The Rev. Charles Coverdale, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Riverhead, speaking at the East End Voter Coalition's 22nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day program. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. calls on each of us to step outside our comfort zones, embrace change and stand up for truth and justice, the Rev. Charles Coverdale told a small crowd gathered for the East End Voter Coalition’s 22nd annual MLK Day program yesterday at Riverhead Free Library.

Coverdale, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Riverhead, drew on well-known Old Testament scripture to make his point, reading verses from the book of Exodus recounting the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery. Because of their fear of the unknown, the Israelites were willing to stay put, even in bondage, rather than step out in pursuit of freedom, Coverdale said.

“People would rather stay where they are than move and try to discover something new,” Coverdale said.

The celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday by members of his own congregation and the wider local community before the day became a national holiday illustrates that principle, Coverdale said. He recalled how when he arrived in Riverhead — he was called as pastor by the congregation of First Baptist in 1982 — King’s birthday was not celebrated anywhere in Suffolk County.

“It was something that I was disturbed embittered about,” Coverdale said. “So I set forth that we as a people ought to celebrate this great prophet, this man, and pay homage to what he has brought before the American people,” he said.

It was not a national holiday and people could not have paid time off from work, but he encouraged his congregation to take the day as a personal day or vacation day. His call was met with cynicism, he said. Others, including other clergy members, did not think people would take off from work to celebrate King, he said.

But more than 120 people people filled the room for the first King Day celebration hosted by First Baptist — which took place in a bar, “the only place available to us at the time,” he said.

That was the beginning of the annual Dr. Martin Luther Jr. Day Memorial Breakfast, which held its 38th annual event this morning at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Hauppauge.

After that first event in a crowded bar, the breakfast was held at the now-defunct Tolendal Inn in Mattituck, which held 300 people, he said. It sold out, so the following year the breakfast moved to the Marriott in Islandia, which held 450 or 500 people. The event sold out there too, so it was moved the the Hyatt, which also sold out at 800 or 850 people, Coverdale said. The breakfast was canceled by COVID-19 the past two years, but returned this year and almost 500 people were expected to attend, he said.

“What looked like something that wasn’t worth it, God blessed in a particular way, and two years later it became an official holiday,” the pastor said.

Coverdale highlighted three things that he believes King’s legacy requires all of us to pay attention to: the sustainability of our republic, the quality of life for most marginalized neighbors, and the need for faith institutions and their leaders to speak truth to their constituents and to those in power, to call us back to “moral and civil accountability.”

He gave examples from current events on the national and local level: the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the significant increase in violent crime in the U.S., the “widespread disparities in access to health care — including mental health care — housing, food security, and equitable practices of criminal justice, enforcement and adjudication.

The proceedings of the January 6 committee showed that the conspiracy to attack the Capitol and prevent certification of the 2020 election was predicated, well-planned and included elected officials who betrayed their oath to defend our Constitution, Coverdale said, including members of Congress and people who stoked the crowd into a frenzy that day.

“We need to really contemplate that,” Coverdale said. “We need to take more seriously who is running for what, what their capabilities are, what they’re going to stand for. Do they represent our views? Are they representing our community views? And whether or not they’re going to bring peace and harmony to our country and to our community, as well as push our community forward,” he said.

“There is no doubt that our country has experienced a significant increase in violent crime. I believe some of the underlying reasons for this increase includes our society’s reluctance to enact meaningful gun safety measures,” Coverdale said. “Additionally, there is a racial true wealth and divide in our country that has worsened in the years since 1986,” he said.

“We who are free, cannot afford to not help those who are not free, who are not able to defend or fight for their own freedom, whether there’s a lack of organizational skills, or financial wherewithal or the fact that they don’t even see that they are in jail,” Coverdale said.

“To help others give their get their freedom takes a lot of time and money, to really get people going, means we have to sacrifice something ourselves,” he said. “And we are not known mainly for willing to sacrifice anything for any other person than ourselves.

“To sacrifice means you have to get up early in the morning, you might have to stay up late, you might have to go to your own personal financial resources, and dig deep to help make sure the financial backing for the program that you are putting forth are able to be met,” he said.

This requires fighting agains our “natural inclination of our DNA, that tells us to look out for ourselves” and our own families and friends, Coverdale said.

“We have to get our church leaders to speak up in church,” he said. Pastor, like members of the congregation, “are inclined to sit back and allow the people who they’re supposed to lead, lead them,” he said.

“Why? Because just like any other job, they’re hired, they got a salary, they got a house, they got things to maintain and they worry about the children being able to survive in the school system. They don’t want their children to take insults from people who will talk about them. So there’s a tendency for those pastors to stand back when they’re called to lead, not to stand back,” Coverdale said.

“God call pastors not to be sheep, but to be shepherds, that guide the people, protect the people and to take them to greener pastures when they think the pastures they are in are green enough,” he said.

Coverdale spoke of his and his church’s struggle to achieve their vision for the Family Community Life Center, which now includes the development of affordable housing, on vacant land donated by the church. The vision is not shared by many in the wider community, nor by those in power, he said. Obstacles have been put before the church for decades, Coverdale said.

“No one would help us,” he said, though the project would clearly benefit the entire community, which is in need of affordable housing and a community center. But he and First Baptist Church never gave up the goal, he said.

As King wrote in his letter to fellow clergy members, penned in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell in 1963, Coverdale said, we are all called to step out and step up, to speak truth to power and fight for what is right.

“We have chaos already,” Coverdale said. “Why not move from chaos to community?”

East End Voter Coalition Chairman Robert “Bubbie” Brown gave opening and closing remarks. The coalition was formed years ago to work to boost voter participation, especially in the Black community, which traditionally had a poor turnout at the polls, Brown said.

Brown also read an original poem, titled “Inherent Paranoia,” a reflection on inner thoughts and fears, and our collective belief systems, that hold people back, prevent change and sustain racial inequities.

Pastor Montez Johnson of First Baptist Church gave the invocation and benediction for yesterday’s event.

Ted Turpin provided musical accompaniment on the keyboard and, with Brown, led the audience in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn dubbed the Negro national anthem by the NAACP in 1919.

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