STERLING – Something was just a little bit off with the First Congregational Church’s sound system Sunday night. When the group of people gathered in its pews stood to sing along to a recording, about half-way through, it stopped.
That song was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely recognized as the black national anthem. That group of people was gathered to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Leading the more than 100 people in song was Irene Lewis-Wimbley, and, rather than give up when the recorded music faltered, the congregation’s voices swelled to overcome the void, filling the vaulted ceiling with sound.
2014 marks the fifth year that the community has come together to celebrate the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a church. The night’s program included an award presentation; a men’s choir accompanied by an electric bass guitarist; a hip-hop dance troupe; and the night’s keynote speaker, Dr. Julia Hill, asking a group of children to accompany her in singing and dancing along to Nas’ “I Can,” a sort of love letter to urban youth about following their dreams and working hard to achieve them.
At the conclusion of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the congregation took a seat, and Skip Lee and Bill Wescott, mayors of Sterling and Rock Falls, respectively, took turns addressing the audience.
“Today we gather to honor a mortal man and an immortal dream,” Wescott said. “We must all heed the words of Dr. King and accept nothing less than peace on our streets and peace in our world.
“The man had a vision. The man had a dream. It’s our obligation to fulfill it.”
When Dr. Julia Hill finally took the stage, it was to discuss the need for education reform, especially, and to talk about the lack of educational equality, as well as the obstacles she says are faced by nonwhite students.
In a room around the corner, away from the congregation, artwork was displayed. Children and local artists were invited to create art based around Martin Luther King Jr. and the idea of peace.
Tables were set up there, too, with signs and handouts advertising opportunities for community service, an ideal King held very close to his heart, explained Rebecca Muńoz-Ripley, who helps plan this event and Sterling’s Juneteenth celebration every year.
She was also one of the women to be honored with an award during the presentation.
Before and after the event, people milled about the side room, looking at the art and eating snacks brought by the event’s organizers. Whiteside county state’s attorney Trish Joyce attended the celebration, too. She sat in a pew near the back, and handed out brochures for the Whiteside Community Action Network, or WeCAN.