By MADDY VITALE
Ocean City church and community leaders didn’t allow the COVID-19 crisis to prevent them from observing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to celebrate his message of peace and love.
“Today, we celebrate the legacy, the work, the life of a man whose life was fueled by his faith in his creator, a man, who profoundly changed the consciousness and character of America,” Ocean City Tabernacle Director of Youth Ministry Jonathan Gonzales said on stage at the Tabernacle. “Did you know legacy is not what we do for ourselves; legacy is what we do for the next generation?”
Although Ocean City’s King Day celebration was not stopped by the pandemic, the ceremony was conducted virtually at the Tabernacle to protect the participants from COVID-19. Gonzalez called upon those who watched the virtual ceremony to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
“Today, I challenge you to lean in, to search your heart and be inspired to act and answer the call of God in your life,” he said. “Look at the example as clear evidence of what an impact you can make. Legacy, it’s not what we do for ourselves; it’s what we do for the next generation.”
His words were followed by a performance from the Stockton Oratorio Society Section Chorus, led by Dr. Beverly Vaughn, of “I Don’t Believe He Brought Me This Far To Leave Me.”
Video courtesy of Martin Fiedler, Just Right TV Productions
In addition to live performances, the hour-long virtual program included prayer and reflections on Dr. King, the honoring of Ocean City residents with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Services Award, and a recitation of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Gregory Johnson.
Mayor Jay Gillian spoke of overcoming difficulties of this past year. He stressed that the past year had its share of challenges from a pandemic to political fighting that has divided the nation. Now, he said, is the time to come together for one another.
“It’s a great honor for me to be a part of this tradition and it saddens me that we can’t be here together today,” Gillian said of hosting the ceremony without people in the audience. “It would have been hard to imagine last year at this time that a global pandemic would keep us apart. It also would have been hard to imagine that our world would be even more divided.”
He spoke of how Dr. King would not give in to anger. “He remained true to unity,” Gillian noted. “I feel blessed to live here and serve as mayor of this wonderful community. Many different people make up our town. We do not always agree, but we all share the love of Ocean City.”
The mayor then offered some advice. “Let’s look away from the social media. Let’s remember that we are friends and neighbors and we are all a part of the same great country. And let’s think of all the small things that we can do to make the world a better place. That was Dr. King’s dream, and that is what will carry us forward.”
Three members of the community, Kathy Thompson, Jennifer Bowman and VFW Post 6650 Commander Mike Morrissey, were honored for their volunteerism with the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Services awards.
All three, the mayor said, have helped the community in many ways. Thompson and Bowman both provide meals to those in need through their volunteer work at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church. Morrissey, as commander of the VFW Post, has always helped the community whenever he is called upon, Gillian said.
Thompson said her volunteer work would not be possible without all of the support of those around her, including Bowman.
“Martin Luther King Jr. stood heavenly above me,” she said in remarks during the ceremony.
Thompson also said she was truly honored by the city for receiving the award.
Bowman could not attend the ceremony. However, the mayor’s aide, Michael Allegretto, spoke about Bowman’s dedication to children, students and senior citizens with a host of kind deeds she does throughout the year to help others.
“Everyone from school kids to seniors know what Jen Bowman does,” he said. “She gives hundreds of hours of her time to help the community.”
Morrissey, like Thompson, said he was humbled by the award. He said he and his fellow VFW Post members will always answer the call of duty for the residents of Ocean City.
“All members took an oath. We did when we went to combat and we continue to do that today when we serve the community. We took the oath which never expires,” Morrissey said. “VFW 6650 will always be ready and at the forefront when helping Ocean City.”
During the ceremony, four students from the Ocean City Intermediate School who won an essay contest read their essays about the impact Dr. King has had in all lives. They were seventh-graders Joseph Heng and Gabrielle Henry and eighth-graders Danna Ramirez and Catie Brooks.
State Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, a former Ocean City councilman, introduced the students. After they recited their essays he said, “Thank you very much. Your heartfelt words have meant a lot.”
Joseph Heng explained in his essay what Dr. King meant to him and how the late civil rights leader shaped his life.
“He firmly believed in racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of peace, activism and justice has taught me the importance of equality, service and to always fight for what I believe in,” Joseph noted.
Another speaker, Rev. Marcia Stanford of Macedonia United Methodist Church, said she looked at King’s “I have a Dream Speech” and the powerful word of “still” was an obvious one to reflect on.
“Now is still the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation,” she said.
It is “still the time to make justice a reality,” she continued.
“Let us still not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…The fight still goes on,” Rev. Stanford said.
The ceremony ended with Dr. King’s epic “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963, delivered by Rev. Greg Johnson of Shiloh Baptist Church, outside of the Tabernacle.
He also paused to thank frontline workers amid the pandemic.
“We want to say thank you to everyone who has assisted us during this national crisis,” Rev. Johnson said.
He also asked that those who have died of COVID-19 be remembered.
And then he said these words, while joined by the Stockton chorus, who sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement.
“Thank you for all that you’ve done as we share in this occasion of celebrating the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Keep hope alive, and, yes, it may be dark right now. And although the sun is continuing to go down, let us hold fast to what means so much to us,” Rev. Johnson said. “Kiss your children. Hold your wife. Tell someone that you love them, because we shall overcome, someday.”