By Kevin Coughlin
What a difference eight years makes.
Morristown’s 2009 Martin Luther King Day breakfast, held one day before the inauguration of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was a joyful celebration.
On Monday, with Donald Trump’s presidency only days away, the affair had a more urgent tone. Speakers implored more than 400 listeners to remain true to King’s ideals, and to demand the same from their leaders–even if that feels uncomfortable.
“Trump does not espouse Christian values, no matter how many people say he does,” the Rev. Alison Miller of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship told a crowd at the Hyatt Regency Morristown.
Many stood and applauded. One who remained seated, directly in front of Miller, was Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), who supports Trump and has been named chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
During brief remarks that preceded Miller’s keynote, the 12-term congressman from Harding wondered aloud what King would think of modern public discourse, “a world dominated by social media, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and fake news.”
Disagreements escalate into dehumanization, he said, straining “bonds of understanding and common purpose.”
“What we need is more love, more education, more understanding and more kindness,” Frelinghuysen said.
‘WHAT ARE WE DOING?’
Felicia Jamison, who co-founded Morristown’s Martin Luther King Observance Committee 47 years ago, said the slain civil rights leader’s messages of tolerance and equality are more relevant than ever before. On the eve of a Trump administration and Republican Congress bent on repealing Obamacare and dismantling Obama’s legacy, Jamison is trying to remain optimistic.
“I think God is going to speak and change some hearts… I have to be hopeful,” she said. “We have to recognize the dignity and worth of all persons. We must see the humanity in each of us.”
Morristown High School’s string ensemble played soothing notes, scholarships were announced, and invocations were delivered at Monday’s event, officially know as the 32nd annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast.
But the theme on the podium was The Dream at the Crossroads, Empowering Love to Overcome– with the emphasis on crossroads.
Matthew Quainno, a 21-year-old a preacher-in-training at the Princeton Theological Seminary, cited perceptions of police brutality in the wake of shootings of blacks across the country, disproportionately high incarceration rates of black and Hispanic men, and the widening gulf between haves and have-nots.
“What are we doing when it’s easier to buy a gun than to get a job?…What are we doing when healthcare is an accessory for the poor and a necessity for the rich?…What are we doing when politicians fill their cabinets not with prophets, but with people who seek profits? What are we doing?”
Quainno warned against complacency.
“We run the risk of only being activists on Facebook, but not showing up at protests.”
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. For captions, hover over image.
‘THEY WILL COME FOR ALL OF US, EVENTUALLY’
Miller said shootings, the Standing Rock showdown over the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the presidential election, among other issues, amount to a wake-up call for a country “at a crossroads between a revolution of love and a backlash of fear.”
“Are you awake? It is a vital question,” said Miller. “If you think that Black Lives Matter is only about black people, then you may be asleep. If you think that marching for women’s rights is only for women to do, then you may be asleep.”
Watch videos of these speeches; see former MLK associate sound off on Trump
As the mother of a 5-year-old, she said, she is troubled to read of swastikas on playgrounds.
“I know our freedom is interwoven. They will come for all of us, eventually, if we do not unite in a spirit of love that is not complacent. It is a spirit of love that will not let you down, and will not let you off the hook,” said Miller, 42.
She challenged churches and law enforcement to listen to, and get behind, movements like Black Lives Matter.
“Something we all need to get used to is being a little bit uncomfortable,” said Miller, who is running for election as leader of her national church organization.
The minister said she was heartened by the turnout at a march in memory of patrons massacred at an Orlando gay bar last year.
People put aside their differences, and their discomfort, to come together, she said. It gave her hope for a dream of her own:
“I want to live in a world where people are more comfortable seeing two men holding hands than holding a gun,” Miller said.
Guests bow their heads during blessing at 2017 MLK Day breakfast in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin