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First Baptist Church of Riverhead celebrates MLK by honoring local groups

In the wake of a taxing year marked by social unrest, economic suffering, the COVID-19 pandemic, a divisive election and recent attack on the nation’s Capitol, speakers during the Riverhead First Baptist Church’s annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Celebration Monday agreed that his message is more important today than ever before.

“Never before in our history have his words rung truer, nor his message [been] so necessary to bring hope to a bitterly divided nation,” said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in a video message included as part of the 36th annual event, which was held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

Keynote speaker Tracey Edwards, who is the Long Island Regional Director of the NAACP and Commissioner of the New York State Public Service Commission, reflected on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” written in 1963.

“All of us are focusing on [Dr. King’s] dream. This year, we must focus on the dream and the struggle,” she said, drawing similarities to the quest for justice today.

“They and we had no choice but to take to the streets after George Floyd’s murder; to awaken the conscience of the local and national community, to face the challenges of racial injustices, the health disparities in full display because of Covid-19, the economic injustices that continue,” Ms. Edwards said.

From the racist covenants that prevented Black homeownership in Levittown to the Tuskegee experiment, a controversial government study of untreated syphilis in Black men that violated numerous ethical standards, Ms. Edwards said painful memories still exist. “Six hundred men were used as guinea pigs,” she said, offering one reason many in the Black community may be hesitant to take a Covid-19 vaccine. “Our skepticism still exists — and rightfully so — but we cannot let history repeat itself where a disproportionate amount of Black people die in 2021 because we are reluctant to take the vaccine,” she said.

Ms. Edwards also called for ridding our local communities of both blatant and indirect racism and disparity. 

“We must stand together and stand firm for a future that includes all of us,” she said.

Monday’s virtual celebration also saw three groups recognized for honoring Dr. King’s legacy through contributions to the community.

“[The three honorees] have gone beyond their normal activities and supplied other needs to their community to concentrate on providing food that was so desperately needed by their community residents” during the pandemic, the Rev. Charles Coverdale said, presenting awards to the Butterfly Effect Project, Open Arms Care Center and Pronto of Long Island.

At the height of the pandemic, volunteers from the Butterfly Effect Project teamed up with the Open Arms Care Center of Riverhead, which has been feeding families for over 30 years, to provide and distribute food and supplies to those in need, even reaching those who are home-bound, quarantined, sick or lacked transportation.

“Their love, concern, outreach and cooperative effort … really stretched the boundaries of what they could do in terms of feeding people as two groups came together to be of service to the larger community,” the Rev. Coverdale said of the two local organizations.

Open Arms Care Center director Zona Stroy said she knew the pandemic would change their operation, run from the lower level of the First Baptist Church. 

“We see three times as many clients now as we did last year and I promised myself we would never run out of food,” Ms. Stroy said. “Even in challenging weather, [volunteers] are outside loading big bags of food into clients’ cars every week.”

Tijuana Fulford, who founded the Butterfly Effect Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower young girls, said she was “deeply humbled” to receive the honor.

“We understand more now than any other time in my life what MLK was fighting for, what he marched for, what he was jailed for,” Ms. Fulford said Monday. “I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I do know that the Butterfly Effect Project will continue to do the work of his heart, which is now our heart.”

Along with the two local organizations, Pronto of Long Island, a Bay Shore-based nonprofit that provides food and clothing to those in need, and Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon were also recognized for their leadership.

Sheriff Toulon said that while he was only 6 years old when Dr. King was killed, his parents instilled a deep understanding and respect for what he stood for and why he stood up for it. “The events of this year showed us all that we all still have a long way to go,” he said.

Since the event was held virtually this year and tickets were not sold, the church is holding an online fundraiser that will help raise money for the Family Community Life Center, a proposed complex that would include affordable housing and community center on 12 acres of land adjacent to the church on Northville Turnpike

Speaking about the Rev. Coverdale, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said that in “stormy times,” his wisdom, guidance and leadership is also needed. “While today is a day of remembrance, it’s also a day to remind ourselves of the need for action to make this world a better place,” he said.