Faith, labor and political leaders filled Holman United Methodist Church on Thursday morning for a prayer breakfast commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
King's federal holiday is on Monday, and even though it's been observed for close to three decades now, it faces the risk that all holidays do: becoming just another day off.
Those who were present at Thursday's prayer breakfast are all too aware of that. Rev. Kelvin Sauls, the pastor of Holman United Methodist, said for one, it's important to not let his Dream speech – inspiring and historical as it may be – become conflated with King himself.
"Dr. King was more than a speech," said Sauls. "I think before the speech, he was a servant. He was a servant of justice and of peace and of equality."
In his August 1963 address, King hopes for a collective faith that "we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."
"Even though we have President Barack Obama, we still have a long way to go to achieve the beloved community and perfect union that we all strive for in this country," said Sauls.
But in recent years, he says, it seems people have gotten more intentional about honoring Dr. King and his message, and not just celebrating his holiday. One "integral" part of King's message is servanthood, said the reverend.
"You have to go where people are," he said. "Whether they're in the streets, whether they're in jail, no matter what unfortunate circumstances they're going through – service is at the heart of what it means to be a person of faith."
In 1994, King's holiday was designated a national day of service by Congress, thus encouraging Americans to get involved with hundreds of community projects and volunteer opportunities nationwide.
But Rabbi Zoe Kelin, the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in West L.A., sees it a bit differently. She makes a distinction between volunteering and servitude, and told a brief parable to illustrate:
"There's a wonderful story about one man on a ship who starts drilling a whole on his seat and everybody says, 'What are you doing?' And he says, 'What does it matter to you? It's my seat; I paid for this seat.' And in some ways, I think that it's a good story for the responsibility that we have to each other … And if we don't do our part to patch our little area, and also reach out and help those who can't help themselves, we're going to sink."
In other words, the service that we're called to, said Klein, is about more than donating a few hours' time – although that's part of it.
"To be honest, I don't believe that Dr. King's message was about volunteering," she said. "I think that his message was about the imperative to serve. Service is not something that's optional. We are all on this ship together.""
Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, the new pastor of Los Angeles' First American Methodist Episcopal Church, delivered the breakfast's keynote, and said "we cannot just celebrate [Martin Luther King, Jr. Day] and leave it."
"If you have been empowered, if you have been endowed, if you have been blessed with the ability to stand in and to respond to that need and step up to the plate and do whatever it is that's needed to be done to help fulfill that need, then you are actually serving," said Boyd.
That means, in part, that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day isn't just another holiday.
"This is not a day off," Boyd said. "This is a day on."
The prayer breakfast is a longstanding tradition in the South L.A. community. Previously hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-Los Angeles, this year's co-sponsors included the Los Angeles Sentinel, the Brotherhood Crusade and Community Coalition.
Photo by National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.