WATERVILLE — Let us all take this day and moment to acknowledge the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished work in addressing what he called the “triple evils” — poverty, racism and militarism — that prevent us from being a truly beloved community.

That was the message Rabbi Rachel Isaacs shared Monday morning at the 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, hosted by the Waterville Rotary Club.

The event is usually held at Senior Spectrum’s Muskie Center, and while it was held virtually Monday because of the coronavirus pandemic — and as such, without breakfast — the messages were no less powerful.

Isaacs is rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville and a chaplain at Colby College, where she also is Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond assistant professor of Jewish studies. Isaacs noted that in the Jewish liturgical calendar, we have just entered the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the inspirational story of redemption for Jewish people and for the Black church and King, in particular.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs stands on the steps of her house Friday in Waterville. Isaacs, the rabbi at Waterville’s Beth Israel Congregation and a chaplain and professor of Jewish studies at Colby College, spoke Monday at the virtual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Isaacs read from Exodus 6, which tells of Moses vowing to the Israelites the Lord would free them from the bondage of the Egyptians and redeem them. However, she said, they would not listen to Moses because their spirits were so “crushed by cruel bondage.”

“The story of the Exodus is a story that gives people hope who don’t dare to hope,” Isaacs said. “It is a narrative that describes the redemption of a people whose souls were so crushed that they could not even imagine that redemption was possible, not to mention imminent.”

Yet, it was possible, according to Isaacs.

“It was not only the miraculous power of God and the unique talents that Moses possessed that led to salvation, it was also that the Israelites had done the work of teshuva, or repentance for some of the unethical and unsavory habits that they had adopted as a nation in the wake of Joseph’s death. In our tradition, we learn that redemption and salvific miracles don’t come for free. They come as the result of hard internal work: both self-reflection and the labor required to be better.”

King’s America, Isaacs said, was not only a nation in need of redemption but also in need of the work of self-reflection and repair.

“Though we stand many decades after his assassination, we are also citizens of an America desperate in its need to confront difficult truths about ourselves, its need to labor to achieve its promise, and if deserving, some miracles,” she said. “The hatred that spurred Martin Luther King’s struggle is still alive and well, along with the deep denial of how pernicious and pervasive that hate is.”

Quoting King, Isaacs discussed the three evils he cited: poverty, racism and militarism. She said they were not three discrete social ills, but “related and mutually reinforcing.”

“In order to reach the promised land, economic justice and racial justice must be achieved, and the nation must disavow and dismantle the military-industrial complex that glorifies and financially incentivizes violence,” Isaacs said. “Honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with integrity and honesty is not about the recycling of a sanitized version of his legacy.

“He affirmed the value of non-violence, not in order to make people feel comfortable, but rather because it was a core conviction born of his Christian faith and his knowledge that violence would not provide an effective means to solving systemic problems that dwelled within the hearts of our citizens.”

We must work, Isaacs said, to eradicate the three evils.

“I can only speak for myself when I say that while my spirit may not be as crushed as my ancestors in Egypt, but my spirit is still low,” she said. “It was in our lifetimes and in this very month when a Confederate flag flew in our nation’s capitol. I look to Martin Luther King’s legacy at this moment as a model of holding faith in our better angels and in the potential of a just future when it seems simply fantastical to believe.”

Monday’s breakfast included remarks by Rotary Club President Jeff Jolicoeur of Waterville, who welcomed those who attended virtually. The Pihcintu Chorus of Portland also performed preprogrammed music, and those who attended sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Let There be Peace on Earth,” along with singers on YouTube videos.

The Rev. Thomas Blackstone, pastor of the Pleasant Street Methodist Church, gave the invocation, and Rick Dorian, executive director of the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers, gave closing remarks. Dorian said the Rotary Club’s MLK Jr. breakfast planning committee wanted to remind people about ongoing efforts to carry King’s legacy forward.

“As Rev. Blackstone and Rabbi Isaacs noted, although much progress has been made in America, the journey is still far from over,” Dorian said. “In the spirit of these and other theologians and clergy working for justice, it is vital that we ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’

“As we explore many wounds in this time and over the past year, the great gap between rich and poor has escalated across our land. As millions more families are living on the edge, we have created staggering wealth for a few and made more billionaires than ever before. The Poor People’s Campaign is working to educate and motivate our communities to see what is taking place and to create a more just world.”

He recommended people check the website — www.poorpeoplescampaign.org — to learn more.

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America,” Dorian said. “They invited people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ — militarism, racism, and economic injustice — to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist.

“They sought to build a broad, fusion coalition that would audit America. Together, they would demand an accounting of promissory notes that had been returned marked ‘insufficient funds.’ Today, that effort is still incomplete.”

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