Thursday, June 07, 2018
Religious leaders decry HOC inaction on Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda
"I want to thank you for turning your back on small groups of citizens who came month after month [to HOC meetings]," Bethesda resident Lynn Pekkanen told commissioners. "You have formed the great civil rights action going on in Montgomery County right now." She noted that cemetery advocates have had great difficulty getting responses to their information queries from HOC. "I was given not one page," she said, but predicted that formal public information requests will soon bear fruit in revealing the inner workings of the HOC. "The veil of secrecy is finally being pierced."
In a powerful speech, Emmanuel Lutheran Church Pastor Derek Solberg expressed surprise that such an injustice could be happening in a wealthy county with a progressive reputation. He placed the Moses African Cemetery fight in the context of his previous ministry in a Northern Philadelphia community "isolated by local government, steeped in oppression, and locked in despair. On a daily basis, I heard and saw the impact of systemic oppression and injustices on the community there, and witnessed the day to day suffering of the community...It changed my outlook on life and the world."
"I was surprised that this is an issue," Solberg continued, "in a county that has more and more recent trend toward progressive thinking...that this request to honor an ancestral cemetery would even be in question. But here we are. And it strikes me that there are similarities between what I experienced in Northern Philadelphia, and what is happening here. Rather than embracing and supporting Macedonia as one community - one that is rich, unique and diverse - it seems instead that the County seeks to isolate them, to themselves, while prohibiting them from sharing the church's story."
Like many speakers, Solberg emphasized that Macedonia and the descendants of those buried in the cemetery have a strong and growing community support. "Whatever the decision is, this community is not alone."
County Council candidate Lorna Phillips Forde declared the cemetery fight has exposed a "diversity deficit" in Montgomery County. "We are duty-bound to uncover, discover, and protect places that tell the story of African-American history. The truth of the past needs to be known, needs to be accessible, and needs to be shared."
That truth currently lies under up to 60 feet of fill dirt and asphalt, alongside and behind Westwood Tower in Bethesda. "Our movement continues to grow," Macedonia Baptist Church's Social Justice Ministry Director Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said. "We are hoping at some point the HOC will find its moral core. It is immoral to allow a parking lot to sit atop a burial ground." Her husband, MBC Pastor Segun Adebayo, told the commission that "my culture teaches me that there is no division between life in this realm and the other. These people [buried in the cemetery] are living there. If you don't have a plan, give it to us. We have a plan."
Council candidate Jim McGee said the HOC's inaction renders them "complicit" with the racial injustices that have led to the cemetery crisis. He drew a comparison with the possibly-deliberate obscuring of the final resting place of Nance Legins-Costley, the first American slave to legally win her freedom (her attorney was future Republican president Abraham Lincoln).
At-Large Council candidate Hoan Dang said commemoration of the cemetery and the lost River Road community are relevant to the current time. "The story of their perseverance is vital to inspiring" those facing similar obstacles today, he said.
"I stand here to decry this County, and this nation's white supremacy," said the Rev. Claire Matheny of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Kensington, adding her support for the establishment of "a memorial and a museum."
Will Jawando, running for an at-large seat on the Council, observed that councilmembers appoint the HOC. "So I hope to see you all real soon," he added, drawing laughter from the crowd. As the son of a Nigerian immigrant, Jawando noted he comes from the same part of Africa as the slaves buried in the Moses cemetery. "Those that rest under that parking lot may be related to me. So this is personal." He noted that Loudoun County is doing a better job of actively protecting its historic cemeteries. "We failed here on that."
Resident Patricia Kolesar simply asked the commissioners to consider, "What would Jesus do?"
Pastor Segun Adebayo thanked faith leaders and community members in the HOC lobby after the public comment portion of the meeting concluded. The ever-growing turnout of supporters gives "credence to the fact that we are not alone," he said. "God promised us He would never leave us or forsake us. We will prevail because our cause is just, and we are doing the right thing."