MLKj Day, Riverside Church, NYC

A selection of experiences. Here are some things I wrote in my notebook on #J15 MLKj. I know I missed a lot, but everyone who spoke and sang was important.

On the steps of St. John the Divine; three hundred in the freezing cold. That is my estimate. Three hundred hopping and huffing against the wind. I swear it’s colder uptown than in the village. Night presses down on us. At the appointed time, three hundred begin west, towards Broadway. And in the shelter of 111th street–protected from the corridor of wind that howls up avenues–we begin to sing. “This little light of mine.. I’m gonna let it shine..” I like singing. The lyrics are converted: “Don’t let the mayor throw you out, I’m gonna let it shine,”

March up Broadway, north! It is such a novelty march in the street. I wonder if these guys have a permit. We have candles in little cups, and they keep blowing out. I have really good matches. I help.

Arriving at Riverside Church–stretching white and highlighted by lights, reaching into the darkness, standing stolid on the bank of the river–no one knows what the plan is and we hope they will let us in. They do. I fight a panicked feeling in the slow press of people.

Inside: milling around, shouting hello to friends–warmth. The cathedral is impressive. The architecture; up, up! Brick and stone,how do they keep all this space so warm? The altar is illuminated with stage lights, and there is a big projection screen hung from the heights, showing images of Martin Luther King Jr. The lights dim theatrically, and a hush falls over us. A corps of photographers click and flash stage left. Sound bytes of his speeches crackle and reverberate.

Lights up and surprise! Women in white cotton dresses enter from the back, drumming and dancing; people stand and clap. The drumming women dance to the front, trilling and shouting. And when they finish, a young lady steps up to the mic. “Peace, family”, she says. She sings an original. She sings with short stops. She leaves space between her words for listeners to hear themselves, their own questions, their own cries of joy and anguish.

Later, speakers rouse us. Three hundred respond so visibly, so audibly. We are not passive. We let you know if we like your words or not. One man is boo-ed. There is applause, but also twinkle fingers. Hands and arms shoot up and down like whack-a-mole. Like young plants growing and dying in fast forward. My eyes focus out and the altar is a white glare. My eyes focus out and my body focuses in–right up to the altar.

Patti Smith does not receive any introductory words, nor does anyone wait for her to speak before cheering and clapping. Her poem is very beautiful.

An African man, Salieu Suso, plays a stringed instrument with a giant gourd, as big as he is. It’s called a kora. I cannot see his finger movements, they are so fast and far away. There are journeys and journeys in the sound, playful and yearning. Echoes vibrate strangely in the aisles along the nave; it sounds like a woman murmuring and whimpering with the stringed instrument. Then comes the musician’s own voice, calling out to something across a great distance.

Occupy the Hood representatives make shout-outs. Malik Rhasaan reminds us all that outside these walls, only a few blocks away, there are people sleeping in that cold. There are people who don’t have enough to eat. A man, woman and child get on the stage/altar. Members of the music group Global Block and a toddler. They rap “I got love for my country with their fists in the air!” And immediately fists are in the air. The toddler wobbles and dances and asks for high-fives.

We break into chant “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” The speakers repeat the word: “economic” over and over. The speakers say over and over: “get money out of politics.” But one man makes the excellent point: politics is the economy concentrated.

Then three red robes against off-white stone. The Tibetan Buddhist monks present a prayer for world peace. It is throat singing. Deep and gritty and awkward. The strangeness is pretty to me. It makes many uncomfortable. Do not laugh during the prayer for world peace, please.

An eloquent Muslim woman is next. Daisy Khan articulates our world pain. Her love is intelligent and fierce. She lights a candle with a tall Japanese man, a Buddhist monk as well. They light a candle together for solidarity, for oneness and light.

The Reverend T.K. Nakagaki can not stop giggling and bowing as he speaks. I want to put him in my pocket and take him home. Only one moment of silence, it is all he asks of us. And he hits a bell. Pure tones resound and gold flashes in my eyes. Nakagaki says that we must rest; we must not think.

Yoko Ono sent us a holiday greeting card. It is read aloud, briefly.

Then chaos breaks out, occupy style. A man to my left screams “mic check!” We obey. We repeat his pontifications. The emcee is patient,also respecting this ritual, almost sacred act of utilizing the human mic.  But when the anonymous man finishes, a woman up front near the altar begins. And then another. Given the forum, how can people resist? Members of the audience stand, forming triangles with their fingers (point of process) rolling their arms (we get the point) and, gasp! one young man even makes and X with his forearms (block). Scandalous. Some are getting upset.

Three young women are on the stage. The Mahina Movement. Excuse me, but it’s time for us to sing. One of them says into a microphone “mic check.” We respond “mic check!” She repeats “mic check.” We respond “mic check!” A mic into a mic and repeated back to her from our mouths. She has our attention.

Their voices are beautiful. They sing “Sugarland.” Spectators forget the barriers, the ceremony, and towards the end of the song many are dancing in front of the altar. It reminds me of the drum corps at Zuccotti.

It’s over, and I’m hungry. We are dismissed by the St. Christopher’s Gospel Choir. We mill and laugh and say hello to friends. And then out into the freezing cold again, and a nap on the train.

Words by Kathleen Purcell

Photographs by Zack Helwa

Video stolen from nikiparrox and CitizenRadio, on youtube.


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