A gospel choir’s joyous hymns rose to the vaulted ceiling of a Catholic church in Roxbury Sunday as clergy, parishioners, and visitors gathered to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and consider the ongoing struggle for racial equality.
The men and women of the Boston Community Choir lifted 19 voices in song, clapped 19 pairs of hands, and swayed 19 sets of hips as they performed.
The music-filled prayer service at St. Katherine Drexel Parish on Blue Hill Avenue was one of numerous events across the city planned for Sunday and Monday to remember the civil rights leader, slain nearly 45 years ago, on the federal holiday that honors him.
Choir member Adrienne Campbell said as a teenager she took part in a 1965 march that King led from Roxbury to the Boston Common.
“We have overcome, but we have a lot more to do,” said Campbell, 62.
Campbell reflected on the timing of the holiday and the second inauguration of President Obama, and on the problem of urban violence, another issue on which she said King’s message resonated through the years.
“It has nothing to do with color,” she said of finding a solution to the violence. “It has to do with people putting down some of their arms.”
In his homily at the prayer service, Deacon Avery Hanna spoke of King’s dedication to his mission.
“He stood up for what he believed in, and because he stood up for what he believed in, we are here today,” he said.
Hanna, a student at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston who grew up in the Bahamas, said King had lifted people up from the hardships faced by earlier generations.
“He had this dream,” Hanna said. “He took on that dream, and he saw that dream through to the end.”
Parishioner Juliette Toulon said the service was a way to remember King and to celebrate that much of his dream had come true, as Obama was inaugurated for his second term.
“It shows that God is good, and he shows us in many ways that he can transcend through human beings the oppression, the ignorance, the misery, and all the challenges that we face,” said Toulon, 53, an immigrant from the Caribbean nation of Dominica.
“It can be a real footprint for us to follow in our our own personal challenges, of how we too can achieve and transcend the difficulties that this world presents for a brighter future in this new millennium,” Toulon said.
Sebastian Onwuka, a biology professor at Roxbury Community College who came to the United States from Nigeria more than 30 years ago, credited King with making it possible for him to attend the almost all-white Texas A&M University as a young man.
“It has a lot of impact,” Onwuka, 58, said of King’s work. “That’s why I’m where I am today.”
At an earlier Sunday service, more than 200 people of all races filled the pews of St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston to hear Reverend Joseph Nangle, who called King a prophet.
Nangle, a Franciscan friar visiting from Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Arlington, Va., challenged people of all faiths to call upon Obama, as King once called upon President Lyndon B. Johnson, to confront issues of poverty, war abroad, and violence at home.
“Our Catholic Church in America, I believe, has become what Dr. King called ‘a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound,’ ” Nangle said, quoting King’s influential “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Nangle said the church had become too associated with “opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage” when its focus should be on opposition to “national and global poverty, war-making, and the destruction of our beautiful planet.”
“We, with our Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim sisters and brothers, are called at this time in history to be the kind of prophetic presence we celebrate on this inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend,” he said.
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.