Martin Luther King and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
by Father Harry Winter, OMI
Although it began in 1908, the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Jan. 18-25, took a jump following Vatican II (1962-65), and peaked about 1980. Then it began slowly to lessen in observance. Concern that the disunity among Christian Churches was hurting Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation efforts lessened. The bond between Ecumenism and Evangelization weakened.
It became clear that Martin Luther King stood for civil rights for all, not just African-Americans. Native Americans and Hispanics especially began to see Dr. King as a champion of justice for everyone. Black Catholics, a minority within Catholicism, began to bond with the Black Churches such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and black Baptist Churches.Placing the observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday on the third Monday of January, sometimes right in the middle of the Week, and sometimes before it, as this year, seemed at first to be the final straw that made the Week of Christian Unity too difficult to observe. However, after a few years, the two organizations in the USA responsible for the Week (the Protestant/Eastern Orthodox National Council of Churches and the Catholic Graymoor Atonement/US Conference of Catholic Bishops) decided to draw up materials which would incorporate Dr. King’s birthday with the observance of the Week.
All Christians began to remember that Catholic priests, religious men, and sisters, white Protestant ministers, and Jewish rabbis, marched proudly with Dr. King. When US Senator Jesse Helms distributed a 300 page document attempting to prove that Dr. King was associated with Communists, it was Catholic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who called the document “a packet of filth,” threw it on the Senate floor, and stomped on it (see Wikipedia, Martin Luther King Birthday Observance).
On Sunday, Jan. 24, 1999, our superior general, Louis Lougen, was serving as the pastor of Holy Angels Church, Buffalo, NY, an Italian-American parish with a growing number of Hispanics. He had continued the membership of the parish in VOICE Buffalo, which membership his predecessor as pastor, Tony Rigoli, has begun. VOICE Buffalo continues to this day as an interfaith organization promoting social Justice in the Buffalo, NY area.
VOICE Buffalo held an Ecumenical Service of Worship at White Rock Missionary Baptist Church, 480 E. Utica Street, Buffalo, from 4-6 pm, and I accompanied Fr. Lougen to provide support for the lay representative from Holy Angels to VOICE, Owen Dussault. “Loud, joyful, jammed with 400 people…What an upbeat celebration after all the poorly attended events of the Week of Prayer,” I noted in my journal. The large African-American population of Buffalo was well represented at the service.
So the decision to promote materials for Martin Luther King’s birthday, as either a preparation for or part of the Week of Prayer seems to be revitalizing concern for Christian Unity. This year’s material also contain specific references to King’s namesake, Martin Luther, and the impetus given to Catholic-Lutheran relations by Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden last Oct. 31-Nov. 1 for the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther’s theses
For more on the documents from the pope’s Sweden visit, go to Missionary Unity Dialogue’s website, www.harrywinter.org.
Remembering Dr. King and his legacy promotes Christian Unity; Christian Unity is needed to accomplish what he began.