Published January 18, 2007
The Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, which was the text used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave his last public address in 1968, provided the inspiration for the 2007 Mass remembering the legacy of the civil rights leader in a new time of heightened questions about “who is my neighbor.”
Father Stephen D. Thorne, pastor and archdiocesan director of the Office of Black Catholics in Philadelphia, said King spoke 39 years ago of the need for a “dangerous unselfishness” as he preached about the compassionate Good Samaritan, who was an outsider to the Jewish culture but acted as a true neighbor when he found a badly beaten man.
“He spoke about a Good Samaritan who saw a need and stopped, a man of a different culture and race who stopped. Why? He saw a need. … He saw a need and he reached out to it,” Father Thorne said. “That’s what you and I are called to do.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan is “the story about how we are called to love, to serve, to give our best to God and neighbor,” said the priest, preaching at the Atlanta Archdiocesan Mass Jan. 13 celebrated at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In the Gospel, the young man asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
“Who is my neighbor? Anyone and everyone in need,” Father Thorne responded.
While in 1968, King was speaking of Memphis sanitation workers as his neighbors in need, this year the theme for the Mass is “welcoming the stranger among us,” and “the message we have as our theme must come off the page” and be lived, Father Thorne told a diverse congregation who filled the Shrine on a Saturday afternoon.
“To those who speak English or not, you must continue to say welcome. To those with a different skin color, you must continue to say welcome. To those struggling with their faith life, you and I must continue to say welcome.”
As Catholics, “how can we not be the first to say welcome,” he said. King’s voice “still cries out from Atlanta … reminding us still to say welcome and to serve anyone and everyone in need.”
“I pray for you and I pray for me to always do the right thing, to continue to serve anyone and everyone you feel might be in need. Don’t pass by,” he implored.
In his homily, Father Thorne alluded to information printed in the Mass program and gathered by the Atlanta Office for Black Catholic Ministry. The office was originally set up in the 1980s to assist a number of predominantly black Catholic parishes, but many changes have been evolving since the 1990s.
A significant number of black Catholics moving into the archdiocese are now joining the parish nearest their home and becoming active there, the program reported. At the same time, evangelizing from the OBCM now embraces new cultural Catholic communities that include Catholics from the Ivory Coast and other French-speakers, Haitian Catholics, a Nigerian-Igbo Catholic community, Eritrean refugees and immigrants who belong to the Ge’ez Rite Catholic tradition, a Togolese Catholic community, and a Gambian Christian association based in Atlanta.
Reflecting this newer reality were the lectors for the Mass—Chukwudi Anikpe, a member of St. Paul of the Cross Church in Atlanta and the Nigerian Catholic community, and Marie Veronique Bielo, who belongs to the Cathedral of Christ the King and the Ivorian Catholic community.
Multicolored banners at the Shrine, originally created to greet visitors to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, say the word “Welcome” in many languages. The general intercessions were spoken in English and in many other languages, including French and Chinese.
The congregation included plumed Knights of Peter Claver forming an honor guard, Ladies of Peter Claver in their distinctive white suits and hats, but also women from the Korean Catholic community in formal dresses, families with children, and people appearing to be from every walk of life.
The Archbishop Lyke Memorial Mass Choir and cantor Janis Griffin led the music, which was augmented by the plaintive sound of a shofar, or ram’s horn, opening the Mass, and a drum call to worship. The Amazing Grace liturgical dancers provided a Communion meditation.
The 2007 Father Bruce Wilkinson Founders Award was given to Emma Jackson of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur, who was nominated by her pastor, Father Eric Hill. A native of Atlanta, Jackson taught in the Atlanta public schools for 35 years and has been married for 35 years, with two daughters. She is active in her parish in bereavement, in evangelization, on the women’s council, and in the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver.
Her pastor said, “Emma gives her all to the people of God. She does so without question or complaint. … She is a true delight who lives in and with the Lord.”
Honored as 2007 History Makers were Lady DeLise Coleman of College Park, a member of St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville, who was elected national secretary of the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary in 2006; the Knights of Peter Claver for establishing the first international council of the Knights in 2006 on the island of San Andres, Colombia; and Dr. Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier University, Louisiana, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
The Mass was one of three major Catholic events held during the King weekend in the archdiocese, all reaching across cultural lines. A youth celebration was held at St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur and for the first time a young adult celebration was held at a Midtown restaurant in Atlanta. St. Paul of the Cross Church was the lead parish planning the weekend celebrations under the oversight of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry. Deacon Hilliard Lee and Regina Sanford co-chaired the parish committee. Filipino Father Jed Sumampong, CP, pastor, advised the committee and was honored at the Mass for his leadership.
In choosing “we welcome the stranger among us” as the theme for 2007, the Office for Black Catholic Ministry was acknowledging a large challenge, said Charles Prejean, director.
“This is a very important issue for us as church,” he said. “It may not seem like we did a big thing saying ‘we welcome the stranger,’ but I think some folks are beginning to get the message we live in a complex world, a world much different from the Cold War world we came out of.”
The theme was publicized to state and local officials who were invited to the Mass, many of whom sent letters in response to the invitation that were published in the Mass program.
“We had an opportunity to say who we are as church to our public officials,” Prejean said. “We told them all what our theme is. Many wrote us letters that played off the theme. I think we are sending a message.”
Prejean, a participant in the civil rights movement, met with King while serving as executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in the 1960s.
“He was such an inspiration then as he is now,” Prejean said. “It is still important to know what he stood for and to move toward realizing the beloved community.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who spoke at the conclusion of the Mass where he was the principal celebrant, beamed as he expressed his joy “to look out and see the face of North Georgia so wondrously assembled here at this Eucharist.”
The archbishop, who has spoken and written to legislators, along with other bishops of the Atlanta Province, about the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, said he believes Atlanta, in particular, must have a heart for the stranger.
“Atlanta has a special place in the hearts of the United States as the home and final resting place of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was here he learned he had to stand up for justice,” Archbishop Gregory said. “We welcome the stranger among us because we are the heirs of Dr. King. We are entrusted with his remains. ….”
He said the Catholic community of North Georgia will stand in solidarity with the newly arriving.
“There is no one who comes to Atlanta who is not welcome, and we will stand with them as they make this their home,” Archbishop Gregory said.