Although Monday will mark the birthday and subsequent assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. - a terrible day in U.S. history - the holiday can provide an opportunity to reflect on the civil rights leader's life and lessons.
Through a joint project of Bethel and Riverside United Church of Christ congregations, the entire Gorge region is offered an opportunity to gather in musical celebration of King's work which, in spite of his death, improved rights for all Americans of color.
Bethel UCC in White Salmon will be hosting the free evening beginning at 7 p.m. Jan. 16 featuring music and readings which reflect the messages of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The Riverside UCC gospel choir, directed by Evelyn Charity and accompanied by Tim Mayer, will perform a selection of choir, solo and piano pieces commonly sung by activists during marches and gatherings of the time.
"I have been singing gospel music since I was four years old," said Charity. "Growing up, I participated in the civil rights movement through marches, sit-ins and other demonstrations, and they always included music in the form of freedom songs which served as great inspiration for us," continued Charity. "I hope to inspire people of our community to continue the struggle for freedom, justice and human rights."
"We are so excited to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and the ongoing work being done in his spirit today," said Vicky Stifter, pastor of Riverside UCC in Hood River. "We've been hoping to pull this celebration together for several years."
According to Mayer, who is a highly skilled jazz pianist, the mixed choir of adults and teens will perform "We Shall Overcome," "Lift Every Voice," "Eyes on the Prize," "Wade in the Water," Someday We'll all be Free" and "I Woke up This Morning with my Mind Stayed on Freedom."
"Really the music for this event is the result of Evelyn Charity's direction with our regular gospel choir," said Mayer. "And, of course, it was Vicki and John's idea to create the joint celebration."
Mayer was referring to Stifter and her husband, John Boonstra, pastor of Bethel UCC in White Salmon.
Mayer will be adding his own jazz solo piano interpretations of "I Wish I Knew How to Be Free" and "We Shall Overcome" in honor of the event, as well. Hearing a small sample of his playing provided proof that those numbers will be a special experience.
"Beyond gospel, jazz is the other music associated with the civil rights movement," Mayer said, adding, "Some of the older traditional gospel tunes were adapted to reflect the messages of civil rights movement. 'Lift Every Voice' - an old spiritual - became a kind of black national anthem during the time."
"We hope that the audience will be inspired, energized and strengthened by the music and readings to carry on justice work in our own community as a result of the evening," Stifter said.
"The lessons I hope that we can still learn from MLK's life would be about sacrifice and being less self-serving. Oftentimes, we become complacent and caught up in our lives and we forget about those who are in need of our help. Dr. King reminds us to remain diligent in our fight for those who are still oppressed, uneducated and in poverty," said Charity.
Stifter noted that readings will include selections from King's speeches and writings, along with Charity's personal reflections as an African-American woman, on the impact of King's example within her own life.
"I hope that people will use MLK Day as a day of service and reflection as opposed to a vacation day," said Charity. "The Celebration ... I hope, will bring people together to remember not only how far we've come but how far we have yet to go!"
The service is free, but guests will have an opportunity to donate toward the Gorge-based Peace Village project, which teaches principles of peace and justice to children and teens during a summer camp experience each year.
The evening is open to the public and Bethel UCC is located at 480 E. Jewett Blvd. in White Salmon.