By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Saturday, Jan. 16, had something in common with so many days over the past 10 months or so. It came and went with an eerie sense that something was missing.
For 20 years, the Saturday ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day has brought together a large gathering of folks for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast. The event has always been a catalyst for unity and a tool to strengthen the ties that bind people in our community together.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the in-person event was not held this year, making it another casualty in this season of loss we’ve all endured. The annual prayer breakfast was retooled into a virtual event, which took place on Monday evening. Likewise, the annual Peace Walk that typically takes place in the town of Jonesborough on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was held in a virtual format on Monday afternoon.
Adam Dickson, supervisor of the Langston Centre and vice-mayor of the town of Jonesborough, remembers the work that went into establishing the annual prayer breakfast.
“In October 2000, I was a recent graduate of Carson-Newman and knew we wanted to start something in the area that would bring attention to Dr. King and his legacy,” Dickson recalled during Monday’s virtual event.
The first event was held at the Millennium Center in January of 2001, and it was multigenerational from the start as folks from the Johnson City Senior Center joined youth from Carver Recreation.
Even in the best of times, this year’s event would have been poignant because of the faces missing from last year’s prayer breakfast, which was held at the Memorial Park Community Center for the first time. Over the past year, our community has lost several prominent leaders, including Rev. C.H. Charlton, Michael Young and Ralph Davis.
Rev. Lester Lattany, who followed Charlton as the pastor at Friendship Baptist Church, offered a powerful opening prayer during the virtual prayer breakfast. Charlton was remembered during Monday’s event by master of ceremonies Pheben Kassahun as “a man who truly represented the vision, legacy and spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Johnson City for many years.”
Invoking a quote from Dr. King – “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education” – Kasshun announced the recipients of the awards that are traditionally handed out at the annual event. This year, all the recipients had ties to education.
Dr. Wilsie Bishop and Dr. Debra Bentley were both honored, and the JCPD personnel who have served as resource officers in Johnson City’s schools were honored collectively.
“I’m very honored to receive this recognition,” Bentley said. “The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. It means understanding each individual is unique.”
While the spirit of fellowship fostered by the prayer breakfast was impossible to replicate virtually, Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise noted that it was important to not let this year pass without holding the event in some form or fashion. In these divisive times, he called on all citizens to help bridge the growing gaps between us.
“Today we mark the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at a time in our own history and collective experience where it could be no less important than it is today,” Wise said. “We can choose fear, or we can choose hope, but now more than ever, people of good conscience need to choose hope.”