A pastor and some churchgoers have left a United Methodist Church in Virginia over what they say was the congregation’s refusal to build a memorial wall for a predominantly African-American gravesite found on church property.
Pastor Mark Jagoe, formerly of the Hillsboro United Methodist Church in Loudon County, retired last October. According to LoudonNow, the pastor’s retirement came as a result of a disagreement over the commemoration of 72 graves of predominantly slaves and freedmen found on the church’s east lawn a few years ago.
Jagoe told the news outlet that upon discovering the graves, he had an expert mark each grave. The pastor desired to use the church’s memorial funds to build a memorial wall for the gravesite. However, Jagoe was unable to get approval from the congregation.
The church is also home to an all-white cemetery on the other side of the property.
Jagoe and others who left were troubled by an effort to place confederate markers such as iron crosses and battle flags on the graves of confederate soldiers in the church’s white cemetery. According to the news website, the effort was led by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Jagoe told the local newspaper that the effort was evidence of “structural racism.”
“The church would not vote to spend a single penny to recognize the 72 brothers and sisters in Christ that are buried on the east end of the property because of their skin color,” Jagoe claimed. “It broke my heart.”
Along with Jagoe, some African American congregants and others who disagreed with the church’s decision left the church.
One former African American churchgoer who refused to be named told NBC Washington that she didn’t feel like she belonged at the church anymore.
“It is just a repeat of history,” she said. “Being a person of color, it makes you feel like you are not important, that your past history or your ancestors don’t really mean anything.”
However, Interim Pastor Larry Thompson told LoudonNow that efforts to commemorate the gravesite are underway and he hopes for concrete plans to be in place by next month. Thompson added that the gravesite also contains the graves of white church members, not just African Americans.
“I’ve not found the people here to be involved in or have any intent at any systemic racism,” the interim pastor said. “I have found the people to be just delightful people and I’m very happy to be journeying with them through this process that we’re in and look forward to bringing it to an appropriate ending with the recognition.”
Thompson further explained that there was concern about spending too much of the church’s reserve funding on one project. He said congregants wanted to ensure the church would have funds for future projects and building repairs.
“They’re going to be fiscally conservative, period,” Thompson was quoted as saying.
Jagoe also filed a complaint with the local sheriff’s office, claiming that the grave markers had been moved at some point from their corresponding graves, LoudonNow reports. However, a spokesperson for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office said there were no plans to pursue charges related to the complaint.
Patty Caruthers, a former churchgoer, took issue with the confederate markers that were placed on the graves in the church’s all-white cemetery.
“These symbols are not inclusive of all and not welcoming to all,” she told NBC Washington.
The superintendent of the United Methodist Church’s Winchester District, Steven Summers, told LoudonNow that he is confident that Thompson will rectify the issue with the gravesite. Summers added that UMC “deplores racism in every form.”
According to NBC Washington, Hillsboro Mayor Roger Vance is working on ways to help fund the cemetery.
“I am hopeful that we will make some progress here and we can have a really positive outcome,” Vance said. “This could be a wonderful story.”