The setting for Oyster Bay’s Martin Luther King Day has traditionally been Christ Church, where there is an interdenominational service the Sunday before his birthday involving the episcopal church, the neighboring Hood AME Zion Church, the Spanish church El Camino de Vida and the Hispanic Cultural Center.
Ordinarily, much is said about King. Hymns are sung, and there is a feeling of hope and gratitude for the sacrifices of a civil rights leader who was killed while doing so much good.
This year the service began as it always has, with the African-American members of Hood AME’s choir singing with their white counterparts from Christ Church. But when the Rev. Linda Vanager, AME’s pastor, began her sermon, an incident that had shocked so many just days earlier came to light, causing the service to veer in a different direction.
On Jan. 11, President Trump had referred to African nations as “s---hole countries” during a bipartisan White House meeting on immigration reform. The timing of his remarks wasn’t lost on Vanager. As she spoke, what had begun as a unifying service appeared to morph into a call for action.
“Dr. King was an advocate for justice, peace, righteousness and that all matters today,” Vanager began. Then she put down her notes and looked directly at the parishioners. “We know what’s going on in the United States and in the world, and we can’t put a blind eye to it. It isn’t unpatriotic to challenge evil.”
It has been 50 years since King died, she said, but his legacy lives on. Then Vanager reminded her audience of what King had said right before he died: “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
She described Trump as a “closet bigot.” Some people looked down, while others shifted in their seats. Undeterred, she continued. “We may have come on different ships but we are all on the same boat now — the boat of uncertainty.”
After the roughly 20-minute sermon, the prayers and songs that followed seemed to carry additional weight. When worshippers referenced King, saying, “May the witness of Dr. King inspire all our people to reach out to truth, love and justice and minister to others,” they seemed to no longer be merely reciting a prayer. The voices were unified, as though African-Americans, Latinos and whites were making a pledge. And when it came time to sing, “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and “We Shall Overcome,” voices were raised in song that sounded more like a plea.
Several parishioners from Christ Church thanked Vanager for her sermon as they left the church. Some had more to say about Trump.
Vanager said she had felt compelled to share her opinions and her fears. “When he said we need more people from Norway [to immigrate into the U.S.], well, that broke the camel’s back,” she said of Trump. “I had not planned to include the president in my message today, but I couldn’t be silent. It’s like Dr. King died for nothing.”
Christ Church’s rector, the Rev. Dr. Michael Piret, said that although he could not comment on Trump’s remarks in his capacity as the leader of the church, he did have strong feelings about them. He did say that it is important to mark Martin Luther King Day each year. “We are keeping alive the memory and meaning of a great prophet,” Piret said.
After the service, many people attended Christ Church’s coffee hour, where the conversation continued. “I think it was a beautiful service,” said Denice Evans-Sheppard, a member of Hood AME. “Reverend Vanager did a wonderful job of uniting people in town with words of hope and support.”
Marianne Nash, a parishioner of Christ Church, sat at a nearby table with fellow parishioner Ed Chimmey. They agreed that marking Martin Luther King Day with a service reminds people that they should practice what the civil rights leader preached. “Embody the principals of equality in all of your dealings,” Nash said, adding that she agreed with Vanager that Trump is a bigot. “But he’s not terribly closeted. Personally, I think he is abhorrent.”
The Rev. Harry Vanager, the pastor’s husband, said that he was most concerned about leaders of the government. “What bothers me is no Republicans are standing up,” he said, adding that that creates a dangerous precedent. “I think this makes some people feel empowered, thinking the president is expressing what they feel. That is scary.”
Then Vanager looked over at the fellowship being shared by people of different races and ethnicities, and said he takes comfort in his beliefs. “When God has had enough, he will intercede,” he said. “He can see further down the road than we can.”