When the Rev. Peter Bramble came to America from the British West Indies, he was moved by the sight of African-Americans holding hands, rocking back and forth, intoning the melodic words, "We Shall Overcome."
He was moved all right -- moved to distraction.
"Every year they would sing 'We Shall Overcome,' " says Father Bramble, pastor of Baltimore's St. Katherine's Episcopal Church Division and Presstman streets.
"I thought: 'But they look very successful to me, there is even a former congressman in my congregation. In fact, I have a very sophisticated congregation. Why are they singing, 'We shall overcome?' "
To a large extent, his congregation had already overcome and was in better shape than many others, he thought. So Father Bramble decided to celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans by instituting "Overcome Day."
This is the fifth anniversary of "Overcome Day," which has become an increasingly popular event drawing more than 500 people -- not all of whom belong to Father Bramble's congregation.
The event, which he says is more cultural than religious, is a "collective rite of passage" for African-Americans based on the Jewish Passover Seder.
The lives of African-Americans who overcame obstacles and succeeded, such as the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, are remembered and celebrated. A brunch of typical African-American foods, such as greens and grits, will be served.
Father Bramble has written a book, "The Overcome: A Black Passover" (C.H. Fairfax Co. Publishers, 1989), and a pamphlet, "The Overcome: Rite, Liturgy, Songs," to guide people through the ceremony.
The Rev. Robert Kearns, pastor of Baltimore's St. Peter Clavers Catholic Church, participates in the "Overcome Day" celebrations.
The purpose is "to give a sense of hope and confirmation," Father Kearns says. Many people from his church attend the celebration, and one year it was held at St. Peter Clavers.
"We're in the same neighborhood. We're sister churches. And I think this helps to strengthen the bonds of the community," Father Kearns explains.
"People come away with a kind of uplifting sense . . . a feeling that nomatter what the situation is there is a way out," says Camay Murphy, an Episcopalian who attends a different church.
"Father Bramble's basic intention is to get people to re-direct their language," says Inella Redmond, who has attended "Overcome Day" although she isn't a member of Father Bramble's church.
"There is certain power in the spoken word," she says. "And I definitely agree with that."
Father Bramble, a graduate of Yale University's Divinity School, where he also studied language and philosophy, says it is defeatist for African-Americans to keep repeating the words "we shall overcome."
"To keep saying 'we shall overcome' prevents it from happening," he says.
"People have got to claim it."
It took a while for people in his congregation and the community to understand the message, he says.
"They thought I meant that we no longer had any problems. But that is not what I mean. Then some people wanted to say, 'We have survived.' But even 'survived' isn't the right word. We have conquered. We have overcome a lot. We have gone through adversity, and isn't adversity supposed to build character? There is joy in that."
Father Bramble decided to hold Overcome Day in the spring because it's the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death and because it falls close to Easter, a time of new beginnings for Christians.
"I would like this to be something that could change people."
When: Today, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Where: The Forum, 4210 Primrose Ave.
Call: (410) 235-5270