Abingdon pastor wonders if protests will lead to change

Abingdon pastor wonders if protests will lead to change

The Rev. Barbara Doyle offers a prayer during a peace vigil in Abingdon on June 6.

Justice Profiles: This is the first story in a new series.

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ABINGDON, Va. -- The Rev. Barbara Doyle spent the last two weekends at peaceful events proclaiming “black lives matter.”

On May 31, she participated in a march through downtown Bristol, Virginia. Along the way, protesters passed Frederick Douglass School, a historic place where black students were separated from white students until the 1960s.

On June 6, Doyle walked with hundreds of other protesters through the streets of Abingdon, Virginia. The prayer rally and vigil included 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the period of time a black man named George Floyd was pinned beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer before dying on May 25.

Doyle says it’s encouraging to see so many people of all colors stand up to say “no more” after Floyd and other African Americans were recently killed in high-profile acts reeking of racism.

“All that’s good, but that’s just talk,” she said. “If they follow through on what they’re protesting about and if they follow through on what they’re saying, it will be great.”

Doyle has served as a United Methodist pastor since 1996. She’s an elder who currently pastors two white congregations in the Abingdon area: Shady Grove and Meadowview. Doyle is black and a native of Radford, Virginia. She has a bachelor’s degree in social work from Radford University and a master’s degree in divinity from Eastern Mennonite University.

The pastor wonders if she had become “complacent” in her environment, because watching George Floyd suffer on a virile video was painful.

“I just totally had my feelings hurt to know these things were going on in 2020,” she said. “I thought things were getting better, but I found out they’re not.”

It’s not that she believed racism had disappeared. The inequities she encounters are “covert,” Doyle says. “You know it’s there but it’s not physically visible.” An exception, she added, might be the Holston Conference churches that still refuse to accept African American pastors, as well as female pastors, to lead them.

“Those congregations need to be educated,” Doyle says. “I think we should put them on the line to say, ‘What is the reason that you won’t accept this person as your pastor?’”

Yet the racism on display in the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Traylor, and Ahmaud Arbery hearkens to an earlier time that Doyle wishes had died with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“People are so hateful – hate filled – anymore,” she said. “The killing by police officers has shown that lawfulness does not apply to the African-American person ... It’s always been there, but social media is putting it out there so everyone can see it.”

Recent statements by bishops, pastors, protesters, and others in unity against racism are affirming, Doyle said. But real change will be effected in actions that should come alongside the statements, including policy changes and putting more African Americans into leadership.

“Talking is just easy as pie, but what are you going to do? What are you going to do after you talk? Are you going to make any differences?”

Eight years ago, a 17-year-old African-American man named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida. The public cried racism. Protests erupted around the U.S. in Trayvon’s name.

Days later, the same people had moved on to something else. It happens, Doyle said. “Everybody was in an uproar, but then everybody forgot about it.”

She fears the same thing will happen with the memory of George Floyd, as protesters and statement-makers go back to their lives and priorities. “In a month or two, you won’t even remember who George Floyd was,” she said.

Barbara Doyle hopes she is wrong.

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Holston Conference includes 864 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.



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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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