The Rev. Gregory Leonard, of the Bethel AME Church in...

The Rev. Gregory Leonard, of the Bethel AME Church in Setauket, left, and Tom Lyon, right, co-founded Building Bridges in Brookhaven in the aftermath of the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Here they join Myrna Gordon, who helped spearhead the planting of a Peace Pole at Rocketship Park in Port Jefferson. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a beloved community lives on in Brookhaven. That's where a band of angels of sorts, Building Bridges in Brookhaven, is striving to help create a world where all people share in the wealth of the earth, where racism, discrimination and prejudice are replaced by an inclusive spirit, where love and trust triumph over fear and hatred, and peace and justice prevail over war and conflict.

With this year's official Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday falling on Jan. 20, the grassroots group will host its fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Festival at Setauket Presbyterian Church on Jan. 18 (see box). Along with honoring the legacy of King, co-founder Tom Lyon says, “We celebrate and showcase the diversity and dedication of our neighbors and organizations who work every day to achieve Dr. King’s ultimate dream of a beloved community.

“It is also a time for us to commit to building bridges of trust, friendship and mutual collaboration throughout Brookhaven Town in the year ahead.”

The festival is co-sponsored with the Office of Multicultural Affairs & Center for Social Justice at Suffolk County Community College in Selden. Some two dozen community groups and nonprofits will be exhibitors sharing information during the event’s “Be the Change” volunteer fair.

“We want to introduce people to each other. When you get good people together, good things happen,” Lyon says.

There will be music and workshops. The Herstory Writers Workshop of Centereach will share how young women and girls can empower themselves by creating memoirs about their struggles. Multicultural Solidarity, founded by a Setauket couple, will demonstrate its method for helping groups develop honest and open conversations on difficult topics like race. Youth programs will focus on King and his life as an advocate for nonviolence.

The event’s keynote speakers will be Saad Amer, of Plus1Vote, who is working to mobilize the youth vote for the 2020 election, and Liz Gannon Graydon, co-founder and president of What Better Looks Like, a nonprofit that works with people to help solve problems in their communities. Both will speak to this year’s theme, finding common ground across generations.

Long Islander Sterling "Sax" Bailey performs in 2017 at the Building...

Long Islander Sterling "Sax" Bailey performs in 2017 at the Building Bridges in Brookhaven Unity Festival, which honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The 2020 festival is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 18. Credit: Adrienne Lauren Catanese

“We’re focusing on building bridges between generations. One of the challenges is how to pass on things older people have learned to the younger generation,” says the Rev. Gregory Leonard, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Setauket and co-founder of Building Bridges.

Intergenerational distrust is a troubling issue, Lyon says. “Young people feel betrayed by the boomers, the older generation, because of the problems they are inheriting, [from] a world on fire from climate change, the national deficit, to horrible college debt. And the older generation sees kids as lazy. There are deep divisions. If they’re not nipped in the bud, there will be serious social damage. We have to get generations talking and working together.”

Spurred by tragedy

There’s plenty of work to be done. Lyon explains that “there is a racial and economic divide in Brookhaven.” Though it’s not worse than elsewhere on Long Island, “some people feel isolated” by the disparities. Building Bridges, with a core group of 25 members and more than 100 supporters, wants to improve things. The nascent organization formed in 2016 in the aftermath of the June 17, 2015, massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in a Bible study group.

The tragedy hit close to home as a member of Leonard’s church had a relative who was among the victims. The church joined others in the community to organize a prayer vigil and a memorial service.

Building Bridges in Brookhaven's annual Martin Luther King Day Unity...

Building Bridges in Brookhaven's annual Martin Luther King Day Unity Festival aims to connect those who want to create a more inclusive community.  Credit: Adrienne Lauren Catanese

The “Rev. Leonard realized that while he was taking care of his congregation there was a lot of grief in the community, and he tapped his interfaith network,” says Peggy Fort of Stony Brook, a Building Bridges member who is on the communications committee.

Leonard and Lyon saw the need to create an organization in their backyard to bridge racial divides and build relationships. The group, which continues to grow, is in the process of incorporating as a nonprofit.

The annual MLK unity festival is its signature event. The group also meets monthlyat various venues, including the Turkish Cultural Center in Ronkonkoma, Bellport Boys & Girls Club, and Suffolk County Community College in Selden. Typically there is a guest speaker and time for organizations to share information about their work. Building Bridges is about connecting people, creating a network to facilitate communication and support one another’s efforts to increase impact, organizers say. For example, representatives of Long Island Against Trafficking and a women’s shelter met last year as exhibitors at an MLK Unity Festival and began working together. That day they began discussing how LIAT could support the shelter, beginning with providing clothing and other items. That’s the sort of connecting Building Bridges aims for, Lyon says: "introducing people to each other." 

Says Professor James Banks, SCCC's collegewide coordinator of multicultural affairs, "As a local resource for Suffolk residents, we feel a definitive imperative to reflect the values of inclusion and open mindedness this program represents."

"We need to remind folks that 'teamwork makes the dream work,’" Banks says.

Building Bridges in Brookhaven erected a Peace Pole in November...

Building Bridges in Brookhaven erected a Peace Pole in November at Rocketship Park playground in Port Jefferson, where children cavort on Jan. 2, 2020. Inscribed with messages of peace in several languages, including Braille, invites visitors to consider how they can promote peace on Earth. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Building Bridges also supports the community in myriad other ways.

A recent post on its Facebook page called for donations to Malik’s Path, a charity formed by Indiana Sweeting after her son, Malik, was fatally shot in 2016 two days before he was to begin his freshman year of college. The organization provides academic scholarships, and sponsorships for sports and performing arts programs to Wyandanch youth.

In November 2016, the group supported and participated in a Black Lives Matter March in Stony Brook.

Elevating peace

At a monthly meeting last year, the topic of Peace Poles came up. Member Myrna Gordon suggested the group consider one for Rocketship Park in Port Jefferson. She and members Barbara Ransome and Elaine Learned took on the project. In November, the 11-foot pole was planted in the park. The pole says “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in English, nine other languages and Braille. The pole is an internationally recognized symbol planted in more than 200 countries and seen as a prominent monument for peace. There are more than 250,000 planted around the world, and Building Bridges hopes more will be installed around the Island in the next few years.

“We are surrounded by war memorials in our parks and schools, and the time has come to visualize and promote peace. What better way than in a children's park,” Gordon says.

Speaking to its community-forming power, the Building Bridges' spinoff Multicultural Solidarity has begun to hold small-group gatherings in one another’s living rooms once or twice a month to talk about a chosen topic. “A topic might be when did you first realize racism exists?” explains Fort. She says the meetings have been diversely attended by blacks, whites, Indians and those from the Islamic and Turkish communities.

One topic that’s likely to be a big part of Building Bridge’s agenda this year is anti-Semitism. “This is the hot button. We have to speak out against hatred. We must have dialogues that educate and enlighten people, so they understand how much we have in common,” Leonard says.

Lyon points out the lasting relevancy of King’s 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”:   “The bottom line of the book is we have a choice, chaos or community. Right now, there’s a lot of chaos.”

Leonard is hopeful. “Unity on Long Island is coming together. Good things are happening, and good things will happen,” the pastor says.

Martin Luther King Unity Festival

WHAT "Building the beloved community across generations" is the theme of Building Bridges in Brookhaven's fourth annual Martin Luther King Unity Festival, co-sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs & Center for Social Justice at Suffolk County Community College. The day includes workshops for all ages, a panel discussion and volunteer fair.

WHEN | WHERE 12 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, at Setauket Presbyterian Church, 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket.

INFO Call 631-317-1252, email, or visit Building Bridges in Brookhaven on Facebook.

CHECK OUT Other celebrations across Long Island.

Latest Videos

Newsday LogoCovering LI news as it happensDigital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months