Every Saturday: No end in sight for South Hadley church’s anti-racism vigil

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  • Terry Gibson of Holyoke waves to passing motorists on College Street near the Village Commons in South Hadley during the weekly racial justice vigil on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Weeks, right, and her children Ella Francis, left, 17, and Quinn Francis, 14, of South Hadley take part in the fifth weekly racial justice vigil on College Street (Rt. 116) on Saturday, July 11, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Participants in a fifth weekly racial justice vigil organized by several South Hadley churches wave at a passing driver who honked in support of the crowd lining both sides of College Street (Route 116) on Saturday morning STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nora Gilchrist of Holyoke stands along College Street in South Hadley with others taking part in the weekly racial justice vigil on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ella Francis, 17, of South Hadley attended the weekly racial justice vigil on College Street with her mother and brother on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Taylor Gelinas, right, of South Hadley, a sophomore at the University of Vermont, takes part in the weekly racial justice vigil on College Street (Rt. 116) in South Hadley on Saturday, July 11, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2020 6:34:10 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — When a vigil for racial justice and Black Lives Matter in early June drew hundreds of people to line College Street in solidarity, its organizers were certain of one thing.

“We said, ‘We can’t let this die,’” said Anita Sarro, member of Center Church, which co-hosted the first anti-racism vigil this year along with All Saints’ Episcopal Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. “’This can’t be a one-off — we really have to be witness to this for the long haul.’”

And a “one-off” it was not, as this past Saturday marked the fifth in a row that a vigil for racial justice has been held in front of Center Church, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Lori Souder. Around 60 people stood up and down College Street this past weekend in the morning sun, and Souder said she has no plans on stopping the vigils anytime soon.

“It’s not a moment,” Souder said. “It’s a movement.”

Cars continuously honked at participants who wore face masks and held signs with messages such as “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter,” “Listen, Learn, Act” and “Hate Isn’t Peace.” The crowd size ebbed and flowed as the vigil went on — each demonstration begins at 10 a.m. and lasts only about a half-hour in order to keep the event accessible. More than 200 people showed up on Independence Day, Souder said.

For the last few years, once a month, the church has picked an issue of social justice to hold a vigil over, Sarro said. But congregants felt extra compelled to consistently speak out after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The weekly vigils have turned into a community event, with people from all over the area coming to participate. Holyoke resident Terry Gibson, 34, a Black man, said he came to the vigil partially because the crowd was predominately white, saying “they need to know Black folks in the community support them.”

“The real race issue is in the white community — Black folks don’t sit around and create systems to subjugate white people,” Gibson said. “I think it’s important to come out and support white folks who say, ‘Hey, I’m anti-racist, and I want to see this country change for the better.’”

Gibson’s partner, 39-year-old Nora Gilchrist of Holyoke, came to the vigil because she felt “activated” by the recent demonstrations. She said this was the second time she and Gibson came to the weekly vigils, adding that the protests needed to be consistent.

“I think a lot of people are feeling really empowered to really get out on the streets and be a little more brave,” Gilchrist said. “I want to see more Black Lives Matter signs all over these towns — all over these cities.”

Waving at passing cars from the side of the road were Jennifer Weeks of Granby and her two children, Ella Francis, 17, and Quinn Francis, 14. Weeks said she brought her family to the vigil because she wanted to put into action what she teaches and talks about with her children at home.

“A lot of stuff, we learn from them,” Weeks said about Ella and Quinn.

Ella, who said she went to one of the protests in Northampton, said that she came to the vigil because students and young people “have so much power” in their respective communities.

“Being more active in that community is very important to actually bring about the change you want to see,” Ella said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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