Three officers of the United Church of Christ plan to stand with several thousand citizens of North Carolina on Saturday, at the forefront of a grassroots effort for change. Together they and other members of the wider church join a call for justice and fairness from the North Carolina legislature, as part of a Moral March on Raleigh the morning of Feb. 8. The marchers are holding state representatives accountable for a series of laws the public says isn't in their best interest.
"I have been so encouraged by the number of people of faith who have been attending these rallies to witness God's call to do justice, love, mercy, and walk humbly and compassionately in God's name," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC. "I am especially grateful for the participation of clergy and members of the United Church of Christ in North Carolina who have provided key leadership in this powerful effort."
Black will be joined by the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, and the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister for Local Church Ministries, in the North Carolina capital this weekend. In addition, about 30 students and leaders from UCC-related Andover Newton Theological Seminary will travel from the Boston area to support the people of North Carolina.
"I'm attending as one of the national officers of the United Church of Christ," Guess said, "but also as a trustee of Andover Newton, where we decided to cancel our previously scheduled board meeting so that all of the trustees, along with many students and faculty, could all attend the march en masse. That's the kind of grassroots momentum this event is now attracting."
The rally will be the eighth Historic Thousands on Jones Street (abbreviated to the acronym HKonJ in the region) gathering, which have been held since 2006 on the second Saturday in February. An estimated 17,000 people attended the February 2013 march to voice their concerns, claiming that a recent string of actions from North Carolina supported and passed by Governor Pat McCrory and other government leaders are immoral and unconstitutional.
Among the proposed legislation that is at the heart of the issue; Changes to voting rights, failure to expand Medicaid coverage, reductions in the state budget to fund education, restrictions on abortion access, repealing racial profiling laws and even a law that would permit carrying a firearm on a playground.
The discontent with the N.C. state government caused protests to become common occurrences last year. There were 13 Moral Mondays marches in Raleigh in 2013 – which led to almost 1,000 arrests for civil disobedience – and 23 more Moral Mondays in other parts of the state.
Jaramillo said UCC pastors and lay leaders have been important players in joining Moral Monday and HKonJ activities and, like Guess and Black, she is looking forward to standing with the protestors in person. "We will be present this weekend in support of their courageous public witness that has called attention to and demanded change in the growing economic divide fueled by legislative policies in that state," she said.
The day's activities include a gathering of clergy at 8 a.m., where UCC pastors will pray and march around the statehouse before gathering at nearby Shaw University for a worship service. From there, people will assemble at 9:30 a.m. for a Moral March Program before they set out to march on the Capitol at 10:30, where the group will remain until 1 p.m.
"I am honored to be among the thousands of national religious leaders and concerned citizens who will take part in Saturday's Moral March on Raleigh, a massive civil rights witness that promises to be south's largest since the Selma to Montgomery marches in the 1960s," Guess said.
"Policy-wise, what's happening in North Carolina has caught the attention of the nation, but so has the outrage of its citizens, which has energized a grassroots coalition of diverse, concerned community groups who are standing in solidarity with one another," Guess continued. "It's inspiring, and it's grown far beyond Raleigh to encompass all of North Carolina and now far beyond.
The Moral March on Raleigh, along with HKonJ and Moral Mondays, are the vision of North Carolina NAACP president and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister the Rev. William Barber.
"Barber understands that an injury to one is an injury to all, which is why this movement has continually been a multi-issue one," Guess said. "What's he's accomplished, and is accomplishing, in terms of bringing people together around a broad social justice agenda is nothing less than amazing. He is inspiring a whole new generation of justice advocates in North Carolina and the entire nation."
Local minister the Rev. Rick Edens, who co-pastors United Church of Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, N.C., explained his view on how Barber has rallied tens of thousands with the marches.
"He refers to it as a fusion movement, with blacks, whites, Hispanics, gay and straight, laborers and teachers all together," Edens said. "It's very motivating to see this many different people together."
United Church of Chapel Hill will be one of the several congregations from the Southern Conference of the UCC to make the trip to Raleigh, as they have several times before. United Church is hosting a weekend of events around the Moral March, inviting students, faculty and board members from Andover Newton to stay with members when they return from Raleigh.
"We thought it was a real opportunity [for those of us in North Carolina] to see the wider church in having the officers and a UCC-related seminary coming down here," said Edens, whose daughter attends Andover Newton as a seminarian. "It's a great opportunity to introduce the wider church, of which we are a part."
Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton, will preach at United Church of Chapel Hill on Sunday, Feb. 9, and Maria Teresa Dávila, assistant professor of Christian ethics, will host a teach-in on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 in the Fellowship Hall of United Church of Chapel Hill, and will also preach during the weekend.
"This is an important personal journey of faithfulness for each of us, even though we will march under an Andover Newton banner," Carter said. "The poor and disenfranchised have invited and deserve our witness.
"The legislators of North Carolina need to know that the whole world is watching," Carter continued. "We all have something to lose in their regressive politics. Not since the 1960s has a greater challenge been presented to civil rights and not since the Freedom Riders climbed on buses to confront Jim Crow laws has there been a greater need for the rest of the country to get involved in what is happening."