Rabbi Jonathan's Blog
Martin Luther King Concert 2010
This is worth writing about.
On Monday afternoon, January 18 – Martin Luther King Day – I stood on the stage of the Pointe of Praise Family Life Center in Kingston and looked out on a crowd of over 600 people. (And who knows how many others wanted to attend and could not get a ticket!) The audience was a mosaic of Jews and Christians, black and white, all ages, shapes and sizes. With me on the stage were another 50 or 60 people reflecting the same mixture: a combined choir of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and the New Progressive Baptist Church, the church’s pastor G. Modele Clarke and his wife Evelyn, the Pointe of Praise Pastor J.B. Childs, the WJC’s youth choir, Bill and Livia Vanaver, the Vanaver Caravan’s Youth Dance Company, Cantor Bob Cohen, and my dear and gifted friends Kim and Reggie Harris.
And even Pete Seeger, 90 years old, straight and tall, picking his banjo and getting everyone to sing together. When we had initially approached Pete, he had said he would only do two songs. But just before he went on after the intermission, he politely asked if he could do three songs instead! Onstage, he reported to everyone that he had performed in two benefits the day before, and that this was his second performance of the day today. More power to you, Pete! (Cantor Bob Cohen, whose folk music pedigree goes back to Greenwich Village in the early 60’s, caught up with Pete after the show. Bob reports: “When I saw Pete backstage later I reminded him that I had driven him around Mississippi back in the Freedom Summer of 1964. “Oh," he said, "that was a long time ago." I agreed. "How're are you doing, Pete?" said I. "Well,” he replied, “I've lost 50% of my hearing, and 50% of my memory, but I'm doing OK.")
Last spring, several congregants and I gathered to discuss ways that the WJC could contribute to the welfare of the broader community in the mid-Hudson valley. Our Tikkun Olam Task Force was born. (Tikkun Olam means “Repairing the World”.) We took up one initiative immediately, helping to stock and to staff the Good Neighbor Food Pantry in Woodstock. That effort has been very successful and we plan to continue to handle the work of the Food Pantry every January and July, in rotation with other houses of worship in Woodstock. Another idea was less formed – I had for many years been wondering how to connect with the local African American community, and proposed that we explore ways to make that connection. This past November, an opportunity presented itself. Reggie Harris called to tell me that he and Kim had some openings in their calendar and were wondering if we could set up a performance. As many of you know, a few years ago I recorded an album with African American singers and songwriters Kim and Reggie Harris. The album is titled “Let My People Go: A Jewish and African American Celebration of Freedom”. The music and narration explores the relationship that our two communities share with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and recalls the strong alliances that Jews and Blacks developed during the Civil Rights Movement. Kim and Reggie and I are always seeking venues in which our stories, our music and our friendship can inspire people to reach across boundaries and make common cause for human dignity and justice.
To my surprise, Kim and Reggie did not have a booking for Martin Luther King Day. I called Pastor Modele Clarke. Pastor Clarke was acquainted with Kim and Reggie, and he and I had met on several occasions and had discussed the possibility of cooperating on a project. As Pastor of the New Progressive Baptist Church in Kingston, Rev. Clarke had grown frustrated as he watched some members of his church as they returned from prison terms. When these folks were released from prison, they were given $40 or $50 dollars and a bus ticket to Kingston. If they had no family to take them in, they were immediately forced back on the street. The rate of recidivism was enormous. How were these people possibly going to rehabilitate themselves without some real support? And so Save Them Now was born. Save Them Now provides safe, sober housing and job training for its residents. After three years, Save Them Now has helped some 300 individuals, but the organization has no paid staff and was behind in rent. It struggles to find a permanent home; every time a possible location is found, the neighbors put up resistance. Modele and I agreed that we would hold a Martin Luther King Day fundraising concert for Save Them Now.
Perri Ardman of our Tikkun Olam Task Force then stepped forward to coordinate the project. Perri brought passion and dedication to the task – we could not have done it without her. Many other volunteers, as well as the WJC staff, stepped forward willingly, and one task after another was handled with skill. The Save Them Now Board jumped right in, and Pastor J.B. Childs offered the beautiful sanctuary at Pointe of Praise church. In fact, this entire event was conceived, organized, publicized and executed in the space of about 6 weeks, with winter vacation thrown into the mix. It was amazing to watch everything come together.
And what a day we had! The singing and the energy in the Pointe of Praise sanctuary were spectacular. The concert raised about $12,000 for Save Them Now, and not incidentally gave the organization a huge dose of positive publicity as well.
For me, the greatest harvest of this entire undertaking is the relationships and friendships that were formed. Our WJC choir and the New Progressive Church choir rehearsed and sang together, joyfully learned each other’s songs, and want to sing together some more. I got to know my clergy colleagues Pastor Jim Childs and Pastor J.B. Childs of the Pointe of Praise and Pastor Modele Clarke of the New Pro Baptist Church. I have new friends. They are open hearted, skillful, genuine and devoted leaders and servants of their communities; I can’t believe it took me so many years to make their acquaintance. The old Woodstock/Kingston divide has been bridged. Our Jewish community has found a way to join forces with the Kingston African American community. And countless paths crossed at the concert, with audience members seeing friends and acquaintances from all the corners of our lives, joining together to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to keep the dream alive.
It’s a great beginning. We are already imagining what we might do next.