By Roberta Oster, Communications Director, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy

— “The path of nonviolence drew the clergy together. Across our many religious traditions, we are joined today on the path of peace. Rev. Jeanne Pupke

Just a few blocks from the pro-gun rally where thousands of people brandished assault weapons, handguns, and wore vests jam-packed with bullets, an interfaith community gathered in prayer and peace to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and remember his leadership for justice. More than 100 Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus and people of good will filled the front pews of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond.

“We are here to make it plain that Dr. King’s vision is alive and guiding us today. His words and example are wisdom to help us heal our divisions,” said Rev. Jeanne Pupke, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond. “I’m grateful for the people who headed downtown to bear witness to the meaning of the day.”

The shouts from the crowd of 22,000 gun enthusiasts just a few blocks from the church did not drown out the powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Faith leaders took turns sharing quotes by Dr. King and praying for nonviolence and safety.

The prayer vigil was organized by local clergy concerned about the cancellation of many MLK celebration and advocacy events because of threats of gun violence from white supremacist groups. The clergy offered a statement honoring Dr. King and supporting nonviolent, peaceful protest in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“On the day we set aside to honor the life and legacy of a man dedicated to love, justice, and peace, the forces of bigotry and violence descended upon Richmond,” said Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond. He added, “They came with assault rifles and body armor, emboldened by the encouragement and incitement of too many leaders, speaking of advancing their vision of division and inequality through armed revolt, seeking to intimidate those of us who believe in Dr. King’s dream of a just and inclusive society into silence and retreat.”

Many wondered why faith leaders would host a vigil so close to a rally with thousands of armed militia. Rabbi Knopf explained, “We organized today’s event because we refuse to be intimidated. This is especially true for me as a rabbi, a leader of a Jewish community that increasingly lives in fear and a witness to the recent rise in bigotry that has hurt many minority communities. We organized today’s event because we refuse to back down from our insistence, born of our many faiths, that all have a right to live in peace and freedom. And we refuse to retreat as we seek to embrace Dr. King’s legacy and continue his work. So we gathered, an assembly of many races, ethnicities, and faiths, seeking to model the “beloved community” that Dr. King envisioned, summoning the moral courage to face the terror in our city’s streets with a message of love, justice, and peace.”

Photo (L-R): Rabbi Michael Knopf and Rev. Dr. Corey Walker, board members of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, speak at a prayer vigil at Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, VA on MLK Day, Jan. 20, 2020.