Juan Huey-Ray has music in his genes. It is seen in the smile that creases across his well-worn face as he’s called to the stage.
It is felt in his stooped sway past the podium. It is heard in the reverberating rhythm of his gristly voice as it bounces between the pillared, red-bricked walls of First Free Methodist Church, singing along with the four members of his choir:
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round,
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin,’ keep on a-talkin,’
Marchin’ on to freedom land.”
But there is more in Huey-Ray’s genes than music. There is a history of oppression in his linage. There is a residue of racism in his adolescence.
There is more to Huey-Ray’s trembling tenor Tuesday morning than simple words. There is the memory of the civil rights leader who changed the world.
Huey-Ray, director of The Sounds of the Northwest, was one of the roughly 150 students, faculty and guests yesterday at Seattle Pacific’s Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel, an annual event hosted at First Free Methodist Church.
Sounds of the Northwest is a group dedicated to preserving Negro Spirituals.
The event, spearheaded by University Ministry’s Minister of Worship and Production Zawadi Morrow, was held in honor of the life and teachings of King. Morrow read excerpts from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Morrow said this year’s service was geared toward defining ways that Christians are called to action in their communities.
“[King] is especially exciting to me because he is a national example that we can live out our identities in Christ in a meaningful way,” Morrow said. “These letters shed a lot of light on that.”
In the week leading up to his letter, King was put in a Birmingham jail. He was also criticized for opposing the claims of church clergymen who said matters of racial segregation should be handled in the courts.
In his letter, King wrote to church clergymen, telling them that he is in jail for the sake of injustice. He defended his actions, saying that one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly and with a willingness to accept the penalties so that others are aware of injustices around them.
He criticizes the laxity of churches, citing a need for extremists of love and justice. He writes that he is disappointed, but that there can be no deep disappointment without love.
“I see the church as the body of Christ,” King wrote. “But, oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through our actions.”
King ends this section of his letter with a call for all to become extremists.
King wrote, “The question isn’t whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we’ll be … ones for hate or for love?”
In between reading excerpts, Huey-Ray and his choir would take the stage, singing a total of six songs.
Morrow, who was born in the Congo, says that learning about King’s life was an especially eye-opening and inspiring experience when he first emigrated to the U.S. from Africa in high school.
“The civil rights movement was foreign to me,” Morrow said. “It wasn’t a big part of my culture … but slowly, it became part of it.”
Morrow has worked at SPU for the past three years. He says that throughout these years, he has enjoyed watching the university engage injustices of Seattle.
“The university has stepped up in a big way,” Morrow said. “It’s been really cool to see our campus rally and connect together and with different organizations.”