READING, Pa. - The largest and most popular event of the year for the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance is undoubtedly its annual dinner.
The 2020 dinner was not canceled because of COVID-19, but it did take on a unique and different flavor from previous years.
The Thursday night event was dubbed "the virtual dinner."
With the use of a state-of-the-art web portal, guests were taken inside a virtual Santander Arena, where they could move from table to table and network with close to 800 other community and business leaders.
The virtual aspect did not take away from the celebratory nature of the event, as each guest received a swag bag that included a split of wine, a gift card to a member restaurant and chamber-branded items.
And, as in any other year, the highlight was the keynote address.
Wes Moore, the CEO of Robin Hood and a best-selling author, delivered an hour-long talk from his home that included a question-and-answer session.
Moore's books include "The Work," "Discovering Wes Moore," "This Way Home" and "Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City."
Each guest received an autographed copy of "Five Days."
His first book, "The Other Wes Moore," has been optioned by executive producer Oprah Winfrey and HBO to be made into a movie.
As CEO of one of the largest anti-poverty forces in the nation, Moore explained how important it is for business leaders to become advocates for the community.
"It's important for businesses to do what businesses are supposed to do through growth, through hiring and by being an engine for the economic system," Moore said, "but it's important for our business community and business leaders to understand that it's not about individual power, but our collective bargaining power.
"Good businesses cannot grow in cities that are in decline."
Moore added that business communities have to be able to think differently to become a collective voice in community growth.
"Concentrated poverty still means collective challenges," he said. "There is no such thing as an oasis of pain."
Meeting pandemic's challenges
Moore also spoke about persistence during the challenges being created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The fact that we are having this tonight shows a very meaningful level of persistence, which others do not have," Moore said. "One thing I learned is that you learn nothing about anybody in times of comfort."
Moore said the challenges are becoming more complicated to navigate, but can offer an opportunity to create progress.
"Can we create progress through unity?" he asked. "Can we come up with a way to reinvent the communities we live in?"
Moore reminded the audience that 24% of people who lost jobs because of COVID-19 were already living in poverty.
"In this moment, the power of all of us is about asking the question of who is it that we will fight for," he said. "Who is it that we will sacrifice for, and who is it that we will advocate for?"
Moore said that humanity is being tested.
"And not just to be sympathetic but to be empathetic," he said. "Being sympathetic means I feel bad for you, but being empathetic means your pain is mine."
Moore then related a personal story about growing up in poverty and having his mother and his family sacrifice so that he could attend military school.
"What we know is this, and it's the same lesson I learned in military school: The only way I could make it was if my friends and family were there to push me," Moore said. "There is no singular success.
"Think of that in context of where we are a large society. If the only thing you focus on is your own success, then you didn't win the race, you just went for a walk.
"We all have to cross a relative finish line. The damage to the collective soul will not be worth our own victory. We have an ability to create a framework where success is not a binary conversation. Your success matters to me as mine should for you."
Moore said more pain will most likely be forthcoming because of the pandemic.
"There is still more pain to come because we are dealing with a very real crisis and a larger reckoning," Moore said. "I will not be able to make it on my own. The only way to get to a measure of success is if we do it together."
Moore once again told a personal story of a colonel in his military school who had to leave the school because he was dying of cancer.
"He said something I will not forget and will always be a North Star for me," Moore said. "'When it's time for you to leave, whether this school, your job, your community or this planet, make sure that it mattered that you were ever even here because none of us are promised anything.'
"Let's make sure that the ways we are spending our time are God-honoring and fulfilling. These are complicated times."