Shouts of “Amen” rose from the audience and spontaneous applause erupted into a standing ovation as Pastor Happy Watkins completed his rendition of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the Spokane Washington East Stake Center the evening of Jan. 18.
This may have not been your typical conclusion to a Sunday evening in a chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but truly this was not your typical gathering. The chapel and the entire cultural hall filled with over 700 guests from multiple congregations. All had come to celebrate religious freedom and reverence the men and women who gave of themselves to secure and protect those freedoms.
Pastor Watkins, who has led the Spokane New Hope Baptist Church for 25 years, is known in the community as a champion for freedom and equality. Almost 28 years ago, he was invited by Washington Gov. Booth Gardner to read Dr. King’s famous speech at a large gathering in Spokane.
“I went and spent a night at the church,” Pastor Watkins recalled. “By 2 in the morning, I had it memorized. When they announced I was going to read the speech, I recited it from memory. They were all crying and the flame grew.”
In the last 28 years, he has delivered the rendition on multiple occasions, “sometimes 30 to 40 times in a row over a three-week period.”
During the last few years, Pastor Watkins’ inner city flock has benefited from the service of Dave and Diann Ross, regional directors of LDS Public Affairs in the Spokane area.
“Dave and Diann Ross came to the East side to get involved in our struggle,” Pastor Watkins explained. “They stepped out of their comfort zone and joined us at our worship service. We needed help in our community and they joined us as ambassadors from this great congregation.”
And as a result, Pastor Watkins offered a gift of thanks.
“Happy called Dave Ross and asked if he could come and do his speech in our church,” President Greg Mott of the Spokane East Stake explained. “And we said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Pres. Mott, who shared the podium with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Pastor Watkins, began the Freedom Devotional by detailing the “vision of freedom and equality” that has long permeated this nation. He led the listeners on a verbal journey from the Declaration of Independence to the words of Abraham Lincoln on the fields of Gettysburg.
“How have we done since?” Pres. Mott asked. “How much closer are we to that vision of freedom becoming a reality?”
Mott warned the audience that today we are in fact seeing “new attacks on some of our most basic freedoms, our First Amendment rights.” In the words of Lincoln, Pres. Mott admonished those in attendance to be “truly united in this noble endeavor” to protect our freedoms, “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”
His words hit their mark with many in attendance, including Darby Blanchard.
“Everyone’s passion that spoke made me want to act,” Blanchard said. “Not just talk about how great America is, but actually strive to make it great.”
As Sheriff Knezovich followed Pres. Mott at the podium he waved to the fifth row, giving a personal welcome to some of his young Sunday School students who had come to celebrate freedom. He then remarked that “Our country was created for the purpose of religious freedom…and with that freedom comes a responsibility to put all on the line to protect that liberty.”
Knezovich credited Dr. King as one who was “willing to give everything for what he believed,” pointing out that doesn’t happen very often.
Then Pastor Watkins took the stand to share the words of Dr. King with power, passion and a few modernizations.
Reciting the iconic speech, Pastor Watkins expanded the final stanza, including two more groups in the list of those he dreamed could stand together for freedom.
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, Baptists and Mormons, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
The power of his recitation filled the chapel, the cultural hall and the hearts of hundreds as evidenced by the shouts of “Amen” and the entire audience rising to their feet in applause.
“I thought it was just amazing to have someone from another church come to speak to us on such a powerful subject,” said Kimball Demars. “The spirit was so strong. This is one of the memories I will keep forever.”
Judy Rowe, a member of the New Hope Baptist Church attended with several others from Watkins’ congregation. She shared her feelings about the evening. “It seemed like when he was speaking you could hear a pin drop. It was wonderful to see the reaction from people who had not heard this before.”
Ben Freedland, 10, who had never before heard the speech, said “I liked the part about the dream, and how we should be grateful for our freedoms.”
Fannie Bush remarked on the “feeling of brotherhood and unity from the presentations and the people here.” She added that the very powerful presentations motivated her to “be conscious of what is really going on in our country.”
“This was historic for us to have something like this happen in one of our chapels in Spokane, Washington,” declared Pres. Mott. “I am overwhelmed with Happy’s recitation and the response. It couldn’t have been better.”