Northwest Philadelphia congregations hold MLK service despite loss of longtime organizer

For Rabbi Adam Zeff, keeping traditions alive is important.

For the past 29 years, the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement has organized and hosted a special service to honor the work of Martin Luther King Jr. The nonprofit, however, abruptly closed in late November, putting this year’s event in jeopardy.

The organization filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 30 and immediately ceased all operations.

Zeff wasn’t going to let the event’s 30th anniversary pass by as a result. Instead, he offered his congregation, Germantown Jewish Centre, as a place to hold the Sunday service entitled, “Working Together For Peace: Continuing the Legacy of MLK and NIM.”

A celebration of connectedness

In addition to celebrating the legacies of Dr. King and NIM, the Sunday afternoon service honored longtime synagogue member Stanley C. Diamond, who died in October at the age of 80.

A former Freedom Rider, Diamond organized the first Interfaith MLK service in 1983, the same year that President Reagan established a federal holiday to honor the Civil Rights leader.

As a teacher, Diamond focused on integrating diversity education into the curriculum, both as an administrator at the Barrack Hebrew Academy and a founder of Mill Creek, a special education school.

During the summers, said Zeff, Diamond would travel the world to understand what existed “behind the mask” of different cultures, a focus that the rabbi said parallels Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interest in understanding “all the ways in which [people] are connected.”

Sunday’s service concentrated on encouraging such interfaith connectivity. In between musical performances, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist speakers offered short reflections on the place of interfaith work in promoting peace.

Imam Abdul-Halim Hassan, of Masjidullah in West Oak Lane, encouraged participants to consider how they are “connected in faith.” Rabbi Linda Holtzman, of Mishkan Shalom synagogue in Roxborough, reminded observers that all people of faith are “descendants of one –Adam.”

Rev. Cheryl Pyrch, of Summit Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, and Buddhist Eric Wilden both spoke about the importance of practicing behaviors that will lead to a peaceful future. The audience engaged in a few exercises – repeating a Jewish chant, exchanging a Muslim greeting, following a Buddhist-led meditation and singing a Christian song — to promote the power of their shared voices.

The celebration also honored the voices of interfaith community members by recognizing their artistic contributions. The event included performances by the Youth Choir of the Second Baptist Church of Germantown, the Germantown Jewish Centre Choir, M’ B Singley of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, and Roberto Rashid of Masjidullah.

Abdul Azizz, of Masjidullah, offered a spoken word presentation. Members of the St Michael’s Youth Liturgical Dance Team also performed.

‘Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’

At the start of the service, Rev. Andrena Ingram, of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Mount Airy, shared an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Christmas Sermon on Peace” (1967). In it, Dr. King calls life “an inescapable network of mutuality.”

He writes, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The Neighborhood Interfaith Movement challenged religious groups to find common denominators within their communities; now in its absence, religious leaders are meeting to discuss how they can continue its mission.

Rabbi Adam Zeff of the Germantown Jewish Centre is concerned, yet hopeful that can be accomplished.

Zeff acknowledged that while there is “not a lot of structure to the interfaith movement without NIM,” its energy still exists in Northwest Philadelphia through organizations that it fostered, such as the Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, the legacies of interfaith members like Stan Diamond, and the shared visions of the congregations that it brought together.

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