BRATTLEBORO — Families First Executive Director Julie Cunningham remembers Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington D.C. in 1963.
"My mother was six months pregnant with me," she said, receiving laughs at Centre Congregational Church during a service on Sunday to remember King. "My father did not want her to go because there were rumors that there were going to be riots and violence. And what she found was actually just the opposite."
Cunningham's brother, 2 years old at the time, sat in a stroller. Attendees hugged him, hugged her mother and patted her mother on the belly.
"We need to be refueled by the words and teachings of Dr. King," Cunningham said. "It's a challenging and depressing time to be a United States citizen."
It is difficult to not become defeatist or hopeless, she said after mentioning that President Barack Obama, the country's first African American to take on the position, is constantly insulted by politicians. Distrust for Muslims and Mexicans also is on display. Then there's the tragic incidents involving black teens and children shot to death by police, and lead paint poisoning affecting mostly children living in poverty.
King wanted to create a "beloved community" and understood that change would need to occur by addressing three evils; poverty, racism and militarism.
"(They) are forms of violence that exist in a vicious cycle," said Cunningham. "They are interrelated, all inclusive and stand as barriers to living in a beloved community. When we work to remedy one evil, we affect all evils."
Families First serves children and adults with disabilities. Cunningham said the group strives for "optimal community participation and inclusion," hoping to give participants the same opportunities their non-disabled peers have.
"That means finding jobs that are meaningful that pay at least the minimum wage," she added. "To have community activities that are of interest to that person and not for the sake of convenience for others. And to have friends and casual acquaintances beyond parents and caregivers."
Cunningham said she has not found another person more inspirational, more timely or "urgently important" than King.
"He continues to teach us," she said. "I'd like to conclude with my three favorite quotes from Dr. King. 'Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?' 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' And finally, 'Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.'"
Guilford Community Church Rev. Lise Sparrow said the service is changed up a bit each year. This time, several people were recognized for their role in the Civil Rights Movement. While their names are not necessarily recognized, their efforts helped accomplish some change.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, according to local student Eliot Barrengos-Knopp, marched with King from Selma to Montegomery, Ala.
Bayard Rustin became a "tireless advocate for racial equality and peaceful international order," local student Sam Freitas-Eagan pointed out. Rustin urged nonviolence when he got involved in civil rights activism in America and he convinced King not to hire armed bodyguards.
"(Rustin) always had to stay behind the scenes in his work with Dr. King because he was openly gay and in the mid-1900s it was still a criminal offense in every state to engage in homosexual behavior," said Freitas-Eagan. "He was imprisoned more than two dozen times for his beliefs."
Diane Nash, local student Margaret Holland told attendees, was shielded from racial discrimination as a kid. But in college, Nash participated in nonviolent civil disobedience workshops and was drawn into the Civil Rights Movement.
"(Nash) soon became a leader for national sit-ins," said Holland.
Sparrow and representatives from the West Brattleboro Worship Group and Brattleboro Area Jewish Community read quotes from Heschel, Rustin and Nash.
Centre Congregational Church Rev. Bert Marshall called for silence during a candle lighting "to inspire peace and wear it as a garment as we sit together in this sacred space."
"May we all be inspired and motivated," he said.
Brattleboro Interfaith Youth Group sponsored the spaghetti dinner that followed the service. Collected funds will go to local nonprofits, the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and the Root Social Justice Center.