MARS — Despite the concerns of some local business owners that it could have turned violent, roughly 70 people gathered peacefully for a prayer vigil on racial injustice at noon Wednesday around the borough's most notable landmark.
Clergy representing the Mars Area Ministerium — 12 of them, from Mars and Callery as well as Cranberry and Middlesex townships — read prayers, joined in song and discussed racial injustice in the United States for just under an hour by the spaceship in the center of town.
“It was a massive demonstration of the unity of the pastors,” said the Rev. Peter de Vries, pastor at Old Union Presbyterian Church in Mars, following the vigil.
While the pastors represented separate denominations, including Roman Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians, they all spoke about the recent racial unrest that has led to protests — some violent — across the United States since the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn.
All of them endorsed the same message: that God created man equally, and that man has the power to recognize that.
Coincidentally, the vigil was held on the five-year anniversary of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., something the Rev. Bob Zimmerman, pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Mars, recalled in a vignette early in the vigil.
The Rev. Stephen Gutridge, of Glade Run Church in Middlesex Township, said Mars residents may not struggle with racial inequalities as has much of the rest of the country — the borough was more than 97 percent white in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. That fact, he added, should not be ignored.
“We're a pretty homogeneous community, and it is easy for our hearts to grow numb to the suffering of others — whether it's a hurricane and earthquakes that ravage Haiti, or war in the Middle East, or tensions between North and South Korea. Those things are so far away that they hardly impact us,” he said. “Well, it's the same thing with what is happening in our society today.
“It's a long way to Pittsburgh. It's a long way to Washington, D.C., and New York ... and other places. And sometimes we're guilty of just being numb or just not aware.”
Gutridge recounted growing up in the 1960s, a decade of significant equal rights progress but also wrought by racial unrest. He said current day events sometimes remind him of that era when it comes to the “sad and terrible things happening in our culture.”
The Rev. Bob Martin, pastor at Valencia United Methodist Church, said while God created man in His image, it's up to man to treat each other equally.
“We have the opportunity to make change in this world. It rests solely on us and our desire to live in a good world,” Martin said. “But if we choose to be filled with hate, if we choose to look at each other differently or less than we are, then that evil wolf is the one that wins and that's the kind of nation that we will build.”
Many of the roughly 70 people who attended the vigil said they came out because they believe in and support the Black Lives Matter movement, which has picked up steam after protests for racial equality across much of the country.
Teddi Herman, of Mars, said she attended because she believes in the movement and because it was a good community event. Karen Peterman, also of Mars, said she came because she wanted to join in prayer with other Mars residents.
“I came because it's a prayer vigil, and I wanted to praise God with the community,” she said.
Sewickley resident Barbie Battaglia came to the Mars vigil because she was nervous about attending a protest in Pittsburgh. More importantly, she valued the Mars Area Ministerium approaching the issue from a religious point of view and providing people an important perspective.
“I want to support the Black Lives Matter social justice issue,” she said. “As a Christian, I love the idea of other denominations coming together to support this (socially) just cause we have (going on) right now.”
Prior to the event, some business owners aired concerns Monday night at the Mars Borough Council meeting that the vigil may turn violent, citing examples of protests-turned-riots in large cities across the country. However, vigil attendees remained peaceful the length of the event and left when it was over.
The ministers invited law enforcement to be present during the vigil. Police from five different departments — including Adams Township, Callery
Borough, Evans City/Seven Fields Regional, and Mars police departments as well as the county sheriff's office — attended the event.
Across the street from the vigil on Grand Avenue, a group of people that varied in size throughout the event, stood and aimed to keep the peace if needed.
“I just came to make sure nothing went down,” said Mars resident Emil Schultz.
Mayor Gregg Hartung said he was glad the event drew as many people as it did.
De Vries said after the vigil that he was “glad, but not surprised” the event remained peaceful.