Justice. Equality. Love.

Those are some of the words that come to mind as we celebrate a national holiday in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s honor Jan. 20.

Building on his quest for racial equality, the Venice Interfaith Community Association is again sponsoring a Jan. 20 celebration.

It’s the first of its Winter Series of lectures and audience participation open to the public.

The initial King celebration will be followed by weekly presentations designed to tackle systemic racism, opportunities in education, overpopulation of minorities in jails and solutions to “decarcerate” the justice system, and economics and its impact on racism.

Deacon Keith Backhaus, of St. Marks Episcopal Church and a member of the Venice Interfaith Community Association, said the pivot from exploring various faiths in previous Winter Series to address racism head on was a step out of his comfort zone.

The public responded by filling the pews last year. It doubled attendance, so they’re delving into the topic again.

“A group like ours representing many faiths can stand up easier than a church or group on their own,” Backhaus said. “We wanted to deal with issues that spoke to the community. It was an interesting series last year. There was so much interest.”

This year, it will explore racism in education and justice systems in an effort to have a conversation “instead of ignoring it.”

“Last year people felt comfortable enough to come and share their stories from their life,” he said. “We never did anything like his before. This one was a step out of the boat for us. But one that was so important.”

He said King was a member of the faith community and he believed the faith community can help how people view one-another.

“He paid a hefty price for it obviously, but he helped turn this country around when it comes to how we treat our citizens,” he said. “It’s still a issue today. Do we honor our differences? Or are we afraid of them? King raises that question each year for us,” Backhaus said.

He noted things have changed “on the surface” in ways since King’s time.

“But we still have discrimination in many ways,” he said. “In how we hire people, in how we promote them, in the judicial system. Our prisons are filled with black men. Why is that? Drug usage is the same between black and white people, but who goes to jail? We have systemic racism glued into the country,” he said.

“We tend to push those things off to the side. That’s the problem. It lies underneath, and we sometimes don’t recognize it, but it’s there,” Backhaus said.

Addressing it starts with The Golden Rule — treat others as you would like to be treated.

“Whether it’s Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism … The Golden Rule is there. That is a commonality in the interfaith community. We are each others neighbors and we are responsible for each other.

“When we look at the black community, we have to say, hey, wait a minute, we’re neighbors. Go out and meet your neighbor, maybe go to lunch with them, or invite them to the house. The simple things like that cause change,” Backhaus said.

The event starts at 7 p.m. Monday night at the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 790 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice, with a celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., featuring Rev. Dr. John Walker, Pastor of the Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Sarasota and stirring gospel music from Jet Stream, the outreach choir of Sarasota’s Booker High School.


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