The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday--often viewed as a holiday honoring the dignity of racial and ethnic minorities--is also a celebration for all religions, at least as observed by San Fernando Valley interfaith leaders.
Recalling the slain Baptist minister's efforts to advance civil rights Monday night were a host of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic representatives.
"We make it a point to bring all religious communities together and have people of different traditions speak," said the Rev. Al Axelton, president of the Valley Interfaith Council, whose seventh annual King birthday holiday service at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church was attended by nearly 300 people.
Earlier, a crowd of 80 people, mostly African Americans, attended the 18th annual King birthday ceremony at the Boys & Girls Club in Pacoima. Despite celebrations with gospel songs and recitations, a sense of concern pervaded the gathering.
"We've taken three steps forward and four steps backward. . . . You have a society spending more on prisons than education," said the Rev. Zedar E. Broadous, president of the sponsoring San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
The mood was more hopeful, however, at the interfaith service inside the white tent that serves as the temporary worship hall for Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, which was damaged in the Northridge earthquake.
"We can't help remembering this week the great natural force that shaped our lives, but we also mark here tonight a great moral force, no less awesome," said the Rev. Suzanne Spencer, minister of the Unitarian Church of Studio City, who offered the opening prayer.
The Rev. William Broadous, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Pacoima and one of several Broadous family members in the ministry, focused on the redemptive character of King's vision expressed in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech delivered in Washington in 1963.
"King spoke of where God would want us to be in the future," Broadous said.
"King saw the oppressed and the oppressors sitting down together at the table of brotherhood," Broadous said to the multifaith audience. "It's time to make Martin Luther King's redemptive dream a redemptive reality."
The annual interfaith service was held last year at a Jewish synagogue in Woodland Hills, and two years before that in a Mormon church in Van Nuys. Monday night's rites included readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran, the latter by Khalid Hassan of the Islamic Center of Northridge.
The Rev. Brandon Cho, the Korean-born district superintendent for United Methodist churches in the Valley area, said before the service that King's legacy "has become an inspiration for all faiths. He brought us to the realization that all of humanity has access to the truth of God."
Even with the spirit of gratitude for King's work, however, some speakers expressed a note of caution. Tyree Wieder, acting president of Valley College and a member of Temple Ahavat Shalom, was among them.
"As an African American and a Jew," she said, "I see firsthand how separately we live in this city--we tend to be a very segregated lot. Evenings like this are far too few."
Sober recollections of past discrimination were part of the afternoon observance in Pacoima. In a speech that arrested the audience's attention for 15 minutes, NAACP Executive Committee member Buddy Hogan recalled how society had changed since he was a child avoiding "Whites Only" signs in the South.
The children in the audience should emulate the principles King espoused, he said. "There are many, many Martin Luther King Jr.'s sitting here today," he said. "You are preparing yourself to lead and help your people."
Akilah Murphy, a 17-year-old from Pacoima, recited a speech that slave owner William Lynch gave to his peers in 1712. The speech outlined Lynch's theories about pitting slaves--male and female, dark and light--against each other. All these years later, "William Lynch is in his grave now with a huge smile on his face," said Akilah, a senior at San Fernando High School.
"As far as our rights, we've come a long way but the racism is still there and it's not as blatant," she added. "We are much closer to the day when we will be judged by the content of our characters rather than the color of our skin."
Brandon Green, 16, recited an excerpt from King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But in an interview after he returned to his seat, Brandon said he believes he is still judged by the color of his skin, not his character. In a recent job interview, an employer told him he had no chance of being hired because his dreadlock haircut would scare potential customers, even though Brandon has sales experience.
Ten members of the NAACP's youth council re-enacted a street protest, marching through the audience with picket signs reading: "End segregation rules in public schools" and "We demand equal rights now."
"What happened to the dream?" they said.