By Jill Harmacinski
---- — In both spirit and service, residents across the Merrimack Valley yesterday marked the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remembering the slain civil rights leader in song and prayer and by lending a helping hand to those in need.
“His legacy is fundamental to who I am,” said attorney Damon Smith, the deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as he spoke of King’s influence on both his professional and personal life during an energetic and poignant ceremony at the Andover Baptist Church.
Across the Merrimack River in Haverhill, some 75 volunteers led by Emmaus Inc. prepared “Welcome bags” for homeless individuals entering shelters and also made and served lunch and dinner to people in need.
It was Emmaus’ first ever MLK day of service, designed to capture the spirit of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” which called for income equality and redistribution among American workers. Organizers noted King was assassinated before his campaign was completed but his dream and pursuit of equality for all Americans still prevail.
Throughout his lifetime (1929-1968), King worked tireless for civil rights and is probably best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C. to a quarter of a million people. At age 35, he became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 4, 1968 he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
Yesterday morning, at the Andover Baptist Church, more than 100 people came to remember King. The “Unity Choir” started the 11 a.m. service by singing “Jesus Promised He’ll Take Care of Me,” which drew people to their feet, clapping and singing along.
During the ceremony, various members of the congregation stood and recited powerful quotes from civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. There were also performances by the group “Choral Majority” and liturgical dance on the church altar by Lakyia Burnes and Claudia Hyppolite-Fils.
Smith, the younger brother of church First Lady Tesha Myers, spoke to the crowd about King’s influence on his professional life, which includes his work today with HUD. Smith said he’s grateful for what King did to shape his life and he and his wife are also instilling those same values in their children.
“I didn’t know what I was capable of until I (was) inspired to do my best,” Smith.
Smith described King as a “drum major for justice,” pointing to his courageous and tireless work to improve economic opportunity, equality and voting rights for all.
But King also taught him to have faith. And when he explained why, many in the congregation were moved to tears.
Smith spoke of his son Christopher, born on June 21, 2006 with a birth defect that kept him in the hospital for the first 8 months of his life. They were surrounded by wonderful doctors and nurses, family and friends and charities who helped them.
But Christopher developed a staph infection, which doctors described as “all but a death sentence,” he said. Smith described a night he spent by his infant son in the hospital. “The longest night of my life ... while the poison of the infection coursed through his little body.”
During that night, Smith said he prayed for Gold’s help and his mercy. And “slowly but surely” Christopher’s heart rate came down and he fought the infection. He was very happy to report Christopher is now a precocious 7-year-old first grader who loves T-ball and soccer and “will talk all day long.”
“It is amazing that Martin Luther King could teach me so much and the main thing he’s taught us is to have faith ... That is by far the best lesson Dr. King teaches us — to have that faith, to use that faith,” said Smith, who received a standing ovation.
A southern luncheon was served afterwards in the church hall.
In Haverhill, volunteers met at 10:30 a.m. yesterday to make “Welcome Bags” for people who would be staying at area homeless shelters and living on the street. The bags contained personal care essentials. Meanwhile, others were assembling 200 “to go” peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunches for people in need.
And yesterday evening, in two shifts, volunteers prepared, cooked and served community meals at the Salvation Army. An estimated 150 adults and children attended. Emmaus Inc. provides shelter, affordable housing and compassionate services for homeless individuals and families.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.