The 2022 Watertown Unity Breakfast honored a pair of people who have contributed to their communities, and featured the words of two young residents who shared their winning pieces in the Martin Luther King Jr. Essay Contest.
For the second year in a row, the annual MLK Day event had to be held virtually. The broadcast of the ceremony debuted on Monday, and this year’s theme was “choosing courage.”
The annual Unity Award went to a pastor of a Watertown church who has made a difference since he arrived in town a few years ago.
Stephen Nyakairu, pastor of Grace Chapel in Watertown, was named the 2022 Unity Awardee. The work that he, his family and his congregation has done makes Watertown a “stronger and kinder community,” said Donaldy Salvant, a member of the Unity Award Committee.
Watertown Police Lt. Dan Unsworth said that Nyakairu has created ties with many organizations and groups in the city, including the Watertown Boys & Girls Club, the Watertown Social Services Resource Specialists, local food pantries, the Watertown Police Department, the faith community as well as community members in recovery from substance use disorder.
“All have benefited from Pastor Stephen’s leadership, kindness and inclusivity,” Unsworth said.
Nyakairu’s parents, who were pastors in Uganda, showed him seek out someone’s best interest by serving them. When he was orphaned, he experienced the kindness of strangers at the orphanage who cared for him even though and other kids “who they weren’t even related to.”
Nyakairu said he first learned of the works of Dr. King in college.
“Dr. King said, if most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others? — What are we doing for others?” Nyakairu said. “So, I went into the ministry to answer that question and learned that we are either investing our lives, or spending our lives, or wasting them. We’re either investing in others or spending our lives on ourselves, and I knew I never wanted to waste my life.”
When he graduated from college and the seminary, he looked for partners, friends and colleagues to serve together. And when he came to Grace Chapel, Nyakairu said he went out to meet with community leaders and organizers to see what his congregation could do to make the community better.
“I consider all of them as more than partners. They are friends who model a life of service for me,” Nyakairu said.
He said he is honored to be the recipient of the Unity Award, but said that it was a team effort. He added that he looks forward to serving the community further in the future.
“I don’t see this as a victory lap, but a call and an invitation to join me in this effort because the work is not done,” Nyakairu said. “All of us have something to contribute. When we help someone, we help everyone. Everyone of us has something to invest — some time, some resources — to make this world a little bit better and more hopeful.
“In the words of Dr. King, the only thing required to serve is a kind heart that is full of grace and a soul that is generated by love.”
Honorary Host Felicia Sullivan also thanked Chuck Dickinson, a longtime member of the Unity Breakfast planning committee who stepped down officially after several years, but who remains active by managing the Unity Breakfast’s finances and helping with the transition.
Local Civil Rights Worker
The Unity Breakfast also spotlighted Beverly Smith, a Watertown resident who was a civil rights leader who focused on women’s health issues. She was interviewed by Daniel D’Amico.
Smith was one of three co-authors of the Combahee River Collective Statement, which addressed how neither the mainstream Feminist movement nor the Civil Right movement addressed the needs of Black women. Professionally, her work was in public health, and Smith was part of the group that opened Boston’s first refuge for, what was known then as, “battered women.”
When she was working on starting the shelter, Smith said that she found that she would run into people she knew from other parts of her activism, such as what was known as the Women’s Community.
Smith was asked for advice for becoming an activist.
“Find people who share your values, people you enjoy being with, enjoy working with, because there are quite a few steps to changing society, a huge amount work, much of it not fun at all. It’s boring,” Smith said. “Find people who actually inspire you because of what they think or what they are wanting to do, the ideas that they have. I just think that the connections across different groups are very important.”
Sherri Bevel, a political scientist who has engaged in human and community development for more than 30 years, gave the keynote address at the 2022 Unity Breakfast.
She was impressed by Watertown’s commitment to nonviolence, with people trained in King’s Principles in the Watertown Public School, the Watertown Police Department and as well as offering courses for residents.
People who want to see changes in society must do so actively, Bevel said.
“We can’t just be one of the good people alone in our homes buying bamboo paper towels and electric cars and feeling more pious than our neighbors,” she said. “We have to rethink the system of transportation and consumption. We have to give our neighbors what they need to participate in this rethinking.”
When she was young Bevel read the “Diary of Anne Frank” and was very moved by it. She said it helped inspire her to fight to change society so that the Holocaust or similar events do not happen again. That is why, she said, it is important to teach children what really happened in history lessons.
“We must deal with this idea that you can’t teach history and talk about racism in schools,” Bevel said. “There is nothing wrong and everything right about telling kids the truth. The idea of shielding children from history is destructive to their very humanity.”
One of the keys to making change today, Bevel said, is to look for new perspectives.
“We need to be thinking outside the box. We need to really be listening to the fresh perspectives of young people and all of us need to open our minds to new insights,” Bevel said.
Essay Contest Winners
Each year, students from Watertown Middle School and Watertown High School enter an essay contest, and write about how the words and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. have influenced them.
The middle school contest winner was Yensi Giron, who wrote about her experience as an immigrant to Watertown from Honduras. In elementary school she was bullied by students and made fun of for things such as the food she brought for lunch, so she stopped bringing those items to eat. She said her father helped her deal with her experiences. Now in middle school, she realized that what others day does not matter and she has started to bring her favorite foods again.
She was also touched by King’s teachings.
“From this man, I have learned many values and lessons that he has,” Giron said. “I have learned that everyone is equal whether they are black, white, Asian or any other race. I also learned that people should be treated equally, not that this phrase is only just that, but an actual thing that is and needs to happen.”
High school student Ceclia Gilbert-Sartori wrote about the Stop Asian Hate movement, and her experiences as an Asian-American teen in the time of COVID-19. The movement began after a rise in attacks on Asians during the pandemic. She said her mother warned her to be aware of her surroundings when she walked around, “because you never know what people will do. No 15-year-old should have to hear that.”
Gilbert-Sartori said the Stop Asian Hate movement is based on Principle 3 of MLK’s Six Principles of Nonviolence.
“Principal 3 states that nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people,” Gilbert-Sartori said. “The goal of the Stop Asian Hate movement is to end acts fo Asian hate in the AAPI community — the injustice. However, the end goal is not to hurt people or defeat people, because that makes you no better than the aggressor.”
New Awards for Students
During the Unity Breakfast Sullivan announced the creation of the Visionary Awards, which will provide scholarships or education funds to two students.
“Visionary Awards will be awarded to students who present their compelling vision for a more just and equal future in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders,” Sullivan said.
The student can express themselves in a number of ways, Sullivan said, including prose, poetry, visual or performing arts, film and other media. The details are still being worked out, and Sullivan said they will be ready for next year’s breakfast. The money for the Visionary Awards came from donations to the Unity Breakfast.
For more information on the Unity Breakfast, go to the new website, www.unitybreakfast.org
Watch the Unity Breakfast video on the Watertown Cable Access website by clicking here.