By Randy Arrington
LURAY, June 5 — As rain peppered umbrellas and thunder threatened to disperse the peaceful gathering, the crowd stood steadfast — searching, perhaps even yearning, for a sense of unity.
One clergyman offered a symbol of the crowd’s commonality — a human skull.
“We recognize it as human, not as a color,” the pastor said.
More than 100 gathered Thursday evening at the West Luray Rec Center to share equally in their grief and in their hope for the future.
“We have citizens of this county that believe we are better together,” Audre King told the crowd. “We grew up together; we raised our families together; we have lived together; and now we can come together in peace and love and say, I may not understand why you are angry, but I can stand with you and pray with you.”
King organized the prayer meeting, bringing together more than a dozen clergymen at the rec center on West Main Street that he’s been remodeling for the past two years. The rec center sits in a small, predominantly African-American neighborhood in Luray. Previously known as the Andrew Jackson School, the building served to educate Page County’s minorities in grades one through 11 from the late 1800s through the 1960s.
“Father God, people are afraid, people are angry,” another pastor prayed before the crowd. “We ask you to fix what is broken in our community, fix what is broken in our state, fix what is broken in our country, and in our world.”
Thursday’s prayer meeting served as a community-building platform in reaction to the tragic death of George Floyd, who suffocated when a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I have been restless, anxious and distraught ever since I heard George Floyd say, ‘I can’t breathe’ … ever since I heard George Floyd cry out for his mama,” another pastor said. “Blessed be they that mourn for they will be comforted; blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
“Mourning means people believe that people can change,” added another member of the clergy.
Despite protests and demonstrations across the country against a trend of police violence against people of color, local law enforcement officers were welcomed on Thursday night, praised for their attendance and acknowledged for their job of protecting the community each day.
“We pray for wisdom and patience for our law enforcement officers,” one pastor said. “We see the Floyd family crying out and saying this is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
The gathering lasted more than an hour, filled with prayer, song, scripture and pleas from each of the pastors for understanding, empathy and growth as a community to get past the differences of color and culture.
“God gave us the beauty of color,” one pastor said. “The Bible says that God created man in his own image, and yet there is an image of God that has not been understood by our culture.”
“Racism is right out of the mouth of Satan himself,” said another speaker. “God, we ask that you reach out to those people who would cause division by saying, ‘You are not welcome here.’
“Heaven is not segregated.”
The names of African Americans who have fallen to police brutality were read to the crowd, as heads dropped and arms were raised in recognition. Some members of the clergy used the moment to put up a mirror to the community, and to themselves.
“I come here tonight with a racist heart…we all suffer from pride at times and therefore we can all be racists in certain ways at certain times, but I am here tonight to say that I am a sinner and I want to move toward the light of acceptance and the light of understanding my fellow man,” one of the pastors said. “But I ask God to move toward those hurting, to help bring us closer together and lead all of us in the way of loving all people. I ask that he bring us together as a community and as a world, and there’s no reason why changing the world can’t start in Luray.”
The theme of unity, understanding and breaking down cultural barriers carried throughout the event, as black and white, law enforcement and citizens, stood side-by-side to share in a common message of common hope.
“Right now in our nation, there are wars on the streets; we are asking for unity among the land; remove those who would incite division. Come into our homes, our communities and in our hearts Lord. Heal the nation,” King prayed as the event closed. “God, please help people understand that even if they can’t understand why we’re angry, if they can’t understand why we’re scared, that they can at least say I can still stand with you and pray with you.”
As he prepared for the closing remarks, King brought up members of local law enforcement and they stood in a circle to pray together.
“I don’t fear the danger in Luray, I don’t fear the danger in Page County…because these men lay down their lives for us every day,” King said. “Protect the law enforcement who protects us. We stand together as one.
“Help us reconcile with our brothers,” King continued. “Let this gathering today not serve as simply a means of finding justice today, but let it build on the future and help us truly come together as a community.”