BANGOR, Maine — Amara Ifeji, 20, remembered how proud she felt after winning her first game of four square as a fourth-grader, though the feeling was quickly stripped away when her opponent looked into her eyes and called her a black monkey, she recalled during an interfaith church service Sunday.
Ifeji, who years after the incident spoke out about experiencing racism at Bangor High School and pushed for policy changes, shared the painful story in a prerecorded video with more than 50 people attending the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor.
She used the memory and other examples of racism to illustrate the difficulties that Black Americans face but also to reflect on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and encourage collective action. She was the youngest speaker in the service, organized by Faith Linking in Action, a nonprofit comprised of religious organizations in the Bangor area.
It was one of many events throughout Maine honoring King’s 94th birthday and included speakers and attendees from the Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Native American backgrounds, although the Penobscot Nation’s ambassador was not able to attend. Although MLK Day services were held by Bangor churches in the past, this service was the first of its kind led by the group.
“We gather today with respect for diversity and our religious traditions and moral belief systems that bring us to this place to honor the memory of [King], who called us to seek justice, equality and do this through the transformative power of love,” said the Rev. Andrew Moeller, minister of the Park Street church.
Event organizers hope the new tradition can continue in the coming years, he said.
During Sunday’s service, people listened to moving stories and excerpts from King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Church leaders lit candles as a symbol of unity and their devotion to a peaceful and just world.
Attendees sang and swayed together to songs such as “Kol HaOlam Kulo,” led by Rabbi Sam Weiss of Congregation Beth El in Bangor, “We Are Gentle, Angry People” and “Ella’s Song.”
“We are gentle and angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives,” Moeller and Weiss sang, strumming their guitars and encouraging others to join. “We are a land of many colors, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
Bangor City Councilor Dina Yacoubagha read and translated a verse from the Quran, which she chose because it uproots the foundation of racial, familial and tribal bias, which is the source of most evil, she said.
Yacoubagha said no race is superior to another one, but, rather, in the sight of God, a person’s nobleness is founded on their consciousness toward God. The excerpt encourages people to make more of an effort to know and respect each other regardless of race, tribe or background, which is the core of King’s message in his “I Have a Dream” speech, she said.
Omar Conteh, the Islamic Center of Maine’s outreach coordinator, shared his memories of moving from a small village in Africa to Maine. He arrived, not knowing English, during the Ice Storm of 1998, which was a shock. But peers and teachers accepted him and were patient as he learned the language, he said.
Despite his positive experiences, he knows Black community members like his cousin and Ifeji, who have been targets of racism, and “we can’t close our eyes to this,” he said.
“We have to listen to one another, listen to each other’s lived experiences,” he said, “and join our hands together to continue this work.”
The service ended with a litany that highlighted their commitment to justice, led by the Rev. Mariah Hayden, co-pastor of the Church of Universal Fellowship in Orono. Although gathered from different communities of faith, those in attendance share their dedication to racial justice and rejecting the inequalities and biases that seek to divide people, she said.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” attendees said, quoting King’s famous words. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. We give thanks for a legacy of love embodied by those of every generation.”