year-old Chicago Public Schools teacher, attended services with hundreds of others at Salem Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side.

“To me, it means that all things are possible and God can make your dreams come true,” Cannon said of Obama’s ascent to the White House.

The megachurch rocked as members clapped, danced and sang to a rousing 10-minute rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

“We thank You for the life of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said the Rev. James T. Meeks, who is also an Illinois state senator. “He paid the ultimate price so we might have some freedom.”

A crowd shouted “amen” as Meeks went on to thank God for Obama’s upcoming inauguration.

“We thank you for how far You’ve brought black America,” he said. “We know we have a ways to go. But just let us pause to celebrate.”

The congregation cheered as Meeks told them he and his wife were traveling to Washington for the inauguration. He said they’d been invited to spend “a private moment” with the Obamas.

More than 300 people filled the pews at First Cathedral in Bloomfield, Conn., to praise King and Obama before many headed home to pack for bus trips Monday to Washington.

“Obama talked about hope – this solidified it,” the Archbishop LeRoy Bailey Jr. said at the service, in which members of the suburban Hartford congregation watched tapes of King giving speeches that included his 1963 address at the Lincoln Memorial.

“On Tuesday, Jan. 20, this nation will do the almost unthinkable,” said the guest speaker, the Rev. Harold A. Carter of New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore.

“A black man will lay his hand on the Bible, one of the justices will lead him in swearing that he will uphold the Constitution. … Four hundred years ago, this was not supposed to be. We were brought here as slaves, as chattel,” he said.

The proximity of the King holiday and the inauguration was not lost on the parishioners at Bethel AME Church in Baltimore.

“Dr. King pursued his dream for racial equality and we see the manifestation of that dream in President Obama,” the congregation heard in the litany read during the service.

Associated Press writers Rupa Shenoy in Chicago, Stephanie Reitz in Hartford, Conn., Alex Dominguez in Baltimore and David Twiddy in Kansas City, Mo. contributed to this report

“Dr. King pursued his dream for racial equality and we see the manifestation of that dream in President Obama,” the congregation heard in the litany read during the service.

“Dr. King went to the mountaintop, saw the Promised Land, and assured us that we would get there one day,” the litany continued. “Thank you God, that today is the beginning of that day.”

The Rev. Frank Reid said he wanted to thank God for “letting us live long enough to see Barack Obama elected president of the United States.”

At St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Mo., talk of the pending inauguration was subdued although there was a smattering of hats bearing Obama’s name.

“This is a historic Sunday because on Tuesday, something that should have happened a long time ago takes place,” the Rev. Dick Vogel, a member of the church’s pastoral staff, said to applause early in the service.

Back in Atlanta, Warnock cautioned the diverse congregation of more than 1,000 that Obama’s victory was not the realization of King’s dream of racial equality, but a stop on the journey to freedom.

“We celebrate on Tuesday, but there’s a day after Tuesday,” he said. “There will be difficult days ahead … we are on the brink of transition, at the threshold of a movement.”

Associated Press writers Rupa Shenoy in Chicago, Stephanie Reitz in Hartford, Conn., Alex Dominguez in Baltimore and David Twiddy in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report