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MLK 2

Members of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir sing at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn in January 2017.

The Citizen file

The Rev. Patrick David Heery was delivering the closing remarks at the 2017 Citywide Celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he saw it. He saw church.

Of course, he saw a church. Heery was preaching inside Westminster Presbyterian Church, where he became pastor in 2016 and which hosted the Martin Luther King Jr. Day service for the first time last year. A lifetime member of the NAACP and an abolitionist congregation when it was founded, Westminster has King's message "in its life blood," Heery said.

What he saw at last year's service, though, was church: congregants of different races, faiths and economic strata. The sight of them, Heery said, struck him as the way church is supposed to be.

"Sadly, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, our churches on Sunday mornings are, for the most part, very segregated. Our communities and our friendships are often that way as well," Heery said. "I looked out and saw that (at Westminster) and I said, 'I want to be a part of this.'"

Heery will indeed play a bigger part in this year's 43rd annual citywide celebration by preaching at the event Sunday. After last year's, he said, he was invited to join the Auburn/Cayuga Branch of the NAACP as its religious chair by President Eli Hernandez. Heery also joined the Rev. Dr. M.L.K. Jr. Committee that organizes the celebration. 

Then, Heery was offered the opportunity to speak Sunday by committee member Bishop Willie Murray, one of the event's founders. Heery believes he was chosen because of his role in it last year and his newness to the area, he said. Now 33, the pastor came to Auburn from Cincinnati, where he "grew up with a diverse community and had those values from the very beginning," he said.

But Heery is mindful of one part of his identity that may make people skeptical of his selection to preach at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service: Heery is white.

Though he was conflicted about it, Heery accepted the offer. And one thing he'll preach about Sunday, he said, is the white privilege at the heart of his conflict. He'll share how white people can become better allies — how they can use that privilege to amplify diverse voices instead of drowning them out. The key, he continued, is to listen to those voices and learn.

"Their experiences are the fuel for this movement. If I'm not listening to those experiences, if I'm doing too much talking, those experiences are shut out and it's another white space," he said. "It can be a tendency of white allies to occupy spaces that don't belong to us. We can assert ourselves as leaders and perpetuate the very privilege we're trying to undermine." 

The main subject of Heery's remarks, however, will be the Poor People's Campaign, an economic justice movement King was organizing when he was assassinated in 1968. Heery will cover its history, its relation to scripture and its current form, which is led by the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

The campaign emphasizes the commonality of people who are economically disadvantaged, Heery said, regardless of race, faith or other factors.

"They have a common need and a common humanity, and that common humanity has been intentionally obscured by forces that have an investment in maintaining the status quo," Heery said.

With society becoming more divisive and the gap between rich and poor widening, the pastor said, the celebration committee felt the Poor People's Campaign was a timely focus of this year's event. And that focus won't be exclusive to the event, Heery added: The committee is exploring ways to continue King's campaign locally through services and other gatherings.

Heery likened King's vision to Jesus's — and what he saw when he looked at the Westminster Presbyterian pews at last year's citywide celebration.

"People who don't know each other don't care about each other, so they don't stand up for each other," he said. "If people worship together, if they break bread together and get to know each other as people, then they'll advocate for each other. They'll come to see each other's common humanity and care about each other."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.