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Norwich Martin Luther King luncheon speakers look to youth as future leaders

Norwich — For the Rev. John Van Halen, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was that he was a great American prophet.

Van Halen looked out at the several dozen people attending Friday’s 37th annual King birthday celebration luncheon at Norwich Free Academy and focused on high school and middle school students. Prophets, he said, speak truth that might not be welcomed.

“We’ve been long in this land without a prophet,” said Van Halen, a retired priest from the Charismatic Episcopal Church.

“As you go from here today,” he said, “continue to ask God to raise up from his people, especially these young people, a prophet, who will speak God’s truth to us even when we don’t want to hear it.”

Friday’s celebration, with the theme “Standing on the Power of Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love,” was curtailed amid the current COVID-19 surge, with fewer attendees, no student performances and a takeout lunch.

The annual Robertsine Duncan Memorial Award, which honors those who serve local youth, was given to Norwich Human Services and to the Norwich Unitarian Universalist Church for their response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Recently retired Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes led the agency’s effort to secure internet capacity, laptops and mobile devices for families when schools went remote. The agency helped with rental, utilities and food assistance for those who lost jobs. The Unitarian Universalist Church made multiple donations to the city agency to help with the emergency response.

Human Services community case worker Sydney Phelps said Gomes’ leadership permeated the agency’s mission, and she pledged that the staff would keep doing it after she departed.

“Her time in Human Services was the face that Norwich should always present first,” state Sen. Cathy Osten said, “that face of a kind, caring, wonderful, gracious human being.”

Unitarian Universalist Church Rev. Dennis Lanoue said his congregation was a small group of people who wanted to help in the COVID-19 crisis. “I want to thank the people in our church who had the courage to stand up and help out all the people that needed to pay their rent, to pay their utilities, to buy food,” he said. “We were there, and I’m glad we were.”

NFA Head of School Brian Kelly said the pandemic and political strife of the past two years cost more than jobs and lost in-person school time.

“Somewhere in the middle of all of this, we’ve forgotten what it truly means to be a society,” Kelly said. He defined society as a human structure that “furnishes protection, continuity, security and identity for all, all of its members.” He stressed that “society matters,” such as how people treat one another, express courtesy and apologize when they are wrong, rectify mistakes and treat everyone as human beings.

He said he sees hope from the students he sees on campus every day.

“They have an incredible voice, and a powerful voice,” Kelly said, “and I remain inspired particularly by our students. Their strength, leadership and passion make me want to work harder and make this world a more loving, compassionate place for all. Through their voices, we will be better.”

Several high school and middle school students spoke Friday, including eighth-grade recipients of Martin Luther King scholarships. Annabelle Aubin and Brian Dutervil, both students at the Integrated Day Charter School, said studying King has inspired them and changed their lives.

“While evil is temporary, truth and love can last forever,” Dutervil said. “Evil words, actions can temporarily overpower us, but truth and love will overpower evil itself.”

Eighth grader Jizele Joseph-Poinson, 13, a student at Teachers’ Memorial Global Studies Magnet School, said it’s hard to be hopeful “when all you see on social media today is so much hatred.” But she said she and her classmates will try to take King’s lessons to heart.

“I believe in my generation and believe that one day we’ll have our own modern day Martin Luther King and keep his dream alive,” she said.


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