By Jessica Brodie
BENNETTSVILLE, S.C.—A tiny United Methodist congregation on the North Carolina-South Carolina border honored “open hearts, open minds and open doors” in a big way recently, hosting a stop on a multi-state protest march organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
New Hope United Methodist Church is a small, predominantly white church in Bennettsville with an average of 16 in worship each week. But when its pastor, the Rev. Lou Perez, got a call from the NAACP asking whether the church would be willing to host a stop on the America’s Journey for Justice march, the church gave a resounding “yes.”
The little wooden frame church hosted a huge crowd of marchers Aug. 29 who stopped for speeches and songs on their thousand-mile walk from Selma, Alabama, to the nation’s capital. The march mobilized advocacy for a fair criminal justice system, access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage and equitable public education. Each state embraced a different issue focus; South Carolina’s was criminal justice reform, while North Carolina’s was voting rights.
Perez said the road the marchers traveled is historical. In the 1700s, Revolutionary War soldiers traveled that road and lost their lives in a quest for freedom from tyranny. In the 1800s, Sherman’s troops went down the same path, and many lost their lives, too—in a quest for freedom from slavery. The recent march was another historical moment.
“That trail has been blazed before them, and they were carrying the banner,” Perez said, noting it was a great day in the life of the congregation and he was proud to welcome the marchers. “We spend so much time on divisiveness, and we need to find things we can agree upon, and when we can, it lends itself to more meaningful dialogue. We need to put differences aside and look at some things that unite us.”
The march featured a throng of diversity: many different races and faiths, from Christians to rabbis who carried an 18-pound Torah every step of the way. The speakers were often different depending on the location; at the Bennettsville stop, North Carolina NAACP President Dr. William Barber II gave the keynote, North Carolina State Rep. Garland Pierce and others spoke and local singer Raven Newton moved the crowd with her cover of the Sam Cooke song “A Change is Gonna Come.”
New Hope member Pat Franklin said she is proud of her church for hosting the march.
“I really felt like this was a God-led thing,” Franklin said. “We’re Methodists, and its ‘open hearts, open minds and open doors,’ and I think Methodists should certainly follow that. It was a wonderful experience, and there were a lot of people there. The day was perfect, the weather was perfect and it was really a good thing.”