Peacemaker Award Presented to Cheshire Man
"When I was baptized, my grandfather held up two objects. In one hand, he held the Bible, in the other, he held an axe. And he asked me 'Which weapon will you use to fight back?' I immediately reached out my hand to the Bible and I knew what my grandfather meant. I must not meet violence with violence; I must meet my enemies with forgiveness in my heart."
Levi, the 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Peacemaker Award recipient, addressed a crowd of hundreds gathered at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Church Street Center on Monday morning to celebrate and honor the life of the reverend and civil rights leader.
"Martin Luther King's words were an inspiration for all of us who learned of his godly struggle against oppression," said Levi in his acceptance speech, calling King's influence in Sudan "profound."
<L2>Now a Cheshire resident, Levi is the founder and president of Operation Nehemiah Missions International Inc., a nonprofit Christian relief and development ministry that works to improve the quality of life in Sudan and in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. His dedication to providing the Sudanese people with food, shelter and medical supplies while preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ earned Levi the honor and gave him the chance to urge others to remember what it was that made King so remarkable.
"We may lose the meaning of the civil rights movement while we strive to keep it alive. We, here in the Berkshires and around the country, in Massachusetts and beyond, must do our part to refrain from redefining the meaning of civil rights," Levis said. "We must remember King's struggle."
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and interfaith service brought together community leaders, members of the Berkshire legislative delegation, international exchange students, local faith leaders, area youth and MCLA students and teachers to commemorate the birthday of the famed civil rights leader, orator and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, said King's dream - nearly 45 years after he delivered his historic speech - was more than rhetoric. It was a call to action.
"The dream was a challenge, a mighty challenge, to each and every one of us to see our futures and fortunes tied to our neighbors,'" said Downing. "We live in an age of turbulence and confusion and it is at these times when it is easiest to put our heads down and pass our neighbors."
"It is our duty on this day and every day to remember the dream is not just a dream," he added.
(To listen to King's speech, go here.)
"Society can't truly prosper until we all move forward together," said Bosley. "With your help, we can let freedom ring. From the Taconic mountain range on one side of the Berkshires to the Hoosac Mountain on the other side of the Berkshires, let freedom ring."
The morning's keynote speaker, Joiel Ray-Alexander, elicited a standing ovation with powerful words that preached tolerance, peace, justice and shared humanity. After instructing ceremony attendees to get up and greet a stranger, Ray-Alexander demanded that each person take part in moving the country toward equality.<R3>
"Are you a foot shoulder for peace in your homes, in your classrooms, in your workplaces?" she asked. "How can you, when you are exhausted, tired, stressed, find the strength to work a little harder and promote the tenets of peace with you family, your friends, your co-workers?"
She further dared and double dared, even triple dared, Northern Berkshire residents to take King's teachings and incorporate them into their daily lives. Along with encouragement to "apply peace and civility every day," Ray-Alexander asked that every person seek forgiveness and use it to embrace a bright future.
"Unforgiveness is the ugliest, nastiest, most devastating hindrance to living a joyful life," she said. "I dare you three times over seven to not succumb to the darkness of racism ... To stand together in the bright daybreak of peace is within our grasp."
<L4>Ray-Alexander and her husband, Thomas Alexander, are the resident directors of the Greylock A Better Chance program, which brings inner-city students to study at Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown.
Anthony Bellmon, a Greylock ABC student and Mount Greylock senior, delivered the most poignant oration of the morning, a prize-winning essay he wrote last year that earned him the right to speak during the celebration. Asking the question "Is King's dream a reality?", Bellmon said the country had lost sight of the real meaning behind the civil rights movement.
"I've come to the realization that Dr. King's dream can now be considered a dream deferred," said Bellmon, referring to Langston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred."
"The job is not done, the war is not over and the dream is not fulfilled," he said.
As a young black man, Bellmon said he wanted to truly make a difference, one that would make King proud.<R5>
"I want to change what Dr. King wanted to change - the hearts and the minds of Americans who want to suppress or oppress," he said.
The celebration also included performances by local musicians, including soloist Josh Sprague, the Williams College Gospel Choir and Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's Envision Step Dance Team and the presentation of NBCC's "SAY (Support and Acknowledge Youth) It Proud" award for his outstanding contributions to the community.