The big themes at a Martin Luther King Jr. observance yesterday were racism in the church and non-violence. But it was the little things that knit some people together.
Lula Morrow heard the choir of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial United Methodist Church in West Baltimore sing hymns and spirituals, and joined hands for "We Shall Overcome" as the church began a nine-day observance of the slain civil rights leader's birthday.
"I love the way you sway back and forth, dancing down the aisle," Ms. Morrow, a white member of Boring United Methodist Church in Baltimore County, told Florence Scott, a black parishioner at Martin Luther King, in a small-group discussion afterward.
"I sing in the choir at my church, too, but of course we don't do that," Ms. Morrow said.
"We sang a spiritual, but the choir director said not to sway because, 'It won't be you.' "
"It would not be him," Florence Scott suggested.
"You feel [like swaying] and can't do it, and that's not right."
But Ms. Scott said she understood that "some people like their religion quiet and some people like their religion a little moving."
She recalled a white parishioner who left Martin Luther King because "she said she could not stand all the noise."
Ingrid Holcomb, a white member of the Stony Run Friends Meeting, told Ms. Scott that, in fact, at her Quaker meeting a whole hour may pass without the worshipers making a sound.
"But I saw that your experience of worship was the same as mine," Ms. Holcomb said. "Everyone participates."
"I'm glad you are part of this today because I've learned some things from you," Ms. Scott said.
There was talk, of course, of the big themes, too -- racism in the church and non-violence.
The Rev. Douglas B. Sands Sr., pastor of Martin Luther King, said that part of the civil rights movement's "unfinished agenda" should be to wipe out what he believes is racist imagery in the church.
Whiteness is too often equated with purity, blackness with evil, he said.
"We must extricate ourselves from the continued supremacy of whiteness," he said.
Edythe M. Jones, a black member of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Pimlico, agreed.
"One of the things I like about being in the sanctuary here is there is no image of a white Jesus," she said in the small-group discussion. "I don't believe faith has a color."
If "God created man in his image," suggested Leon Hairston Jr., a black member of Martin Luther King, "the fact that there are people of different races is proof that God has compassion for people of all races."
But racism, the group agreed, is like a bad stain on society that won't wipe clean.
"Let's assume we believe in the humanity of man. When I see him or him," Ms. Jones said, gesturing to John Springer, a white Episcopalian from Manchester, and to Andre Boyer, a black member of a South Baltimore church, "I don't necessarily see my brother.
"My life experiences have taught me to be suspicious in this society. Practical experience tells me that somebody I embrace may kill me," she said.
Indeed, killing in Baltimore has become routine, said the event's keynote speaker, Baltimore state's attorney Stuart O. Simms.
"We've been spinning out of control," he said, lamenting the loss of family values and neighborhood stability.
Mr. Simms said afterward that he sees "a sense of wanton retribution . . . a sense that life has no real meaning" in the more than 600 city homicides committed in the last two years.
"If you don't get paid," he said, referring to the large number of drug-related murders in Baltimore, "you must be destroyed -- not just hurt, but obliterated."
He suggested that changing people's behavior and turning back the tide of violence would take not only government programs but also a new spirituality.
"It's not hopeless, just very difficult," he said.
"Time is costing us."
The Martin Luther King Jr. birthday observance continues at 3:30 p.m. today at the church, 5114 Windsor Mill Road, with a performance by the March Singers, a chorus that is sponsored by a funeral home and crusades against violence.
The King holiday will be celebrated statewide Jan. 20.