By Arlene Edmonds

Special to The CS&T

Cardinal Justin Rigali led the 26th Annual Archdiocesan Interfaith Prayer Service at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in West Philadelphia on Sunday, Jan. 18.

There was a full house as the Cardinal stressed the need for the continuation of the dream of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The event was sponsored by the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics and the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

“We have come together as believers in God,” Cardinal Rigali said. “It’s joy that we are here together. It sends a signal to the world that we are bearing (witness) to the message of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about acceptance and the primacy of God.”

Joining Cardinal Rigali in prayers of petition were religious leaders from the Jewish, Islamic and Protestant faith communities. Rabbi Alan Payover prayed for “family, strength, love and peace” as well as “families experiencing economic hardships.”

After recognizing that King was a man who stood for non-violence, peace and justice, Imam Mohammad Abdur-Razzaq Miller prayed for world leaders, particularly the new President Barack Obama. Finally, Rev. Dr. Horace Russell of the Palmer Theological Seminary added that “King was a man of conviction” and prayed that there would be “an elimination of racism, bigotry and prejudice.”

Father Stephen D. Thorne, director of the Office for Black Catholics and pastor of St. Therese of the Child Jesus Parish in Mount Airy, was pleased with the interfaith event.

“This was an inspiring program,” said Father Thorne. “I think it’s important that the Archdiocese does this, and the presence of the Cardinal stresses the importance of unity of all humanity. The presence of the various leaders (reflects) Dr. King’s ideal of the beloved community that includes black and white, male and female and Christian and non-Christian. The Cardinal began by saying ‘whatever tradition we are, we serve one God.'”

Amelia Sheen of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament agreed. She spent the past week preparing the young people at her parish for the ecumenical prayer service. She readily admitted she spent little time discussing King’s dream because they are inundated with his legacy at school. She did, however, focus on the spiritual aspects of the interfaith program.

“I was excited that they were a part of all this with the Cardinal and bishops present showing that we in the Catholic Church are truly one family,” Sheen said.

The prayer service opened with the combined youth and adult choirs of the West Philadelphia Church under the direction of Sandy Johnson. There was a welcome given by Father Paul Kuppe, O.F.M.Cap., pastor of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish.

After the singing all three verses of the African-American national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” Cardinal Rigali gave the opening greeting and prayer. He said that the election of President Barack Obama was part of King’s dream, as well as engaging in service projects throughout the year.

After the Gospel reading, the Cardinal quoted the words of the late Pope John Paul II about unity in fulfilling Christ’s mission. He said the two challenges that Philadelphia currently faces are “the violence in the streets and the fragile economy.” He said that these will only be overcome when all “seek the interests of all” rather than selfishly focusing on self-interest.

After the prayer petitions, Cardinal Rigali gave the closing prayer and blessing before the full church sang the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” Among those singing loudly was Linda Smith of Mount Airy. She said that she was in the area visiting relatives when she heard about the event. Though she is not Catholic she decided to attend.

“I try to go to as many King events as I can,” said Smith. “Since I am a Christian, I thought that going to a prayer service was the place I should be on a Sunday afternoon. I prayed for all those who are engaging in the King Day of Service, President Obama and for world peace. I thought the program was short, sweet and beautiful.”

“I think that this program was fantastic,” said 13-year-old Siani Lott-Young, who performed a liturgical dance with the Davis spanine Dancers during the event. “Before we performed we prayed really hard to do well. I just loved how the whole program to King turned out.”

Other dancers were 13-year-old D’Yonna Venson-Nave, 15-year-old Morgan Fletcher, 14-year-old Kendall Rice and 13-year-old Courtney Wilson. The girls, dressed in blue paisley tops and ankle-length flowing white shirts, danced to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech followed by a tribute song. The interpretive dance was choreographed by Pat Lorde and drew spontaneous applause from the standing-room-only congregation.

The prayer service’s artwork was the 1997 “Peace Wall” located in South Philadelphia. It was created by Jane Golden and Peter Pagast as part of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program funded by the William Penn Foundation.

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at