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.
Because institutions like the Presbyterian Church are often highly structured, she said they can be obstacles to change. People get comfortable in their habits and, in the case of white institutions, their positions of power. They act in ways that perpetuate existing systems.
Young people, though — “they’re the fire,” Williams said. They understand what it means to destroy constructively, toppling old systems to build something new.
PublicSource talked with Holohan and Walton about their experiences as anti-racism activists in faith communities.
This exchange has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What have been your goals as faith leaders organizing an anti-racist collective?
Holohan: When it comes to race, white folks in the Presbyterian tradition often stop at the stage of learning about systemic racism or self-examination. We less often get to the stage of actually doing something to address the system of racism. So that's been our focus: trying to take some concrete action within our local system.
Even when we did the vigil initially, our thing was like, ‘We cannot stop working and paying attention to this.’ Anytime something really terrible happens, it gets a lot of attention for a little bit. But actual change takes a long time — you really have to be committed. And that's particularly important for folks like me, who carry a lot of privilege and a lot of power relatively in the system. It's on us to do that work and not get distracted by other things.
Walton: George Floyd’s murder and the other ones surrounding it catalyzed people. Putting together this vigil, we were exposed to how many like-hearted people there were, leaders in the community who wanted to work but also were like, ‘We don't know what to do. Where do we go from here?’ It was cool to see people come together and dialogue with churches and folks who have been doing this for a long time.
This just parallels my experience coming into the Black church. I'm a child of the white church in different flavors. I came up through white schools, graduated from a mostly white seminary. Then I started pastoring not just a Black church, but my first church. What I found was, immediately, I was welcomed into ecumenical conversations with other leaders on the Hill, talking about political stuff, talking about justice and poverty stuff. And it just opened my eyes that I'm not alone here. I think that is a beautiful and distinctly Black church experience that we're trying to replicate among white institutions in our community — and non-white as well. We're trying to find that same collegiality around the shared values of justice and equality for all.
How did you recruit participants for the vigil or collective?
Holohan: We emailed every group that we could find contact information for somewhere in Oakland. I think that's how they got connected originally.
Walton: Yeah, and casting that wide net— not coming in with any preconceived notions of the history of our traditions or any doctrinal divisions — I think it was a Holy Spirit moment. The Spirit’s moving in places that we didn't even realize. Prior to the vigil, like a year or two before all this happened, I discerned some movement of the Spirit in a congregation in our presbytery that has a history of racism and Ku Klux Klan membership. Yet they were interested in these conversations. That experience showed me that the Spirit can move anywhere. If they are willing to be allies in this work, we’re willing to give it a try.
Churches can be segregated and siloed. How did you overcome that?
Walton: We were called by a moment that we all realized we were unequipped for. And so we needed to work together to meet the moment. I just continue to have those experiences … in light of the insurrection a few months ago, in light of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. When I'm tired, Mike’s there, you know? When I'm at a loss for how to deal with this, I got my brothers and sisters at Valley View and other Presbyterian churches to tell me, ‘This is what we're doing.’ The whole year has been one of learning just how broad our network and connection is.
Holohan: This is an opportunity to organize across boundaries, both within our own tradition and with folks from other traditions. I find it easier to establish connections when we have a shared value like ‘Black lives matter.’
What do you see as the church’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement? How does it compare to the Civil Rights Movement?
Walton: I think part of the offense of the Black Lives Matter movement, to some, is that the Civil Rights Movement had strong roots in the church, whereas Black Lives Matter is more secular. But if we get caught up in that, we miss the message that we're supposed to be hearing.
The Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter have different origins, different leaders, different social contexts. But the message that we all share dignity and worth and value — that, to my mind, is the core of the gospel. Those who want to treat racial justice and equality like an ‘extra’ are missing the point. The church ought to be witnessing to a gospel that has real effects in this world and is about love for all people — love that works out interpersonally and corporately. In my mind, whether that love is being advocated in the form of voting rights or abolishing cash bail or defunding the police, whether it's being driven by our secular brothers and sisters, or interfaith-wise by Jews, Muslims and Hindus, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still preaching the gospel.
A lot of it, too, is that Black Lives Matter’s leadership and organization, again, versus the Civil Rights Movement, is more decentralized. There's not a King figure. It's virtual or online. The boundaries are fluid. We're in an unprecedented season of life, so that might actually be a positive. But I think the church, as a traditional institution, is uncomfortable with the lack of centralization and the online platform. I had to remind my congregation in a congregational meeting, like, ‘Email is not a new thing! The Internet — this stuff has been commercialized and popularized for almost 30 years now.’ But, in a sense, the church does approach Black Lives Matter in that way. It's new. It's messier or more chaotic, and the church doesn't like chaos as an institution.
So we just need to learn and be disciples. If you want to simplify history, or oversimplify it maybe, with the Civil Rights Movement, the Black church had to discipline the culture. Maybe now it's been flipped on its head. Maybe secular society now — our secular brothers and sisters who are doing passionate work for justice — maybe it's their turn to lead.
Do you see young people, white or Black, rejecting organized religion as an avenue for activism today?
Holohan: There is, I think, some healthy hesitancy because there are some high-profile ways that Christians have engaged in politics that have not been helpful. But I think that if we're on the side of freedom, justice and liberty, advocating for people who are marginalized and who don't have access to power, then, I mean, you can't go too wrong.
In my church planting work, I meet a lot of people who are passionate about justice and activism and are inspired by their faith to do those things. But it's been hard for them to find a church that understands that connection and supports it. So, although a lot of people on the frontlines maybe aren't part of a religious community, I think that says more about religious communities than it does about spiritual practice.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Holohan: There were some groups that attended our planning meetings leading up to the vigil, but then when it came down to it, the governing boards of those groups were like, ‘We can’t participate in this.’ For one group, the reason was that they experience religious prejudice, and they were concerned that, by taking a public stand on this, it would draw unwanted attention to their community.
Walton: That was a new thing for us to think about. How do we speak into that? Because that should not be either. So is racism our focus? How does our racial focus dovetail with all the kinds of persecution? There are always intersections.
Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.