At Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church of Portland’s annual “Empower the Dream” gathering, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury encouraged the community to continue doing what is right — even during difficult times.
“Despite what seems like a tidal wave of cruelty and chaos right now, we believe in the just and equitable and compassionate world that Dr. King envisioned,” she said.
The Jan. 19 event is the church’s annual interfaith celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Chair Kafoury joined a wide array of faith community leaders and elected officials as the day’s speakers. Dr. Miles K. Davis, the first African American president of Linfield College, served as the keynote.
Host pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee welcomed the diverse audience and shared that in 1961, Dr. King visited the church, a cornerstone site in the struggle for civil rights in Portland. And though the sanctuary of the church echoes with historical significance, the day’s speakers noted that the work of lasting change is made outside the walls and in our communities.
The church’s music team and Pacific Youth choir led inspiring musical performances. Then, leaders from local Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Mormon congregations delivered messages of hope, each steeped in their respective faith traditions. Gov. Kate Brown, Chair Kafoury, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Metro President Lynn Peterson followed, speaking to the theme of “Now is Still the Time.” Commissioner Dr. Sharon Meieran also attended.
“Dr. King’s goal was to live in a world in which all people share in prosperity, where poverty and homelessness are unacceptable, where everyone has the opportunity to be reconciled and redeemed, where the table is big enough to include everyone,” Chair Kafoury said. “Because being at that table can be life changing, and it is most definitely lifesaving.”
Chair Kafoury shared that she sees that sort of transformational work at Multnomah County’s Mid-County Health Center, where every refugee who enters Oregon is first seen and cared for. “The doctors, nurses and interpreters who work at our Mid-County Health Clinic are dedicated, caring and compassionate public servants who embody for me Dr. King’s call to action …. And with that help, we have watched refugee families become our classmates, our workmates, our neighbors, our family. And because of them, our County is a richer place.
“That’s the Beloved Community we need and that’s the one that we must continue to fight to protect.”
Chair Kafoury further shared that policies and decisions by the federal government are often squarely at odds with the County’s and the community’s work to build a world that’s just and fair for all, particularly with regard to immigration, homelessness and climate change. Looking ahead, she encouraged the gathered to “make the path to the Beloved Community by continuing to walk it: together, with conviction, without fear. Holding on to hope. Holding on to each other. Holding on to the fierce urgency of now.”
The site of such a diverse group of people gathered to honor Dr. King’s legacy provided her hope, she said. “I look around this room and I’m refreshed, I’m excited and I’m ready for the journey ahead of us. I hope you look around and feel invigorated, too.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown relayed how her relationships with African American state leaders, former Oregon Sens. Margaret Carter, Avel Gordly and the late Jackie Winters, fundamentally shaped her and her administration’s priorities, especially in regards to diversifying state leadership. Mayor Wheeler spoke of the need to bring Dr. King’s vision into our current times while Metro’s Peterson shared how proud she was of the good work happening now.
Speaking with the zeal of a preacher and the lyricism of a poet, Dr. Davis, the afternoon’s keynote speaker, reminded attendees that “Dr. King was far more than a dreamer. He was fighting against a growing militarism and economic inequality that prevailed in the United States.”
Part of honoring Dr. King’s legacy is to follow our dreams with the work they require. “Our dreams remain just dreams in the absence of reflection, analysis and an action plan to birth our dreams into reality,” Dr. Davis said. “Do not become dissuaded, distracted or disillusioned by those who want to keep you in a dream state.”
Dr. Davis also traced the path of his dream to build a better life for himself. “I had allies in my dreams to help them come true. I just want to let you know, so do you,” he said.
He implored people to remember that the overriding theme of his speech preceding the words “I have a dream” was a message of action. “Dr. King taught pacifism but practiced direct action. Please do not be sedated by the betrayal of Dr. King as a dreamer. He was so much more.”