As the civil rights movement was splintering in the late 1960s, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gathered organizers at his Atlanta church on his birthday to plan the next phase: the "Poor People's Campaign," a march on Washington to demand economic equality.
The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II retold the story Sunday during a guest sermon at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, Baltimore's oldest black Presbyterian church.
"They brought a birthday cake out to him, and he laughed a little bit," Nelson said. "He blew out the candles, told a couple of jokes and said, 'Now, let's get back to work.' "
Nelson, who was elected last year as the first African-American to lead the Presbyterian Church (USA), delivered a rousing call to action in his sermon at a joint service that also included members of the neighboring, predominantly white Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church.
He said many black families in Baltimore still face some of the same challenges and inequality — low wages, disproportionate incarceration, insufficient housing and economic immobility — that King wanted to overcome 50 years ago.
He spoke of deep political racial divisions in the nation.
"It is a challenging time, when the church must be engaged beyond its doors," Nelson said. He urged the two congregations "to come together not as Democrats or Republicans or Independents, to come together not as rich or poor, to come together not just as Presbyterians, but to come together as people of faith who truly believe that transformation can happen."
The historic churches, located about 12 blocks apart in the adjacent Druid Hill and Bolton Hill neighborhoods, worshiped together Sunday for the first time to celebrate King's birthday. Both churches' choirs performed hymns at the service.
The Rev. Phyllis M. Felton, pastor of Madison Avenue, welcomed the visitors to her church and gave the invocation to begin the service. Felton said she was thrilled by the turnout and Nelson's sermon, which drew applause, and brought a few in the church to tears.
"It was beyond my expectations," she said. "He was channeling Dr. King."
Colleen Bowers, 64, a Brown Memorial choir singer who lives in Perry Hall, called the sermon "the best one I've ever heard."
"He talked about the advances of the civil rights movement and their erosions today and the need of church folks to act on that," Bowers said. "It was amazing."
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, pastor at Brown Memorial, said the unity service provided a stark contrast from the rhetoric of President-elect Donald J. Trump, who he said has shown a propensity for "othering" people.
Trump campaigned on promises to ban Muslims from entering the country and to build a wall along the southern border.
Connors led prayers during the service for both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama.
"We're coming together to resist that rhetoric and show what our country can be," he said.
Michael Britt, Brown Memorial's organist and choir director, said Nelson offered a powerful — and difficult to hear — message on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"I always love a sermon that's inspiring but makes you uncomfortable," he said. "With all the injustices he listed, we should feel uncomfortable."
Those in the pews were asked to fill out an index card with a personal prayer and exchange it with a worshipper she or he didn't know. The idea was that each person would keep the other's card somewhere they would see it every day, and pray for the petition.
Lorisa Stewart, a Madison Avenue member who lives in Glen Oak, said she told the man with whom she traded cards to make sure he told his niece she would be praying for her.
"It was a commitment we made to one another," Stewart said. "The sermon was very appropriate, but even more than that was the spirit of community."
Marie Miller, 80, whose family has been attending Madison Avenue for five generations, said the service struck a beautiful tone of unity, peace and harmony.
"It was for everybody," she said. "It hit on a lot of different things we need to hear."