Martin Luther King Jr.'s words once again filled Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Fort Wayne, the late civil rights leader's message voiced Sunday by men and women of different ethnicities and religions to a limited in-person audience.
The program – this year titled “We are the Dream: Commemorating the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” – is annually held on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in partnership with multiple local congregations.
The service, which combined narration with song, shifted to an entirely virtual format last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Sunday, readers and musicians again performed for a livestream on YouTube and an in-person audience who agreed to wear masks and show proof of vaccination before entering.
Instead of packing pews as in the past, organizers limited seating to 60 households in designated areas. In his welcome, church music director Robert Nance instructed attendees to remain in their spot and to not broach the “safety zones” set up for speakers and singers.
The Allen County Department of Health's daily COVID-19 update underscored the importance of such precautions. The death toll remained at 993, but the 904 new confirmed infections brought the county's ongoing case tally to 90,228.
Allen County reached 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases less than two weeks earlier, on Jan. 6.
In Plymouth's airy sanctuary, most participants sang and spoke through masks, paying tribute to King and addressing topics including Jim Crow laws, which enforced or legalized racial segregation, and voter suppression.
Program organizers wanted to create a powerful experience that would endure in attendees' hearts, Nance said.
“We hope that our efforts today have rejuvenated your commitment to justice and peace as you seek to serve and live in this fragmented, interconnected world,” he said.
Nance also is president and founding artistic director of Heartland Sings, a nonprofit vocal music production company that performed during the service.
The Rev. Bill McGill of Imani Baptist Temple quoted King's “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
“When we let freedom ring,” McGill said, “when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
Along with King, speakers quoted presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and America Ferrera, an actor and activist.
The audience was encouraged to adopt the basic principles – including practicing forgiveness and refraining from violence – that were a significant part of the civil rights movement in King's time. The hope is the principles might help achieve peace and justice now.
Janice Furtner, program co-creator, made the audience's task clear.
“We invite you,” she said, “to work toward your pledge of peace, justice, reconciliation and service.”