The Sunday before the 2010 gubernatorial elections, a black rag doll covered in racial slurs, swastikas and threats to President Obama was found swinging from a cherry tree outside City of Zion Church on Laurel Park Drive.
The church's senior pastor, the Rev. Gregory Strong, believes the doll was hung to discourage the 250 members of the African American congregation from voting the following Tuesday.
During an investigation by local police and the Secret Service, Strong said he learned City of Zion Church dwells in what was considered "Klan country" during the 1960s civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Decades after the movement began to transform society, Strong's connection to the civil rights leader has been a foundation of his ministry.
Strong said he is "very much a student of Dr. King" and he studied King extensively in seminary school and has read most of his books.
"Dr. King is an example of living faith, working faith, a faith that translates," Strong said. "King is very special to African Americans; he's an icon and a role model."
A native of Cleveland, the senior pastor said he likes to brag a little that his mother — who, with his father, hails from Birmingham, Ala. — is distantly related to Coretta Scott King.
Strong said when he reflects on King, he likes to remind people that King was a reverend along with a civil rights leader.
"Rev. Dr. King was able to do the great things he did because faith was his compass," Strong said. "As a minister, Dr. King's faith transcended the four walls of the church and impacted the world."
Strong was 2 years old when King was assassinated in 1968. He said he always knew he would enter the ministry, but enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps when he graduated high school in Cleveland in 1983.
After serving overseas and at home for seven years and landing at the Naval Annex at the Pentagon, Strong settled in the area in 1990 and began civilian work as a defense contractor. He married Mineva Conchita Satterfield in 1992. The couple has three daughters: Tahira, Vashtaii and Zoeii.
In 1994, Strong answered a call to ministry that he said he heard as a youth.
Licensed in Gospel Ministry at Metropolitan Baptist Church of Washington and ordained at Triumphant Baptist Church of Hyattsville, Strong holds bachelor and master's degrees in Biblical studies from Maple Springs Baptist Bible College and Seminary.
In 2004, he and his wife organized the City of Zion Church and began holding Bible studies in a rented classroom at Laurel's Oseh Shalom synagogue. In 2008, the church moved to its home on Laurel Park Drive, across from Laurel Regional Hospital.
A resident of Montpelier since 1992, Strong said he's found just the right mix of urban and rural life in Laurel.
"It's not too much city and it's just enough country, the right balance," he said.
And like King, Strong reaches out to the greater community as a humanitarian and social activist.
"What we hear from the pulpit should influence us to impact other people's lives," he said.
In 1998, Strong served as chaplain and director of the men's Spiritual Transformation Program at Central Union Mission, a faith-based nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
Some of the graduates of the program — men he said were previously homeless, drug addicted or in prison — have joined the City of Zion Church congregation and are gainfully employed fathers and husbands.
Strong said that "words cannot describe" how that makes him feel.
Strong is a member of a subdivision of the Laurel Clergy Association, the New Day Organization, that is working to bring low-income housing and housing for the homeless to Laurel.
New Day is headed by the Rev. Kevin McGhee, of Bethany Community Church in West Laurel. McGhee said New Day started about five years ago to assist people who may have lost relational connectivity by offering jobs for life, Bible study and friendship. The organization aspires to build a permanent facility in Laurel that will provide supportive low-income housing and a central shelter for Laurel's homeless population.
"Dr. King was all about justice and giving people their dignity," McGhee said. "King would have loved the churches coming together to advocate not only for the homeless, but for people vulnerable to becoming homeless.
"That's something Dr. King inspired," Strong said. "At his death, King was planning the poor people's campaign."
Sing for King
Several years ago, Strong performed readings of King's "I Have A Dream" speech and 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" at Sing for King concerts — an annual Laurel commemoration organized by the Laurel Clergy Association and launched in 2008 by Laurel composer Mack Statham.
Statham, who recruited the Sing for King Choir from numerous area churches and synagogues, died in 2013. The Sing for King concerts continued for two years under new directors, but will not be performed this year.
Strong said the program is in transition, possibly shifting focus toward an interactive, political forum involving panel discussions between Laurel police, clergy and community members to improve relations and address racial tensions such as those seen in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland, as well as the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore.
"Dr. King was a social activist, and I think this is more in line with who he was and what he did," Strong said.
The Rev. Scott Best, of Worship World Church, organized and directed the program last year. He said Sing for King is "revamping" to include more music presentations and to pull children into the fold. A former gospel singer, Best hopes to recruit nationally recognized talents the caliber of Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, both of whom he said he's toured with in the past, for future Sing for King performances.
Last year's concert cost about $10,000, he said. The money came from private donations, business sponsorships and contributions from churches that are members of the Laurel Clergy Association.
"Everyone from the mayor's office to local business sponsors and the church choirs don't want to see the program go away," Best said.