Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder of the predominately LGBT Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte, spoke during a N.C. NAACP rally at Little Rock AME Zion Church on Tuesday. File Photo.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder of the predominately LGBT Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte, spoke during a N.C. NAACP rally at Little Rock AME Zion Church on Tuesday. File Photo.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder of the predominately LGBT Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte, spoke during a N.C. NAACP rally at Little Rock AME Zion Church on Tuesday. File Photo.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Religious leaders and political activists from Charlotte spoke out at a North Carolina NAACP-sponsored rally last night on the need for a broader progressive coalition and movement.

Speaking at Little Rock AME Zion Church, the leaders say the time has come for more people to stand up and speak for those they say are being harmed by new policies promoted by the Republican-controlled state legislature. At issue are new laws restricting voter registration and limiting early voting, new tax increases and decreases in unemployment benefits, education funding and Medicaid funding.

“We’re going to keep on pushing, speaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, the coordinator of the state NAACP’s annual HKonJ march, as he quoted scripture from Isaiah, “Woe unto those who make unjust laws.”

Dr. Dwayne Walker, Little Rock’s pastor, also reminded those at the rally about the spiritual basis for their movement.

“We all believe that justice ought to roll down like waters,” he said, quoting scripture from Amos. “When we get together and blend our voices, someone’s got to listen. All we’re saying is the right wing is doing the wrong thing. … We will not stand idly by and say and do nothing.”

Arrested pastors speak

Other pastors also spoke about their experiences and arrests during a civil disobedience action on Monday. The North Carolina NAACP had billed this week’s action as “Mega Moral Monday,” the sixth in a series of protests at the legislative building since April. In total, more than 300 have been arrested in the demonstrations, including 150 this week.

The Rev. Jay Leach, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, was arrested at the Monday rally. He said his faith today is still grounded in his Baptist upbringing in Greenville, S.C.

“Some wonderful women taught me to sing a simple song with a profound message,” Leach said, singing the refrain from “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” “I still believe the grand overarching umbrella of love is big enough to cover all the children, not just some children but all the children … black children and white children, Latino children and Asian children, rich children and poor children, straight children and gay children, immigrant children and our own children’s children.”

Leach said Republican-backed policies are causing harm to North Carolina’s children and families.

“We don’t love all children by crippling public education,” he said. “We don’t love all children by hampering public health. We don’t love all children by throwing up barrier after barrier before their parents making life harder for those for whom life is too hard already.”

Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder of the predominately LGBT and African-American Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte, was also arrested at the Monday rally. She said it was her “turn” to stand up after so many before her worked against segregation and made it possible for her to achieve what she has today.

“The only reason I am able to live the life I live today is because somebody had to pay a price before I got here,” she said. “Somebody had to stand and say enough is enough.”

She added, “It was my turn to say, ‘Not on my watch.’ It was my turn to say all children in North Carolina have a right to Medicaid and all the other resources that helps their families. Every child in North Carolina has a right to a quality education, because if you think not getting a good education isn’t something that robs life, you don’t understand the American system. So, when we say no to early education we are saying yes to incarceration.”

Rawls, who has been in a committed relationship with her partner for nearly 14 years, also thanked the NAACP and other progressive partners for standing up against the state’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment passed in May 2012.

“These brothers and sisters stood with us as allies and said ‘Not on our watch,'” she said. “My NAACP stood up and fought against the powers that said ‘Not here.’ … They stood up and it’s my turn now.”

Other pastors arrested on Monday and present at the rally included the Rev. Dr. Debra Blackwood, deacon of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, and the Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler, an associate professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus.

Building LGBT support

Rawls, who also founded Charlotte’s Freedom Center for Social Justice, was one of several LGBT leaders and organizations to sign on to a joint statement on Monday. Issued by Southerners on New Ground (SONG), Rawls’ center, Equality North Carolina and the LGBT Center of Raleigh also joined the statement calling on LGBT community members to support a growing, broader progressive movement for change.

“When so many LGBTQ people and our allies fought for basic dignity and rights when Amendment One was on the ballot, we knew why it mattered. We still do,” the groups said. “Now, North Carolina faces a new set of threats to our communities from the same root. Recently, we have seen the cutting of Medicaid for half a million North Carolinians who are poor and working poor. Now, they are continuing to attack our communities by: trying to limit our voting rights, attacking healthcare rights for poor people, and demonizing immigrants.”

SONG coordinator Caitlin Breedlove told qnotes it was important for LGBT people to stand united with their progressive allies.

“Particularly for the LGBT community, one goal is how do we build a progressive political majority in North Carolina,” she said. “How do we take the 840,000 people who voted against Amendment One, how do we make sure we vote out people who hurt LGBT people and their families? “

The progressive momentum built during last year’s amendment campaign can be dovetailed into action now, Breedlove said.

Breedlove herself didn’t participate in Monday’s civil disobedience and SONG and other LGBT groups haven’t necessarily taken a position on the actions, though she says it can be an important tactic in a larger movement.

“It’s connected to a larger strategy and a conversation around values and what does that really mean,” she said. “What does it mean when the state is breaking promises to us. We’re inspiring a wave of potential voters that we can actually move.”

Several LGBT community members, she said, have participated in Moral Monday protests and civil disobediences since April. She hopes more LGBT North Carolinians will support the movement and begin to speak out.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

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