Eighty-five years after the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., some 100 people gathered in Napa to celebrate the life of the civil rights activist — and the spirit of peace that animated it.

Ministers, singers and townspeople met at Covenant Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon for the annual celebration of the life, deeds and teachings of the Georgia preacher who led and symbolized the fight for African-American political equality in the 1950s and 1960s.

For all his work rolling back segregation and discrimination against black Americans, the Napa event’s main speaker called King’s most durable legacy his mission of nonviolence and long-suffering in the pursuit of social change.

“Showing mercy is the hardest thing for me to do; it’s the hardest thing for the world to do,” Father John Brenkle, the retired priest of St. Helena Catholic Church, told his audience. “And that’s why we needed a man like Martin Luther King to show us how to do it.”

Sunday’s event, sponsored by Napa’s interfaith clergy, took place one day before the federal holiday created in King’s honor. Since the proclamation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986, more locals have gradually come to appreciate the heart of his message, said the Rev. Deana Reed, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian.

“I’ve lived in Napa off and on since 1987, so I’ve seen immense change in our ability to have a conversation on all sorts of marginalized peoples,” Reed said before the celebration. “I’d hate to see us slip into a comfort zone, though, and that’s why it’s important to remember why Dr. King was so important.”

The program formed a journey back to King’s time in litany, Bible verses and song, with pastors retracing the activist’s path from the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955-56 to the March on Washington in 1963, and the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tenn., where an assassin’s bullet cut down King in 1968.

Vintage High School’s chamber choir performed a selection of songs from the civil rights era to the present, from gospel hymns to the 2007 tune “I Know Where I’ve Been” from the musical “Hairspray” — then concluding with the soft, lilting lyrics of “We Shall Overcome,” the hymn identified with 1960s demonstrators.

As King’s lifetime recedes further into history, Brenkle, who worked to promote farmworker and immigrant rights during his 30-year career in St. Helena, declared the activist’s work and ideals as necessary as ever.

“There is so much anger and revenge in our society, internationally and even in our media,” he said before the ceremony. “Getting even seems to be driving a lot of us. Gandhi, Mandela and Dr. King, they taught us a different way.”

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