Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
Pastor Rodriguez is the first Hispanic to give keynote address at Martin Luther King's old church on his birthday.
ATLANTA -- In a passionate sermon Monday at Martin Luther King Jr.'s old church, one of the nation's most influential Hispanic evangelical leaders exhorted Americans to pursue the civil rights martyr's goals of a just society -- not through political means, but through the church.
"We do live in difficult times," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which has more than 40,000 member churches. "But I'm convinced, believe it or not, that the best is yet to come.
"The only agenda that can (pursue Christian justice) is not the agenda of the donkey or the agenda of the elephant. It is the agenda of the lamb. Behold, the lamb of God."
Rodriguez -- who described himself as "some Billy Graham, some Martin Luther King Jr., mixed in a blender and put salsa on top" -- gave a keynote address at Ebenezer Baptist Church on King's birthday that was less political than many of his predecessors on a day that the church remembers the slain civil rights leader.
He was the first Hispanic keynote speaker at the annual service.
"The most powerful spirit on the planet is still the spirit of Almighty God," said Rodriguez, senior pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento. "It is the spirit that gives us the power to do justice and live out the dream."
He said that 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, "we still find ourselves bound by poverty, violence and illiteracy. The most powerful person on the planet is a person set free by the blood of the lamb. The devil hates free people. We are free by the blood of the lamb."
The second-term inauguration of President Obama was an ever-present backdrop for the morning's 45th annual commemorative service, this year celebrating King's 84th birthday.
Obama delivered a videotaped greeting on a large television monitor in the sanctuary, where the inauguration was shown.
And in her opening remarks, King's daughter Bernice King reminded the audience that Obama was to be sworn in using her father's personal Bible.
"They called for the Bible of the prophet because God is speaking to us in this time, that we cannot forget about Martin Luther King the pastor ... the prophet," she said.
Citing the current national debate over gun violence, the youngest of King's three surviving children also reminded the audience that her father "introduced one of the greatest experiences of non-violence we've ever heard of in our nation" when he urged an angry crowd of African Americans who'd been terrorized by white racists to lay down their guns.
"Martin Luther King stood up that day and said we cannot fight this with guns," she said. "Put your guns up. We are going to fight this with Christian love, because he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword."
King was co-pastor at Ebenezer with his father, from 1960 until he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. His funeral was at Ebenezer on April 9, 1968. The annual commemorative service is the centerpiece of the King Day celebration in King's hometown.
Among the near-capacity crowd at the church was Porter Sanford, 46, president of an Atlanta real estate company. "It was inspiring," he said of the service. "It was one of inclusivity, and I thought it was very moving."
"It was stimulating," said the Rev. Rodney Turner, 56, pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta. "It took us back to the basics of what the movement was all about, Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
"I thought Rev. Rodriguez was awesome," he said.
READ MORE: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/01/21/atlanta-king-day/18...