Interfaith musical service pays tribute to MLK


Via Trikosko, Marion S. | Library of Congress

During the interfaith service praising Martin Luther King Jr. on Tuesday night, art, music and poetry were used to bridge different faiths.

By Neena Hagen, Staff Writer

On a cold winter night, about 50 people of different ethnicities, ages and faiths huddled together in the front rows of Heinz Chapel for Pitt’s annual interfaith service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Jay Oriola, the program manager of Pitt’s interfaith office, hoped to bring them even closer.

“King did what most people of his time thought impossible — he brought white people, black people, Jews, Christians, men and women, Democrats and Republicans all together,” Oriola said. “That’s what we hope to do at services like this one.”

The joint effort between the University of Pittsburgh Association of Chaplaincies and the Office of Cross Cultural and Leadership Development produced a service with a variety of different performances and speeches. Students and University administrators celebrated King’s life and legacy through art, music and poetry, and speakers of different faiths praised King for bridging the divide between religions. Among the speakers was senior religious studies and sociology major Sarah Koros, a Pitt student with the Hillel Jewish University Center.

“Dr. King sought harmony within a society that sanctions inequality and encourages us to fear difference,” Koros said. “The Pittsburgh Jewish community is very familiar with this chaos, pain and loss that we experienced during the Tree of Life shooting in October, but many of us continue to seek peace, healing and harmony.”

The Jewish community has been an ally to King and his civil rights cause going back to the 1960s. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with King in Selma in 1965, when King and other civil rights leaders protested barriers to black people’s voting rights. Heschel said he “prayed with his feet” — that marching was his form of prayer during the protests.

“May we all continue our collective prayer with our feet, our hearts and our voices,” Koros said.

Koros used a Jewish parable to illustrate why King was a visionary for his time. In the parable, a man planted a tree that wouldn’t bear fruit for 70 years, she said, not to feed himself, but to feed generations long after his death.

“Dr. King has planted the seeds of justice for our generation,” Koros said.

Aaron Hill, a senior political science and communication major at Pitt, echoed Koros’ statement after delivering a dramatic rendition of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Hill belongs to Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity to which King belonged to during his college years at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Hill said the connection motivated him to study King’s speeches.

“The teachings of MLK and his words brought me here today,” Hill said. “The more I go over his words, [the more I realize] the metaphors he uses in his speeches are just as applicable to the 1960s as they are to today’s society.”

The primary focus of the service was not on King’s words, but embodying his spirit and his goals through art forms instead of religion, head organizer Sherdina Harper said. This approach allows people of different faiths to bond together more easily.

“One of the rules in here is that we’re not allowed to push any religion — we’re here to share perspectives,” Harper said. “I think the more that students stop viewing religions as separate and realize we’re all unified, the more we’ll be able to respect each other’s beliefs … and learn from one another.”

The service featured several different kinds of interpretive dances. In the first dance of the evening, the dancers’ hands and legs swirled around. Another group, the Anointed Steps of Faith, clapped and stomped their feet in a rhythmic pattern.

The Heinz Chapel Choir sang a rendition of “My Hope is Built,” a Christian song that emphasizes the importance of faith. But despite the song’s religious message, choir member and Pitt junior studying neuroscience and music Lindsay Ejoh believes music in general “transcends all religious and ethnic barriers.”

“It’s not just inclusion of different faiths but inclusion of different art forms. The atmosphere really brings people together,” Ejoh said. “Music is timeless … and really it’s just another way to give glory to God.”

For Koros, that statement rings true not only for Christians, but for her faith as well.

“Jewish prayer for many is a musical experience which deepens our spirituality,” Koros said.

Oriola said it’s not always easy to find forms of expression that bring together all religions, but that it’s paramount to ensure that Pitt fosters an inclusive community on campus.

“‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,’” Oriola said, quoting what’s usually attributed as an African proverb. “That quote has become the backbone of our social justice initiatives here on campus. Creating harmony, as Dr. King did, is one thing, but creating harmony in the midst of chaos is another.”

To Harper, King’s message was effective. It cut through the chaos and made the world a better place.

“Regardless of our complexion or religion, we should love all humankind,” Harper said.

To conclude the service, Harper told the congregation to rise. All attendees shuffled forward, formed a circle and joined hands as Harper led a group rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all human beings, we all have red blood, we all have a purpose,” Harper said to the circle. “And that makes us all brothers and sisters.”