The annual Interfaith Commemoration of the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., held on Wednesday, March 23 in Houston Hall, has been a mainstay on Penn’s campus since the 1990s. The moving and meaningful event is part of the Penn MLK Commemorative Symposium on Social Change. For years, the event has been held in January in tandem with MLK day, and follows a day of service in the community. Like so many events, the omicron surge of the COVID-19 virus in late winter postponed the event, and this year, the ceremony preceded the service day.
This year’s event was sponsored by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Committee, the Office of the Chaplain, the Office of the President, and the Urban Studies Program, with keynote speaker Liz Theoharis. A reverend and Penn alumna, Theoharis is co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign and director of the Kairos Center for Religion, Rights, & Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.
The Community Involvement Awards followed an opening performance by Indian dance team Penn Raas, welcome greetings by undergraduates Lynn Larabi and Benjamin Moss-Horwitz, and remarks by Penn’s Interim President Wendell Pritchett.
Each year, the program awards members of the Penn community who embody and enact the vision, courage, and service of Martin Luther King Jr., and each speaker reflects on how the words and actions of King are especially prescient to themselves and the current state of the world. The power of empathy and connection were invoked repeatedly, as speakers reflected on the challenges to connect and feel compassion amidst war, poverty, a pandemic, and a climate crisis.
Citing the lack of connectivity during the pandemic alongside the artificial connection that Zoom meetings and social media forces on us, sophomore Larabi said, “empathy allows us to become a link in the great chain of humanity. Only if we extend grace and kindness can we elevate our connection through intentionality. Use our digital tools to connect and also put them away to manifest love and connection.”
Pritchett reflected that when King received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the country was at war in Vietnam and mired in unrest; it was the year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. In 2022, there are wars happening throughout the world—Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, and Ukraine, to name a few. Invoking King’s words, Pritchett said, “returning hate for hate only multiplies hate. There have been white supremacist marches, an insurrection, ongoing poverty, and racism. We are here today in opposition of that darkness. This is the greatest challenge of our time. A challenge as old as humankind itself.”
The awards ceremony honored members of the Penn community who actively work for peace and the greater good, for justice, love, and peace in the model of King. Introducing the 26th annual award recipients, sophomore Emma Koskovich invoked King’s embrace of radical love, calling it “revolutionary.” Senior Aisha Khalique, president of Penn’s Muslim Student Association, said, “faith groups in particular need to reconnect and embrace each other’s struggles, and clear our own hearts of hate and division. Speak truth to power and privilege in service of humanity.”
Before University Chaplain Chaz Howard introduced the keynote speaker, the Jewish a cappella group Shabbatones sang a hymn called “Umacha.” Visibly moved, Howard quipped, “you get me every time,” following the performance. Howard reflected on the timing of the event, having had to postpone the original January date until March, so that Penn can celebrate a champion of peace “while a war is happening on the other side of the planet.”
“These are extraordinary times,” he continued. “And extraordinary times call for extraordinary leaders.”
Keynote speaker Theoharis followed, and spoke to the heart of her life’s work and mission: “The only way we are going to solve basic problems like poverty and inequality is by restructuring society. If we look at what’s going on in these yet-to-be-United States, 43% of our population are one storm, one emergency, one health care crisis away from economic ruin.” Theoharis addressed the accumulation of wealth in a few hands, and contrasted it with the fact that during the pandemic, 8 million more people fell under the poverty line in the U.S.
Community service is not enough, she continued. King represented a real incendiary reality of his time, and the struggle for justice is not over. “Fifty-three years ago, he spoke to a lifetime of building a beloved community. An edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. In this celebration of Dr. King’s life, keep asking his questions, and keep doing his work. We need moral analysis, moral articulation, and moral action.”
Theoharis called for voting rights, economic justice, and living wages, and implored moral movements to come up with solutions. She also cited the staggering cost that poverty has on the country. “Poverty costs the country more. It’s cheaper to adjust economic inequality. Remedying the problem of poverty and inequality far outweighs paying for them. The only scarcity this country has is the political will and moral consciousness to change.”
She concluded by inviting the audience to “have faith that we can take action together and have the courage to follow through on Dr. King’s mission.”