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Ways to celebrate Martin Luther King Day under COVID

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Washington D.C.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues even as we reach the end of 2020. While the new vaccine offers new hope, it will take time to administer it to enough people before it is safe to stop following protective guidelines. We can safely assume that Americans will need to continue to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and practice social distancing well into 2021, which means congregations need to plan their events for the coming year with these guidelines in mind.

Martin Luther King Day is on Monday January 18, 2021. Americans have set aside this day to honor the memory of this great civil rights icon and social prophet. For many congregations the weekend before MLK Day is a time of celebration, community outreach and continued advocacy for justice. Many churches may not be able to observe the holiday in all the same ways they might have pre-COVID. There are, however, still many ways they can honor Dr. King’s memory and witness in 2021 while still keeping their community members safe.

Host an online or hybrid worship service

Many congregations use the Sunday morning worship before MLK Day to preach on issues of justice and racial equity, and there is no reason why they cannot still do this using whatever virtual or hybrid worship model they adopted to keep their congregants safe during the pandemic.

January 17 is Human Relations Day, during which many churches will hold special collections to support causes and programs that positively impact communities experiencing hardships or injustices. UMCGiving has resources available to promote Human Relations Day that can be adapted to both in-person and virtual gatherings. Discipleship Ministries also has free worship and liturgical resources available to help congregations celebrate the Sunday before MLK Day, including suggested civil rights hymns.

Some congregations invite a guest preacher/speaker with a background in civil rights advocacy. Churches can still do this through a virtual or hybrid worship model, as long they continue to practice safety guidelines. They might ask the speaker to record a message ahead of time to be shared during worship or allow them to address the congregation live from their home. If the congregation does invite them to speak inside the sanctuary (or some other location on the church grounds), they need make sure the speaker and other staff/in-person guests follow masking and social distancing guidelines.

Offer opportunities for virtual education

Congregations can also use MLK Day as an opportunity to educate their members on the important contemporary issues of racism and human rights. Using virtual meeting apps, churches can host virtual discussions on topics like police brutality, voting rights, gentrification or criminal justice reform. These should led by someone already knowledgeable on the topic who can facilitate the conversation, such as a local activist or community organizer. The congregation may want offer this up as a series of weekly discussions either beginning on or ending during the week of MLK Day.

Congregants could also sign up together to take an online course addressing specific topics around racism and race relations. The General Commission on Religion and Race offers several online classes that can help Christians become better anti-racist advocates:

Host a safe community project

MLK Day/weekend is also traditionally set aside as a time of service. Many churches host drives, meal services, work projects or other community outreach ministries to honor Dr. King’s legacy. There is no reason they cannot still do these projects in the midst of COVID-19. In fact, the unique social and economic challenges the pandemic has brought on many communities mean that the hands and feet of Christ are needed now more than ever.

Food insecurity has become an even bigger problem during the pandemic as more Americans are unemployed and more children are going without free lunches and other meals that were provided by schools and daycares. Many United Methodist congregations have adopted safe and effective ministries for feeding their communities during the pandemic. Churches can help their communities in other ways by hosting blood drives, making masks, or assembling care packages for local families in need.

Even churches that do not host their own service event can encourage their members to participate in local area projects by sharing information during worship or through social media. Members can also visit sites like nationalservice.org to search for volunteer opportunities in their community.

Hold socially distance community celebrations

While many churches and neighborhood communities are forgoing parades, rallies and other large celebrations in the midst of COVID-19, some are adapting their traditions to allow for social distancing. Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, Michigan is encouraging its members to participate in a “Drive for Justice” Parade on MLK Day. Cars will assemble at Hope United Methodist and drive along a pre-determined route through town to the Southfield Pavilion. Participants will never have leave their cars during the entire parade.

Worthington United Methodist Church has collaborated with local schools, libraries and organizations to host MLK Day celebrations in the town of Worthington, Ohio for years. In 2021 the town will host its first ever virtual celebration by asking community members to submit videos reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, which will be shared virtually by the Worthington Community Relations Committee online.

Conclusion

Even as churches continue to meet virtually or practice social distancing, there are still plenty of ways they can honor the legacy of Dr. King. In the midst of ongoing protests against police brutality and renewed calls for the nation to address systemic racism, it is more important than ever for churches to draw from the wisdom of Dr. King and other great civil rights leaders of the past.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Contact him at [email protected]