By Elizabeth A. Elliott, Catholic News Service

An image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat near the ambo at St. Joseph Church in Alexandria as more than 270 people of all races and colors gathered to recognize and celebrate his dream.

If the civil rights icon had been there, he would have heard the gospel choir raise their voices about peace, and heard Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge tell the congregation how Rev. King’s message lives on.

“Now, in this moment of history, we are the ones that the Lord sends out into the world, a world we know that continues to suffer the consequences of all the injustice of inequality and of racism,” said Bishop Burbidge Jan. 15. “But we don’t despair, we’re believers. Every time we come to celebrate the Mass, we celebrate the truth that through His own suffering, cross and resurrection, Jesus has transformed darkness into light.”

The ideals of Rev. King were brought to the forefront time and again in events held nationwide to commemorate the national holiday for the slain civil rights leader, observed Jan. 16 this year.

In Washington, The Catholic University of America community participated in a day of service to honor him. A group of 866 people, including 840 students, took part in the event, which the university said was the largest such event for the school. It marked the 11th year that volunteers have served at various locations across the nation’s capital, including the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land.

Prior to heading out into the city, Catholic University’s president, John Garvey, and Conventual Franciscan Father Jude DeAngelo, university chaplain and director of campus ministry, addressed the participants. This year’s theme centered on a quote from Rev. King: “Make a career of humanity.”

Father DeAngelo said that the students “are inspired to serve due to the work (that takes place) in the classrooms. The students get it, they get the connection in humanity and the need and desire to serve.”

In Alexandria, the Mass in Alexandria was celebrated on the birthday of the civil rights leader, who was slain in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, he was 39 when he was killed. The federal King holiday is observed on the third Monday of January each year.

Mathell Lee grew up in the civil rights era and marched for integration. She thought it was fitting the bishop came to reflect on what King worked for and moving the country together.

“I’m glad that they’re continuing to focus on his dream and everything we fought so hard for in the 1960s,” she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper. Lee believes King’s message would be the same today.

“We still have the same problems, which have improved, but there is still a long way to go,” she said. “We don’t want to lose the progress we made. We need to continue to build on it and not go back in time.”

In a statement released prior to the Mass, Bishop Burbidge said, “As the bishop of Arlington, I am mindful of how our ethnically diverse diocese of over 600,000 Catholics includes a vibrant black Catholic community, which continues to enrich us all. Our Christian faith calls us to protect, preserve and champion human dignity without equivocation.”

He also stated that the holiday in remembrance of King should be more than a day off.

“See it as an opportunity to serve the most vulnerable, to reach out to those rejected, to defend the rights of those who are oppressed and abused, and to promote peace in our communities,” he said.

Lee spent her day taking food to the needy in Arlington with the sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest sorority established in America by black women.

Bishop Burbidge said whatever way we choose to spend our time and resources “we can be assured that God will use our efforts to show to others his great love for them and remind them of his abiding presence.”

Josephite Father Donald Fest, pastor of St. Joseph, a predominantly African-American parish, said it was more important than ever to celebrate a Mass in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“This celebration has a message for everybody to observe peace,” he said. “There have been a lot of attacks on people and we need to listen to the message of Dr. King.”

Father Fest cited fallout from the divisive election campaign, recent violence against police, blacks and Latinos, and the issue of immigration as reasons to listen closely to Rev. King.

Brenda Johnson, a parishioner of St. Mary Church in Alexandria, said it is important for all churches to recognize King because he was a force for change in the country. She believes President Barack Obama, the first black president, is a direct result.

“We cannot lose sight of what we’ve already accomplished,” she said.

(Elliott is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.)