Long Island Catholics displayed tremendous courage and true Christian values during the civil rights movement, Bishop John O. Barres said Sunday during a Mass celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as he called on the faithful to undertake King’s work and continue the struggle for social justice.
Barres reminded the racially and ethnically diverse congregation at St. John of God Church in Central Islip that many Long Island nuns, priests and lay people marched with King. The Baptist minister would have been 89 years old Monday had he not been gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis motel in April 1968.
King embodied social justice values that have long been a tenet of Catholic teachings, Barres said. He recalled that Bishop Walter Kellenberg, the first bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s 60-year history, urged Long Island Catholics to reflect on race and religion during the 1960s.
“It was our founding bishop, Bishop Kellenberg, right at the height of civil rights, who asked everyone in our diocese to make an examination of their conscience and the dignity of the human person next to us,” Barres said.
Central Islip struggled with gang-related crime last year when the bodies of four young men authorities say were killed by MS-13 members were found less than a mile from St. John of God. The community, with its large Central American immigrant population, has also been roiled by the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Ann Brown, who attended the service and chairs the parish Ministry of Catholics of African Ancestry, said celebrating King’s birthday and legacy gives the community an opportunity to heal. “This Mass gives us a place to come together,” said Brown, a Central Islip resident.
The Rev. Chris Nowak, the pastor of St. John of God, called on young people tempted by gang life to turn to the church instead for the fellowship and family that may be missing from their lives. “They need to help us build a world were the equality God promised us is here in this world,” Nowak said.
Portraits of King were hung throughout the parish chapel and in a basement dining room where Barres and Nowak joined parishioners for an Italian feast after the Mass. Darcel Whitten-Wilamowksi, a longtime Central Islip resident who now lives in Valley Stream, looked proud as she stood in middle of the dining room filled with people of so many backgrounds.
“We are all part of this beautiful mosaic that is the Catholic Church,” she said with a smile.