The Diocese of Buffalo partnered with VOICE-Buffalo and Back to Basics Ministries for their first-ever day of community organizing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at SS. Columba-Brigid Parish in Buffalo. It focused on how to mobilize community awareness on issues in accordance with King's own methods and legacy.
In addition to the diocesan African-American Commission and Office of Cultural Diversity, which co-sponsored the event with VOICE-Buffalo, many experts on social justice and non-violent activism shared their knowledge of King, his legacy and social needs nearly 50 years after his death.
"We decided to do something different this year: to take this day to train on community organizing," said Milagros Ramos, director of Cultural Diversity. "We hope that today will help us look at ways we can address some of the injustices in our community."
Speakers included Dr. Barry Gan, professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Non-Violence at St. Bonaventure University; Pastor James Giles of Greater Works Fellowship, president of VOICE-Buffalo and executive director of Back to Basics Ministries; and Brian Zralek of VOICE-Buffalo.
Gan discussed some of the most famous events with which King is associated, as well as lesser-known facts about him. "I want to argue that King's greatest achievement is not the 'I Have a Dream' speech. It's not Montgomery. It's not Selma. But it's the legacy of his life itself," Gan said, recalling how King was a flawed human being with vices.
"He struggled a lot with himself. He knew from an early age that he was not going to live to see 40. He was assassinated at age 39," Gan said. "Living with this kind of darkness in his life and persevering, not being afraid to put himself in dangerous situations again and again, this is the legacy of his life that should speak to us the loudest."
Giles, who grew up in Niagara Falls, said his first experience with King was 50 years ago, in the aftermath of the civil rights leader's assassination on April 4, 1968.
"I was angry about him being shot, but I was even more angry when I saw the impact it had on my community," Giles said. "They began to tear up the local supermarket. They tore up the local furniture store, the hardware store ... Older citizens said, 'Oh, this is devastating, what we are doing to our own community.'"
VOICE-Buffalo started as a group of pastors on the West Side who helped shut down a local drug house. Later, they advocated for covered garbage totes to discourage rat infestations and child care programs to help single parents.
Recently, VOICE-Buffalo has focused on how to address violence in city streets at its root cause. It is working with the Erie County district attorney's office to promote the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, designed to keep first-time, low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system. It focuses on restitution to the victims and reforming offenders. Giles noted that in Erie County, much as is the case in the rest of the country, African-Americans make up a disproportionately large number of those in the system.
"Right now, there are 600 individuals held in custody in our county jail, waiting for their cases to be adjudicated, only because they can't make bail," Giles explained further. "What happens when they are found not guilty and have wasted their life sitting behind a place solely because they could not make bail? It's absolutely disgusting."
According to Zralek, communities have to be "awake" to make a difference. "We have got to be awake if we're going to do something about these feelings that we have, this awareness," he said. "When I ask you, 'What's going on with this dream?' and I see a lot of sad and angry faces, do we sort of sit on that and let it go, and go back to our day? You're here for something different."
Event attendees were asked to share their own personal experiences of King, either during his life or after his death. Later, those in attendance were each asked to have a one-on-one conversation with a stranger at his or her table to find out about issues important to that person.
Also present were Deacon LeRoy T. Gill Jr. of the Archdiocese of Chicago; Robbie Farkas-Huezo, of SS. Columba-Brigid's organizing team; Whitney Walker, executive director of VOICE-Buffalo; and Pastor Gerard Williams of Unity Fellowship, criminal justice taskforce leader of VOICE-Buffalo.
Father William "Jud" Weiksnar, OFM, pastor of SS. Columba-Brigid Parish, emphasized the difference between community organizing and community service. He said the latter is more in line with what King stood for throughout his life.
"We believe that holding a day of community service on MLK Day does not reflect who he was and what he did. He was much more an advocate of community organizing than community service," Father Weiksnar said. "We are not against community service and, in fact, we have many service opportunities at our church. But on MLK Day, to emphasize community service domesticates King's legacy, which is really much more radical, and should emphasize justice, not charity."