Dr. Beverly Thomas remembers the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visiting her house in Selma when she was a child — her mother was a first cousin of the famed Civil Rights leader.

“I remember him. He had a couple little speeches for the community to pull everything together before the march,” she said, recalling the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. “My mom took us with her when they had the community gatherings. He was such a very nice, gentle soul, but at the same time he was determined to get equality among the people and bring everyone together.”

As the nation prepares to celebrate the life and legacy of Rev. King, Thomas finds herself leading the committee to organize the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Mass scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, at Brophy College Preparatory High School, 4701 N. Central Ave., Phoenix — ahead of the national holiday in his honor, celebrated Jan. 15 this year.

In years past, the Diocese of Phoenix Office of Black Catholic Ministry organized the celebration. With St. Josephine Bakhita being established in 2022, the parish is taking the reins of the annual event.

“It’s not just a Black celebration or for Black people, it’s a celebration of the human person and his or her innate rights that come from God,” said Fr. Andrew McNair, pastor of St. Josephine and the Black Catholic Ministry director for the diocese. “When we don’t recognize the dignity of the human person in all its stages, then we’re infringing on the fundamental right of the human person. If we can learn to acknowledge our humanity and celebrate our humanity — that we are created in the likeness and image of God —, it will create a whole different dynamic in human relationships entirely.”

This year’s celebration includes a breakfast and awards ceremony to recognize service projects designed by high school students to promote racial reconciliation.

“We really want the children getting involved in this,” said Thomas. “We’d like to have all of the high school children involved and have the teachers as well as the principals to really promote this project and make it something that’s going to be sustainable even once that child has gone.”

For the service project, students are asked to research the speeches and writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., such as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” or his “I Have a Dream” speech. Based on this research, they should reflect on the project’s impact on social justice.

“We wanted to engage young people, help young people learn about the Dream of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Fr. McNair, who will be preaching at the Mass and will be joined by Bishop John Dolan. “The kids have to study and go deep into the writings of Dr. King and then apply it into a service project. This engages the students in the dignity of the human person and doing that on a practical level in their school and community. It’s putting into practice the social doctrine of the Church.”

Students then should identify a social justice issue in their school or community that aligns with the principles that Rev. King espoused. This is followed by the implementation and execution of a project, along with an evaluation and testimonials. Project portfolios are due to the parish at stjbphx.mlk@gmail.com by Dec. 31.

“The service project is something new,” said Fr. McNair. “Looking through the records for the last 20 years, I have not seen a service project of any type connected to the Martin Luther King celebration at a diocesan level, and what better opportunity to engage the high school students.”

As a Baptist minister, Rev. King’s own understanding of the Gospels served as the catalyst in advocating for racial justice.

“From a historical perspective, the fight for human and civil rights was born in this country out of the Church as a faith-based movement. It was a faith-based movement where people united their fight for their dignity to the Gospel message,” said Fr. McNair. “You can tell he was well-read and read the Church Fathers, and not only the Church Fathers, but other great social thinkers that influenced him. At the heart of everything was the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ.”

As a Catholic priest and pastor, Fr. McNair finds inspiration from Rev. King’s ministry, particularly his “personal and passionate love for Jesus Christ.”

“When he talks about charity and the commandment of love, and he speaks about forgiveness and the refusal to hate, and all of that flows from the new covenant in Christ,” reflected Fr. McNair. “Christianity is unique in the sense in the message of forgiveness. I can’t think of anything that speaks of forgiveness and mercy like Christianity does.

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