Gathering in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
Spurred into action by the model of Christ and to provide hope, support, and guidance to a community in pain, a group of Asheville faith leaders gathered early in June to provide comfort and faith to a community that has been stretched to its limit.
Pastors of the Church Street Collaborative assembled with the intention to take action against the racial disparity occurring in our community and nation. The Collaborative consists of Central United Methodist Church, pastored by Rev. Dr. Rob Blackburn, Trinity Episcopal Church (Rev. Dr. Scott White), and First Presbyterian Church (Rev. Patrick Johnson).
The Collaborative, initiated by Dr. Blackburn, reached out to Rev. Dr. John H. Grant of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. L. C. Ray of the WNC Baptist Fellowship Church, and other leaders from across the faith community, to address the current climate of police brutality in our country.
Hundreds of supporters, all wearing masks, convened on Church Street to lament the loss of black lives. Community leaders who spoke, in addition to the organizers, included Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, County Commissioner Al Whitesides, the Rt. Rev. José A. McLoughlin, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of WNC, and Rev. Beth Crissman, Superintendent of the Blue Ridge District of the WNC Conference of the United Methodist Church.
In an opening prayer, Dr. Grant implored the protestors to a call for justice by standing in prayer and solidarity. He invoked the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by bad people, but the silence over that of good people.” In a moving moment, Dr. Grant closed his address with memorable words from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Manheimer called for “a society where people can trust, where they can have faith and be able to believe that they will be governed fairly, with respect and with dignity, and that those in power will not abuse their positions and cause others to suffer.” She acknowledged that, clearly, “We are still hurting people we should be helping.”
Miller, the first African American ever elected sheriff in Buncombe County, urged the community to come together and engage in the difficult conversations needed. “We have the opportunity to make this something positive for this county, to be a role model for this nation,” he said. “There are good law enforcement officers out there, but we are a part of a system and we’ve got to do more.”
Commissioner Whitesides served as a member and chairman of the Buncombe County School Board before becoming the first black member of the Buncombe County Commission. His lifelong support for improving education systems and outcomes, and his professional career in banking—where, he has acknowledged, he faced occasional prejudice from customers who would not work with an African American executive—gave context and power to his remarks.
“I have one last message for our law enforcement officers, whom I respect—you do a great job and I know what you go through on a daily basis—but ladies and gentleman in law enforcement, you’ve got to take it to the next level! You can’t stand around and watch a man be killed. You know who the rotten apples are in your department. You’ve got to get ’em out, you’ve got to clean up—and we will support you.”
But, he warned, “When I look at these unions and the Fraternal Order of Police, who spend millions of dollars defending these murderers, something is wrong with this system. I know the majority are good people who mean well, but until you clean it up, that stench will be on you.”
Before the crowd of hundreds marched to City-County Plaza—where the protest ended with a prayer from Rev. Herbert Grant and community hymn-singing—Supt. Crissman offered a benediction that was also an invocation: she called on the Lord to “start a movement amongst us so that we will have the ability to speak, listen, and to act—to be agents of change for this broken and hurting world.”
The peaceful but intense event was a model of “Prayer in Action” for the community.