Day of Service at Westbrook church honors Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy

Jan. 16—WESTBROOK — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a meaningful opportunity for Shirley Gaudet and other members of the Social Justice and Peace Committee of St. Anthony of Padua Parish.

Aided by a bevy of volunteers, the committee on Monday hosted its fourth annual day of service in honor of the slain civil rights leader. Held in the basement hall of St. Hyacinth Church on Brown Street, the free event included a pancake breakfast, face painting and manicures, COVID-19 vaccine boosters and flu shots, and referrals to free nutrition counseling, dental care and legal assistance.

"We're keeping King's message alive," Gaudet said. "I'm a doer, so it's a way to make that happen and not just talk about it."

Snowy weather didn't deter more than 30 participants, including families and individuals, who came to sample the welcoming atmosphere as much as the muffins and other breakfast treats. It was one of several MLK Day events held across Maine to recognize the Baptist minister, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929, and was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Bates College in Lewiston hosted a day of workshops on equity and inclusion; the Children's Museum and Theatre of Maine in Portland offered art projects and storytelling about Black artists; and the Maine Council of Churches and the BTS Center organized a live online reading of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

"Through his life and deeds, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that progress requires participation and that America's promise can only be fulfilled when our founding ideals of liberty and equality are extended to all people," Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement Monday. "As we pause to reflect upon Dr. King's legacy, let us all recommit to building a state that values and celebrates the dignity of all people, where equality of opportunity is unquestioned, and where bigotry, hatred, and injustice have no home."

Joao Vemba, an asylum seeker from Angola, lives near St. Hyacinth, so he walked to the church hall with his wife and two young children.

"Growing up, I learned about King and what he stood for and what he fought for," Vemba said. "We're here to have fun and connect with the community on this special day."

For Vemba's family, fun included winning a few gift certificates to local businesses. His wife, Belinda, learned about free dental care provided by students at the College of Dental Medicine at the University of New England. And 7-year-old Erica enjoyed having her fingernails painted with turquoise and gold-speckled polishes.

Dee Greene also got her nails done — in a lovely shade of blue called "Ocean Love Potion." She recently moved from Portland to Westbrook.

"I figured, free breakfast, why not?" Greene said. "I'm also here because of King. He helped people. He helped the world. You don't hear much about people doing what he did."

At another table, Chris Marot shared information about free legal services that are available through Pine Tree Legal Assistance, an agency founded in 1967 as part of the federal "war on poverty" legislative initiative. Marot is Pine Tree's managing attorney for eviction prevention.

"We do see a lot of people facing eviction these days," Marot said. "We wanted to be here today as a resource for people with all types of legal challenges. I believe legal aid work is social justice work. We still feel deeply connected to King's mission."

Members of St. Hyacinth modeled their Social Justice and Peace Committee after a similar group at the First Parish Congregational Church in Saco, which hosted its 15th day of service on Monday.

The number of participants at St. Hyacinth's event continues to grow, underscoring the need for the event and the importance of bringing people together, said the Rev. Lou Phillips, pastor of St. Anthony's Parish.

"It makes you think outside of yourself and think of somebody else," Phillips said. "We can offer hope and healing in our own community in much the same way that Dr. King's passion and compassion offered healing and hope to a sadly divided nation."

Solange Kalala sees herself in the newcomers she met Monday at St. Hyacinth.

When she left the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2000, she needed help to build a new life in the United States.

Now, as the new owner of Grace International Food Market, an African and Caribbean grocery store on Main Street, Kalala stopped by the church hall to cultivate future customers, friends and fellow volunteers.

"I came here to connect with people and find out what I can provide to this community," said Kalala, who lives in South Portland. "Twenty years ago, I was where these people are today. Now, I give back whenever I can."

With King as her example, Kalala knows she must join forces with others.

"He started something and we need to do more," she said. "Alone you cannot do it. You have to work together."