On a sunny Saturday morning in the small town of Chewelah, two dozen people stood in front of the United Church of Christ holding Black Lives Matter signs. Cars drove by, some honking in agreement, others yelling obscenities or conveying them via hand gestures.
The Chewelah United Church of Christ has actively supported the Black Lives Matter movement since its resurgence earlier this year after the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. The church’s board voted to endorse the movement earlier this month, and the church has continued to hold semimonthly vigils all summer.
The United Church of Christ is known for being progressive, said Pastor Jess Peacock, but the idea of fighting for racial justice is something the pastor sees in the very foundation of Christianity.
“The figure at the core of Christianity is the figure of Jesus, and Jesus was a brown man wrongfully executed by the state,” Peacock said. “If that doesn’t speak directly to issues of racial justice in the here and now, I don’t know what does.”
Another theme of Christianity, Peacock said, is “upsetting dominant powers of oppression,” which many people talk about as sin.
“For me, sin is simply a metaphor for structures of oppression within society,” Peacock said.
Peacock is, admittedly, an odd sight in the conservative Stevens County town with his tattoos, gauges in his ears and what he calls his “supersuit” composed of a clergy collar and stole. He moved to Chewelah last year from Chicago, where he was getting his doctorate in religion and culture.
He decided to move from academia into a clergy role. He interviewed at Chewelah UCC and immediately knew it would be a good fit.
“It’s a smaller church, and because it’s the first time, it might make more sense for me,” Peacock said.
The church has about 40 members who consistently attended Sunday services before the COVID-19 pandemic moved them online. The majority of the congregation are retirees in their 60s and 70s, putting them at high risk to contract the disease.
Despite the pandemic keeping services virtual, Peacock has organized Black Lives Matter vigils about twice a month, which are held outside of the church facing one of Chewelah’s main roads.
Saturday’s vigil drew more than two dozen attendees, from the church and the community.
Susanne Griepp, 65, has been a political organizer in Chewelah for years. She helped organize the women’s march a few years ago and the initial Black Lives Matter march in Chewelah after George Floyd’s death.
“I was surprised when people contacted me to help organize the Black Lives Matter march,” Greipp said.
Many young business owners in town wanted to help, Greipp said, bringing her encouragement that the younger generation really sees the injustice in the world.
Greipp is biracial, which caused tension in her family growing up, she said.
“I’m half brown. So half of my family was Latino and half of my family is white. And so I grew up with that,” Griepp said. “None of my white family came to my parents’ wedding, and that was due to the color of his skin and his religion.”
While Griepp was sharing about her family, a man drove by and yelled “All lives matter! Black Lives matter is racist in itself!”
“Whatever. We get a lot of that,” Greipp said. “They just don’t understand we already know that all lives matter. The problem is that when the Constitution was written and everything, Blacks weren’t included in that, and it’s obvious in a lot of our systems.”
Nancy Bloom, a longtime Chewelah resident, agreed.
“It’s time,” Bloom said of the BLM movement. “It’s very sad what has happened to this country and to these Black people for so many years – decades and decades of struggle.”
Bloom was nearly in tears at Saturday’s vigil, which she attributed partially to watching the “outpouring of grief” after the grand jury decision in Louisville, Kentucky, not to indict the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman on charges related to her death in March.
Yvette Schatz said after experiencing racism as a Filipino woman in Spokane, the Black Lives Matter movement resonates with her.
“I feel I’m in the right place, even if they say this is a conservative town, but we’re here and people are here to support BLM,” said Schatz, who lives nearby in Loon Lake.
Schatz said she had been taking a mental tally of passersby and their reactions on Saturday. More than half were positive, she said.
However, one woman stuck out after she flipped off the crowd with her child in the car, Schatz recounted.
“That’s sad, because the child is witnessing that,” Schatz said.
Schatz’s husband, Richard Schatz, shared the same concern, relating it to their children. He has been a member of Chewelah UCC for years, becoming more involved since retiring from his job as an economics professor at Whitworth University.
He has nine children, some biologically between him and his wife and some adopted former students, who are Black.
“I’m worried about all of them, but especially about my African-American grandchildren, what kind of world they will face,” he said.
Since Pastor Peacock proposed the vigils, Schatz said he has been supportive:
“I was one of his earliest supporters. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
He said while many people think of Stevens County as extremely conservative, about a third of people vote progressive, something he finds comforting.
“It’s a good community. I love this community, but it’s not always the best- educated community, and we’re trying to help in that process,” he said. “Even here in a rural, conservative … small-town place, there are people who care about justice for all.”
Owen Pullen, owner of Pullen’s Quartzite Mountain Nursery, donned his cowboy hat and Carhartts on Saturday morning and headed down to the vigil.
“It’s a good thing to do,” Pullen said. “There’s a lot of very conservative people up here, and a lot of racists. There always has been, so I think it’s important that the members of the community who don’t agree with that crap let themselves be known.”
Pullen said he thinks it’s important for people who look like him as a farmer to be seen supporting Black Livers Matter and defying the “redneck” stereotype.
He attributes people’s lack of support of BLM to their unwillingness to step out of their comfort zone.
“A lot of people don’t like to think about things that make them uncomfortable,” Pullen said.
“And it’s easier to be a simple thinker and make a decision, and just go with it, and not bother to reconsider when there’s new information out there.”
While it may seem like it is easier to educate yourself online, Pullen said it is really easier for people to affirm their own viewpoints.
“Thanks to the idiot in the White House, everything is fake news if he disagrees with it,” Pullen said. “That has done a tremendous disservice to the country.”
Peggy Neal, a retired teacher, said she thinks finding a way to be compassionate and empathetic is a start to solving the problem of racial inequity.
Neal, who has a Black son, said the issue of racial discrimination has hit home for her many times after hearing about the discrimination her son faces.
“It’s going on all the time, everywhere,” Neal said of racism.
While Neal has a personal reason to fight for racial justice, she said everyone needs to find a reason to fight for equality.
“It takes an effort for some people because you weren’t raised that way,” Neal said. “So open your eyes and make an effort to respect people, regardless of their appearance or where they live or where they came from.”
As the clock struck noon Saturday, the crowd began to dissipate with people waving their goodbyes. Peacock said he was “thrilled” by the strong attendance and plans to host another vigil in combination with anti-racism educational programming.
“We just want to simply be seen in this community,” Peacock said. “Show that racial justice matters to us.”
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