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Social justice defines Pullen Baptist's progressive legacy 

Remembering the human toll and living reconciliation

Summer is usually the quiet season for faith communities. However, that's not the case at Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, a congregation that consistently stands out as one of the Triangle's strongest progressive voices of faith.

The congregation's legacy of activism can be traced to the 1950s, when Pullen, then under the leadership of the late W.W. Finlator, took an early stand against segregation. In the 1960s and 1970s, Pullen members were a mainstay in opposition to the Vietnam War. Opposing the nuclear arms race was prominent on Pullen's agenda in the 1980s. In the 1990s, under former pastor Mahan Siler, Pullen led the way as an open and affirming congregation for gays and lesbians. Today, under co-pastors Jack McKinney and Nancy Petty, Pullen continues to side with the oppressed. Execution-night prayer services, mission trips to Third World nations, support of labor unions, twice-weekly meal service to the homeless: Pullen is always taking a stand and enriching the rest of us in the process.

"Remembering the human toll"

On a steamy early August afternoon, the Rev. Cathy Tamsberg climbed an aluminum stepladder and dutifully changed the numbers on a large banner at Pullen Baptist on Hillsborough Street.

The banner, which includes the words "Remembering the Human Toll," records the numbers of U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens killed and injured in the war. Tamsberg, Pullen's minister of outreach and adult education, updated the number of American troops killed to 3,660; afterward, more than 20 Pullen members and others began the 95-minute task of reading aloud the names of the troops and some Iraqis killed since January.

Pullen member Sally Buckner opened with a quote from John Donne: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

She added: "We have lost more than 3,600 men and women from our own country, hundreds more from what is euphemistically termed 'the coalition of the willing,' and untold thousands of Iraqis, both fighters and civilians. We cannot count or name them all, but in reverence we acknowledge and grieve their loss."

Pullen plans to read again if and when the death toll of U.S. troops hits 4,000.

Lives lost, remembered

The parking lot of the Exxon convenience store on Lake Wheeler Road is almost like any other. The one difference: This is where Jennifer Kathleen Nielsen took her last breath on the morning of June 14 when she, eight months pregnant, was stabbed to death, apparently for the few dollars in quarters she emptied each morning from the USA Today newspaper racks she serviced in the Raleigh/Garner area.

Nielsen and her unborn son, Ethen, were remembered in a July 29 memorial service led by religious activists who gather monthly in Raleigh to pray for an end to violence. The memorial services began as a joint project of Pullen Baptist and Martin Street Baptist churches. They've since been coordinated by the Triangle Interfaith Alliance to bring communities together for prayer after a senseless killing.

More than 100 people, many of them wearing T-shirts memorializing their murdered loved ones, attended the service, which is held only if a murder occurs the previous month.

In addition to Nielsen and her son, five more murder victims were remembered: Pascual Cobix Xolo, 33; Damarkos Eugene Alan Thorpe, 30; Tyrone Robert Covington, 28; Veronica Malone, 38; and Fidencio San Agustin San Juan, 37.

Candles were lit in their memory, and a bell tolled after each victim was remembered.

No one from San Juan's family attended the memorial service, led by Pullen member Bonnie Stone.

"[San Juan] was stabbed to death ... and we don't know anything else," Stone said. "So he could have been nameless and forgotten had you not chosen to come today."

Thorpe's mother, Lillie Thorpe, came to the vigil with her son's two young children. Lillie Thorpe and the children were wearing T-shirts bearing a photo of their father. "To me it's destroyed my life," Lillie Thorpe said. "It's like I've been cut up into pieces, and I can't find my way back. I pray about it, but it seems like I've got so much anger where I didn't have anger."

Still, Lillie Thorpe said she left the service with hope."I know with everybody joining in sooner or later it's got to stop. It's going to stop. This violence's got to stop because it's messing up too many peoples' lives."

Living reconciliation

The Rev. Joyce Hollyday, an Asheville-based writer and peace activist, led an Aug. 4 workshop at Pullen using the Book of Romans: "If your enemy is hungry, feed her. ... Conquer evil with good. If we feed the monster, he won't want to eat us."

The Romans message also makes good foreign policy, said Hollyday, whose workshop was titled "Living Reconciliation."

Hollyday recounted her experiences in South Africa and Greensboro where she observed Truth and Reconciliation commissions."Without energy for the common good there can be no reconciliation and peace," Hollyday said. Meeting the needs of others must become a "habit of the heart."

FLOC to take on R.J. Reynolds

Farm Labor Organizing Committee founder and president Baldemar Velasquez announced July 19 that the Toledo, Ohio-based labor union plans to pressure tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds to allow workers to unionize.

In a "liturgy of remembrance" held at Fayetteville's Lock's Creek AME Zion Church, Velasquez honored nine North Carolina farmworkers, at least one of whom worked in tobacco, who have died in the fields the last two summers.

"We're going to be reaching out to the CEO of the R.J. Reynolds Company," he said. "So be praying that the doors will be open to make that meeting possible. We're going to ask them to do something in their industry to benefit the people at the bottom of their supply line. We're going to ask them to legalize these workers, to pay for the cost of legalizing the workers. We're going to ask to increase the prices of tobacco so farmers can facilitate the improvement of those labor camps and the improvement of conditions for those workers."

Grapes of Wrath

The Raleigh-based Justice Theater Project (JTP) will present Frank Galati's Tony Award-winning adaptation of the John Steinbeck classic The Grapes of Wrath. The tale of the Joad family's struggles depicts the plight of farmers during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s.

The JTP is "an advocacy and activist theater company whose mission is to use the dramatic arts to bring to the fore of public attention the needs of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed."

The Grapes of Wrath will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, and at 2 p.m. Sept. 2 at the Cardinal Gibbons High School Performing Arts Center, 1401 Edwards Mill Road, Raleigh. General admission is $15; students, seniors $12; groups of 10 or more, $10.

Guests will lead discussions related to Latinos and farmworkers after the Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 performances. Contact Melissa Zeph at 215-0889 or www.thejusticetheaterproject.org.

  • Plus: FLOC takes on R.J. Reynolds; New Justice Theater Project play

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