WASHINGTON - Before Martin Luther King, Jr., was a civil rights leader, he was a gospel preacher, a bishop reminded an interfaith crowd as his words induced a chorus of loud "amens."
Americans have celebrated the Martin Luther King holiday for more than two decades, honoring the vision and the social activism that helped minorities move up in society.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas L. Hoyt, bishop of Christian Methodist Episcopal Church's Seventh Episcopal District, however, told a crowd of mostly African American men and women in their Sunday best that they didn't make it on their own.
"You may have moved to the suburbs," he preached, "but remember who you are."
Emphasizing their Christian identity, Hoyt highlighted "the bridge that brought them across" as he referenced Jesus Christ.
"Nobody makes it on their own."
Hoyt spoke at an interfaith prayer service at Israel Baptist Church where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics and Buddhists came together to honor King.
The service came as retail stores are advertising holiday sales and the Chicago Bears stand one game away from the Super Bowl.
"Maybe I have had my TV on the wrong channels this week, but I have heard way more about ‘Da Bears’ than I have about the man who did more for our country and the cause of racial reconciliation than anyone in our lifetime," said evangelical megapastor Bill Hybels in an e-mail to his congregation.
Dr. Joseph Crockett, Director of Research at the American Bible Society, pointed to a large segment of the American public as being ahistorical or naive about American history. And some draw more attention to the philosophy behind the civil rights movement rather than the Christian teachings that drove King's dreams.
But time and time again, Crockett said, Scripture had moved King and inspired his words; and it would be difficult to understand King without understanding that he had been formed by the Bible and the Church.
"You hear him (King) referencing the central ... teachings and stories of the Bible to make clear what was the strength of his character and the backbone of his work and ministry," he said.
The fire that King had ignited in America for peace and equality, however, has seemingly "died out," Hoyt stated. Middle class black Americans are still largely segregated despite their improved economic status, he cited recent research.
At the same time, Hispanics and Asian Americans are more likely to have white neighbors, Hoyt added.
"The report concludes what we already know – it's not race that matters. It's black race," he noted.
While African Americans continue to struggle, King's fire is still burning in Hoyt.
"This vision [of Dr. King] still inspires me," he told fellow believers and people of other faiths. "We need to keep the fire and the vision alive.
"I say it's got to keep burning because without it, there's no telling what we will become."
An offering was taken up at the interfaith service to direct collections to the building of two Habitat for Humanity homes for low-income families in the northeast side of Washington, D.C., and for the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial.
As America heads into the 21st Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the final playoff games, Crockett gives Americans a word of advice: "We can appreciate and enjoy the more light-hearted and mundane things of life, but also, that should not dismiss or give away the attention that is due to the greater issues of our day and time."