Masankho Banda first came to the United States in the 1980s when his father was a political prisoner in Malawi. On Monday, he returned to use his firsthand experience with political oppression to host a celebration of two global leaders for justice —the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Through free-form dance and music, Banda guided a multicultural, multigenerational group in a Northwest Washington storefront church in exercises designed to channel the teachings of the slain civil rights leader and the South African icon who died last month.

Standing in a circle in stocking feet, nearly 50 participants swayed, strutted and spun in a quest for a deeper understanding of the King and Mandela legacies — and to make community connections. There were teenagers from Maryland, retired government workers from the District and South African students on a cultural exchange trip.

Long after the fights against segregation in the South and apartheid in South Africa, Banda said, it was important to remind people that the teachings of King and Mandela remain relevant.

“There will always be people who suffer injustice. Equality is something that will be an ongoing struggle,” said Banda, bearded and wearing an orange patterned kente shirt from Ghana.

Throughout the morning, the group paid tribute to the long marches of King and Mandela, walking through the sunlit room to the beat of Banda’s drum. They contemplated compelling questions: What is the meaning of justice? What does freedom mean to you?

“When you engage the heart, you can change the mind,” Banda said as participants stood palm to palm with their partners. “Martin Luther King and Mandela engaged people’s hearts.”

Some participants were regulars in the program at Seekers Church in the District’s Takoma neighborhood, one of many groups across the country that engage in the exercises known as InterPlay. Others had come for the first time to celebrate the holiday and to join the potluck lunch of Moroccan chicken, spicy greens and traditional South African porridge known as pap.

Amy Angel of Fairfax returned to Banda’s program for a third year, impressed by the power of making connections with people of different cultures, colors and ages. She brought her three sons, ages 12 to 17.

“We hear the words. We hear the speeches. This is an opportunity to experience it a little more directly,” Angel said.

In a serious-minded city like Washington, where so many are defined by their professions, the event also provided an outlet for letting loose and having fun.

“We don’t have many opportunities to be playful as adults, to do things that look foolish to the rest of the world,” said Kathy Tobias, a retired federal government worker from Cheverly, Md. The experience, she said, is about connecting with people and “meeting each other in ways we never have a chance to.”

In one of the most powerful moments of the morning, Banda played a recording of King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech as the group danced hand to hand in groups of twos and threes to his words:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . .

One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

When King’s March on Washington speech built to its “Let freedom ring” refrain, the individual groups seemed to spontaneously connect into a swaying, chanting train of humanity. Their voices crescendoed until the group erupted in loud applause and laughter.