Nicole June Reporting
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – As the sun cast its last rays over New Hope Missionary Baptist Church Thursday evening in Clarksville, dozens of people united for a common cause: Love. No one noticed color, or age, or gender, or faith. Everyone shared smiles, hugs, and words of encouragement. The church choir sang snatches of familiar hymns while complete strangers joined hands and prayed as one.
This was the goal of the Unity Rally at the church, the site of a recent hate crime that shocked the community. A burned cross was discovered on the property June 21. The incident is still under investigation and authorities still have no leads, but Pastor Vernon Hooks and his church are looking ahead.
“We are a forgiving church. This is what the Lord wants us to do,” Pastor Hooks said. “We will not waver, we will not give up. We are not scared. Amen!”
He lifted his church up in prayer during the service and thanked everyone for their support. He said he has received messages and letters from churches all across the country and appreciates the kind sentiments.
Representative Joe Pitts, who helped organize the rally, was glad to see the large and varied turnout.
“I knew Clarksville would rally,” he said. “When the chips are down and a neighbor needs help, Clarksville-Montgomery County steps up. We’re going to stand behind them and let them know that we’ve got their backs. We’re going to speak against and pray against prejudice.”
His wife, Cynthia Pitts, a recently ordained pastor, gathered the entire assembly together in a tight circle for prayer.
“I feel like this is what heaven is going to be like, people of all races. This is what God wants. He wants unity,” she said. “We don’t need this in our community and we’re not going to tolerate this in our community.”
The members of the congregation, who all wore matching purple shirts, were just as excited to see the crowd. The church is a tight-knit, loving community with open arms and open doors.
14-year-old De’Voria Cartwright has been with the church for three years and sings in the choir. He loves his church and was happy to see others there.
“I feel great because our church will be known. And I hope the people who did it will come up and confess, but I put it in the good Lord’s hands because I’ll know he’ll do it for us,” Cartwright said.
“People should come be a part of this. This is our home church and we don’t want this to happen again.”
Brenda Ogburn, an administrative assistant for the church, was stunned to hear the news when it first occurred. She was born and raised in this area and said she has never experienced anything like this situation before. “It was ridiculous to drive up here and see what that was supposed to represent,” she said.
As soon as word got around, Ogburn saw the outpouring of love. “We received letters and flowers, just people letting us know they love and support us. That was overwhelming. We want to say thank you,” she said.
After the service, most people lingered to talk to old friends and meet new ones, proving that a strong community cannot be held down by the power of hatred and bias. The crime may not have been solved, but New Hope Missionary Baptist Church and the Clarksville community know how to turn a symbol of prejudice into one of faith and love.
Photos by Brittney Sparn, ClarksvilleNow.com
Drone photos by Adam Hawkins