Unity was the dominant theme at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Luncheon presented on Jan. 15 by the New Interfaith Coalition of Baltimore County.

The coalition consists of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Greater Baltimore Muslim Council, the Greater Hindu Coalition, Morning Star Baptist Church and the Sikh Alliance of the DMV Area.

MLK Luncheon

Verletta White (right), interim superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools,and Aisha Khan of the Greater Baltimore Muslim Council. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

The gathering, held at the Morning Star Baptist Church Community Outreach Center in Woodlawn, drew approximately 250 faith leaders, politicians and community members from the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Sikh religious traditions.

Attendees came together to commemorate the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader and to honor local individuals who have worked to improve interfaith relations.

Bishop Dwayne C. Debnam of Morning Star Baptist Church welcomed visitors and thanked the individuals who put together the program.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to assure the equality of all persons,” he said. “So Dr. King was not concerned about what your religion was, he was not concerned about what your ethnicity was. He was not concerned if you were an immigrant. … Let me try that again. He was not concerned if you were an immigrant. His concern was that you were human, and to him humans deserve to have the same rights and the same opportunities.

“We live now in an era where morals, ethics and truth are compromised,” the bishop continued. “We’ve come together today to take a stand for our families, our communities and even our nation. Though our top tier of government is affected, we stand for the right to be different … to be free, for the right to be alive.”

Bishop Debnam was not the only speaker whose comments referenced the Trump administration’s policies and recent political events. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz alluded to President Donald Trump’s alleged use of a vulgar phrase to describe African nations and Haiti last week.

MLK Luncheon

Bishop Dwayne Debnam (left) prays with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz .(Photo by Steve Ruark)

“We were all saddened by the president’s comments last week,” said Kamenetz. “Dr. King said that nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. How did he know? What a prophet. We were saddened but when I thought about it some more, I thought it revealed more about the maker of the statement and his insecurities. If Donald Trump is unhappy or uncomfortable with his surroundings so that he has to make statements like this, I am comforted. … It shows we’re moving in that right direction. Today, we recognize the principles of unity, peace and tolerance. That was Dr. King’s message.”

Besides Kamenetz, other politicians in attendance included Sen. James Brochin (D-42nd), Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-44th),  Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-44B),  Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr. (D-6th), Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-11th)  and Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-2nd).

Gov. Larry Hogan did not attend, but Maryland Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer Jr. spoke on his behalf. “This event is an example of what is right,” said Redmer. “We are committed to equality and opportunity for all. … We want you to know how much we value you and appreciate all you do for the community and for Maryland.”

MLK Luncheon

Teacher Louise Geczy and BJC Executive Director Howard Libit, (Photo by Steve Ruark)

Ten people — two from each faith group — were honored with Community Voices of Change awards. Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, presented the coalition’s awards to honorees Martha Weiman and Louise Geczy.

Geczy, senior project coordinator at the John Carroll School in Bel Air, leads a Holocaust education program at the Catholic high school. Co-sponsored by the BJC and the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the program titled “Lessons of the Shoah” brings Holocaust survivors to the school to share their experiences. The students also travel to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Each year, hundreds of students learn about the horrors of the Holocaust so we can make sure that it never happens again,” said Libit when introducing Geczy.

Accepting the award, Geczy told the audience, “I was inspired by John F. Kennedy that one person could make a difference, and I was further inspired by Dr. King when he showed us by his own example how to make that difference actually occur. And so in my own way I’ve tried to do that over the years, but I’ve been blessed to interact with Baltimore area Holocaust survivor community. They are incredible human beings who have made me a far better human being than I would have been otherwise.”

Weiman — a past president of the BJC and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation who currently sits on the board of directors of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Jewish Volunteer Connection and the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel — was also honored.

Weiman, a Holocaust survivor who lost most of her family during the Shoah, told the audience, “I am humbled by this tribute on such a special day. … We are all God’s children.” Weiman also shared some words from the late writer, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Weiman’s husband, Stan Weiman, a local actor, also participated in the event, performing scripted readings from King’s speeches and his reflections on the themes of service, faith and love.

Toward the end of the program, there was a call to action by Shahab Qarni, a  Pakistani-American banker, entrepreneur and human rights activist. Qarni told audience members that the coalition was in the process of creating a platform to expand awareness about interfaith issues throughout Baltimore County and the rest of the state.

“Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream,” he said. “Let me respond to that and say we all have dreams. … My challenge to the people in this room: Each one of us has an obligation and responsibility to respond to Martin Luther King’s dream.”