‘Black lives matter’ shouldn’t be a controversial cry, said Rev. Gavin Walton, pastor and organizer. “Christians in America should always have affirmed that.”
by Chris Hedlin
Rev. Mike Holohan and Rev. Gavin Walton play rock-paper-scissors to decide who will introduce himself first. Their interactions — “OK, can you see my hand?” “Oh, alright, you’re doing it on three” — are easy, comfortable. Their energy is contagious.
Walton wins with paper. A native Pittsburgher, the child of a white mother and a Black father, he’s the pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District — the oldest historically Black Presbyterian church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Grace is among a small subset of Black congregations within the Prebysterian Church [PC(USA)], a denomination the Pew Forum estimates is 88% white and 5% Black. Grace Memorial, founded in 1868, has working for racial justice and equality “in its roots,” Walton said.
Holohan, also a native Pittsburgher, is the pastor of the Commonwealth of Oakland. Its history is considerably shorter: Holohan founded it three years ago to draw together Oakland students and people experiencing homelessness. A young, primarily white congregation with a significant LGBTQ membership, it’s structured differently than most churches. The congregation worships together once a month, following a free dinner, and hosts weekly study sessions.
Walton, 29, and Holohan, 40, teamed up in the wake of George Floyd’s May 2020 murder to organize an anti-racist vigil that drew some 30 organizations and 250 people.
Now the pair heads an ongoing anti-racist collective for religious leaders. “Accountability” is a key word in the group. While the collective is multiracial, many participants are white leaders of predominantly white institutions looking to confront racism and become stronger allies to Black communities as individuals and with their congregations.
“Mike and I are under no illusions we are, like, experts in community organization,” Walton said. “We’re learners, too. I think our niche has been gathering those who are also new and trying to connect them with those who may have wisdom to share.”
Lenore Williams, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, points to the importance of young leaders like Walton and Holohan in catalyzing changes within religious communities.
Presbyterian pastors Rev. Mike Holohan (left) and Rev. Gavin Walton teamed up after George Floyd’s May 2020 murder to organize an interfaith anti-racist vigil. Now they head an ongoing collective for religious leaders, dedicated to fighting racism through concrete action. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
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