2 congregations honor freedom fighters' work Christians and Jews join to celebrate legacy of King, Rabbi Heschel

January 18, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Resounding Christian hymns mingled with Jewish prayers of praise yesterday as two denominations paid homage to the legacy of freedom fighters.

Beth El Synagogue in Pikesville and City Temple Baptist Church joined in a Sabbath service commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the anniversary of whose birth will be celebrated as a national holiday tomorrow, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a renowned Jewish theologian who died 25 years ago this week.

"These were two leaders who bonded to expand freedom and opportunity," said Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, spiritual leader of Beth El. "This was an occasion to revive Heschel's life and work in context with the man he admired deeply."

Heschel, a Holocaust survivor, worked with King in the civil rights movement, marching with him in Selma, Ala. The two friends later formed Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, an anti-war group. Heschel spoke at King's funeral, the only Jew to address mourners.

Loeb and the Rev. Grady Yeargin, pastor of City Temple Baptist, are also friends working together. Their congregations have celebrated together on several occasions.

"I think of our ancestors and how they coped," Loeb said. "We are what we were, blessed and cursed by the past."

Yeargin, whose church is at Eutaw and Dolphin streets in Baltimore, donned a yarmulke and took a place among leaders of the Conservative synagogue along with a boy making his bar mitzvah.

Seated before the pastor were members of his own congregation and choir, worshiping among men wearing traditional prayer shawls and their families.

The Baptists followed the service, finding English translations in the prayer books.

The choir moved forward to sing four selections. They captured their audience with a rousing "Sing and Rejoice" and evoked tears with "Oh, Freedom," a moving Negro spiritual.

"We are different, but we share a commonality in God," said Lois Smith, City Temple Baptist's choir director. "We chose pieces that give honor and glory to God. The Negro spiritual shows the plight of both Christians and Jews in their efforts toward freedom."

Beth El Cantor Thom King thanked the singers for "choral magnificence" and then translated the Hebrew passages from Isaiah that formed the congregation's simple response:

"Nation shall not lift up swords against nation. Nor shall they learn war."

Scripture passages also dwelt on commonality. Readers intoned passages from Exodus, the saga of Jewish slavery and suffering at the hands of oppressors.

"Images of genocides and ceaseless prejudice surround us both," said Loeb. "But, we are two communities that have intersected with hopes and dreams."

Yeargin also addressed the assembly, expressing his gratitude that "God allowed Abraham's and Martin's paths to cross at an important point in our history."

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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