The Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, senior pastor of Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, spiritual home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., joined his friend and fellow clergyman Rabbi Peter S. Berg at The Temple Friday night. As has become tradition, Warnock spoke at The Temple’s annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service. This year’s message felt more timely than ever and included a pointed rebuttal to President Donald Trump.
“If African countries are poor, they are poor because somebody stole their wealth. You cannot talk about African counties without talking about imperialism, colonialism, slavey, neocolonialism,” Warnock said. “To disparage Africa while saying ‘I want to make America great again,’ you know how America was made great in the first place? Africa is the reason why America is already great. It gave America its jazz, its blues, its arts, much of its scientific insight. If you had 244 years of free labor, you’d be great, too.”
Warnock was responding to reports of the disparaging term Trump reportedly used to describe Haiti and Africa during a summit on immigration.
“(Africa) is the indeed beginning of civilization. It is the cradle of our humanity. So it doesn’t matter where you hail from. In a real sense, I want to say, God bless you all of my African sisters and African brothers,” he said.
Insulting Haiti is especially hurtful to African Americans, he noted.
“How dare you insult the people of Haiti? The people of Haiti did an amazing thing. They rose up not only to overthrow (slavery) they took over the government,” he said.
Warnock’s comments during the Friday night service (scroll to the bottom to view the livestream of the event) marked the second time he and Berg joined forces that day.
“Earlier today Rabbi Berg and I called an impromptu press conference,” Warnock said. “I didn’t wake up this morning planning to call a press conference. I heard those remarks last night. We’ve heard so many stupid things so often that I wasn’t so sure how we would respond.
“It occurred to me, this is not just any weekend. This is Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend,” he continued. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal and it seems to me that that moment in America is right now.
“This is not about party, partisan politics. This is not about left and right, this is about right and wrong,” he continued. “Who are we to be silent in a moment like this? Too many people died too young and gave too much for us to be silent in a moment like this.”
Friday night’s service included a moving tribute to The Temple’s longtime cantor, Deborah L. Hartman, and remarks from beloved Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Sugarman as well as from Berg.
Warnock’s visit to The Temple actually fell upon his anniversary (Berg joked that he and his wife could have settled for Paris or London but chose The Temple instead).
Warnock began on a note of levity, thanking Berg for “such a kind and generous, much too generous introduction. I can only think of one time when I received a more generous introduction. The person who introduced me didn’t show up, so I had to introduce myself!”
His words swiftly took on a serious tone, even somber at times, intertwining words of Scripture with contemporary political commentary.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” he said, reading from 1 Samuel: 3.
“I don’t have to tell you that these are difficult times. These are strange times. Murky moments,” Warnock said. “Matter of fact, if you were to write a Hollywood script, about the times in which we live, nobody would buy it because it defies reality. Reality in this moment really is stranger than fiction.”
Throughout his message, Warnock issued a challenge.
“We’ve got to deal with racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia,” he said. “There’s something wrong with a world view that says Haitians have AIDS, Mexicans are rapists and murderers, Nigerians live in huts, Muslims are terrorists, women are objects, but skinheads and neo-Nazis are very fine people.”
The service concluded with the congregation joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Warnock closed his address by reciting the poem by Martin Niemöller a Protestant pastor who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps after his forceful public condemnations of Adolf Hitler:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
He left congregants on a hopeful note: “Love is infectious. Justice is what love looks like in public. Fifty years after Dr. King’s death, I still have hope. I still believe we shall overcome.”
Here is a livestream of the entire service: