By Tony Gutiérrez, The Catholic Sun

Following an African tradition in which community members bring baskets of food and other material goods to the altar during the offertory, student representatives from Catholic schools throughout the diocese carried donations of non-perishable foods to be donated to St. Josephine Bakhita Mission Parish’s food pantry during the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Mass Jan. 14.

St. Josephine pastor Father Andrew McNair invited the students to challenge them to “carry on Rev. King’s legacy.”

“I want these young people to understand the legacy of Rev. King. We’ve heard so much about him. There are those that tell us Rev. King, he was a civil rights leader, and that’s accurate. But he was so much more than a civil rights leader. There are those that will tell us he was a social reformer, and that’s accurate, too. But he was much, much more than that,” said Father McNair in his homily.

“Rev. King described himself above all as a disciple of Jesus Christ, a man filled with a passionate love for the Lord. What gave Rev. King the courage and the strength to change our history as a nation — as a people — was precisely his faith in the living person of Jesus Christ.”

“Rev. King described himself above all as a disciple of Jesus Christ, a man filled with a passionate love for the Lord. What gave Rev. King the courage and the strength to change our history as a nation — as a people — was precisely his faith in the living person of Jesus Christ.”

In the past, the diocese celebrated the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader on Martin Luther King Day, designated on the Monday closest to his birthday, at either St. Mary’s Basilica or Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. This year, the diocese moved the annual liturgy to the Saturday Vigil Mass at St. Josephine Bakhita, a mission parish established to serve the diocese’s Black Catholic community last year.

Referencing the evening’s Gospel passage, Father McNair said that like St. John the Baptist, Rev. King witnessed to Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King, an ordained Baptist minister with a doctorate in theology, affirmed the inherent dignity of all human beings created in the likeness and image of God, Father McNair said.

“If we are created in the image and likeness of God, if we are sacred to God, how can we not be sacred to each other? And if we are sacred, it means that we are required to treat each other a certain way, that each person is sacred,” Father McNair said.

“If I recognize that my brother and my sister is sacred, there’s certain things that I will not say, there’s a certain vocabulary that I will refuse to use. There’s a certain tone that I will set aside because my brother or my sister is sacred, and I treat them that way. My brothers and sisters, the challenge for us is to recognize the sacredness of each other. I think in our secular, progressive culture, we have lost so much of that.”

Rev. King also understood, the pastor said, that recognizing human sacredness requires loving God above all else. His faith in and love of God allowed him to see the intrinsic dignity of all people.

“If I can love Love, Itself, which is God, how am I going to love someone else? May our young people learn that lesson: Love of God, the foundation of loving everyone else,” said Father McNair. “Martin Luther King, he emphasized love of neighbor. This emphasizes the fact that my neighbor is a brother or sister, my neighbor is sacred. My neighbor must be loved in the name of Jesus.”

Bishop John P. Dolan, who celebrated the Mass, described Rev. King as a “universal” speaker. Concelebrating priests joining Bishop Dolan and Father McNair included Bishop Emeritus Thomas J. Olmsted, Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares and vicar general Very Rev. John Muir.

“Before anything else, he was a man of faith, and he changed the souls and the hearts of people because of his faith in Christ Jesus. To me that was the heart and the soul of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and really the heart and the soul of this powerful Mass that we celebrated today,” Bishop Dolan told The Catholic Sun.

“We’ve got to start with faith more than anything else. And you start with Jesus. Jesus went out to all different places, and He met with people of all different traditions. We go where He leads, and so, if we’re not doing that, then we’re missing the fundamental aspect of the Gospel that was preached not only to a particular people, but to all nations.”

While the student representatives attended with their families, Most Holy Trinity School principal Maggie MacCleary chose to join her students because she believed it was important for them to know about Rev. King’s legacy from a perspective of faith.

“I had never been down here. I’ve had families that have gone to Mass here before, and they tell me about it,” MacCleary said. “The main poignant part of the whole homily and what I would want these kids to remember is that they are sacred, and so is everyone else. And we need to treat each other that way.”

Xavier Catholic Preparatory freshman and St. Josephine parishioner Noelle Bofia, who read the first reading, said she senses God’s presence flowing through her when serving as a lector.

“It’s a special event because of what Martin Luther King did, and he put his faith first,” Bofia said of serving in the liturgy. “So, me reading up there, it’s like I was kind of trying to do the same thing, as well, trying to follow his lead.”

Representatives of the Order of Malta — which has a particular charism to serve the sick and vulnerable populations — also attended the annual Mass.

“We’re just trying to build a bridge to make sure that our order is working together to promote all the things that Dr. Martin Luther King was trying to promote as well,” said John Even, president of the order’s Phoenix location.

“In terms of who is affected most, a lot of times the people who are the sick and the poor are people who are either in the Black community or the Hispanic community. We want to make sure that we are extending our love and support to all of them.”

Cassandra Young, the newly elected Area Deputy for the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary, and a member of the local St. Josephine Bakhita Court 369, emphasized the way their patroness tied in with Rev. King.

“She, above all things, loved Christ, and she was a follower of Christ. You never knew she had a mean spirit. She treated everyone with kindness regardless of who they were or where they were from, and that was the same thing that Martin Luther King preached,” she said.