‘We all want what’s best for our community’

A man prays at a vigil held at Depot Park in Cullman Wednesday afternoon, June 10, 2020. (Heather Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Wednesday afternoon, more than 50 people of all ages joined together in Depot Park to pray for peace in the United States. The vigil, led by Reverend James Fields, was organized by Amy Kampis of the group “Correct Cullman.” For the past two weeks, the group has been holding daily protests at Depot Park in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.

The vigil started at 3 p.m. with Kampis giving a brief testimony about how she felt the past few weeks have caused great changes in the way people think, saying she herself used to feel rather passive about these issues because they did not affect her until her friends who are black or mixed-race or are raising black or mixed-race children started coming forward and sharing stories of the discrimination they’ve faced.

Said Kampis, “When I started hearing about people with their families, with their children, having racial slurs yelled at them in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, when I heard that when kids come here to play sports like basketball or football, some kids will call them racial slurs and names – and some parents and coaches are OK with it – because they might get a foul, when I heard that some people still feel uncomfortable being in Cullman, that they feel they can’t stop here and get gas while they’re on vacation, can’t stop and eat in our restaurants because it’s Cullman, it can’t be enough to sit idly by while these things are still going on.”

Kampis talked about her faith and the role it plays in her activism, saying, “We have so, so many churches in Cullman County, and that’s such a blessing to this community. If you don’t like a church or it doesn’t fit your style of worship, you can just go down the street and there’s something completely different where you’re still welcome. But if people aren’t comfortable here in our city limits or in our county, then are we really going out and being the church? Is that really what we’re called to do? I don’t feel that we’re called to be comfortable, and as much as I love Cullman and what it stands for, I hope that this will make us want to be better.”

Fields took to the microphone after a singing of “The Lord’s Prayer” (courtesy of Tiffany Richter, music ministry coordinator for St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church) and began his sermon: “What brought us together? Here we are, the city of Cullman, Cullman County, but what brought us together? I would like to think it was what we felt deep inside of ourselves, in our hearts for those whose lives had been taken, in our hearts for the families who are lamenting even at this very moment. Some things are difficult to understand, but there’s an old song that says we will understand it better by and by. And things will get better, things have gotten better – by looking at you, each one of your faces, we know that we are in a better place, but we still have a long ways to go.”

He went on to say that the death of George Floyd acts as a kind of “CT scan,” saying, “It searched everyone from head to toe, and it called upon us to step forward. We are a desperate people in need of a savior, a people in need of forgiveness. We need a revelation of dignity that all lives matter, black lives matter.” Before finishing his first sermon in prayer, he encouraged everyone in attendance to “let God’s CT scanner search you from head to toe, and ask yourself when you leave here if you’ve done all you can do.”

Fields was followed by Steve West, senior pastor at Arab First United Methodist Church, who started his sermon by asserting that he was tired of being silent. “Silence is a sin, just as racism is sin,” he declared. “For so long I’ve believed that racial problems are a problem for another race rather than seeing that it’s a deep chasm in the human race.” He then led the group in prayer, asking God to heal a human race that is broken and bleeding and thanking Him for the people who have stood up and spoken out before them and given them the courage to do the same.

After West came Rev. John Richter from St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church, who commented on the fact that the group had chosen to meet under the flags of the 50 states. “These flags represent the hope and ideals of people. Sometimes those hopes and ideals are very noble, sometimes they are not so noble. I think it’s not wrong to look and celebrate the ideals they represent, and it’s not a contradiction to acknowledge that we have failed at times – sometimes radically failed – in those ideals. And yet it is with gratitude because of those ideals that we are able to gather with hope for the future! So, we can lament and we can hope at the same time because by the Spirit of God the times will change.”

Tiffany Richter returned to lead the crowd in a few verses of “Amazing Grace,” before Fields stepped up to the mic with Kampis, Tabitha Bynum and Brittnee Peterson from Correct Cullman to address the way many people have chosen to acknowledge eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin is accused of leaning on the neck of George Floyd with his knee. Fields said such an amount of time feels very small when one is standing or sitting while being able to breathe. He stated that the group at the vigil had already been standing outside in 90+ degree heat for at least 30 minutes to listen to the sermons and prayers, and he asked everyone take four minutes and 23 seconds to stand in silence and just look at each other.

After the vigil ended, The Tribune sat down (or more accurately, stood in the shade) with Kampis to learn more about what moved her to organize the event. Kampis is a Cullman native (she graduated from Hanceville High School) who moved away for a while but chose to return to raise her family. She said that after seeing the coverage of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, she felt like something shifted both within herself and collectively within the community.

“As my friends who are black or mixed race or are raising black and mixed-race children started sharing stories of racism that they had experienced in Cullman County, it broke my heart,” said Kampis. “When I’m troubled and I don’t know what to do, I pray, so I thought what better way to show our respect and our love for our black and mixed-race neighbors than to just say, ‘We’re ready to listen. We’re ready to figure out what we can do to change this part of Cullman County.’ I love Cullman, but I want everyone to love it as much as I do.”

On whether she had been concerned about counterprotesters showing up to the event, Kampis said, “I was not, actually. I think (Cullman Police) Chief (Kenny) Culpepper and Captain (Gene) Bates have done amazing working with our group, and our group working with them, to keep the tension at a minimum. At the end of everything, I do feel that people are good. I feel that the people who are worried about their community and are counterprotesting this, I think they’re trying to do what’s right, too, and I’m hoping that in the coming weeks and months we can find a way for everyone to see that we all want what’s best for our community.”

The Tribune also talked to Rev. Fields to get his thoughts on the event and the current climate in Cullman.

Fields commented, “Today was a great day, a pleasant day. It was a moment where we were able to, as I said in my brief talk, let God put His CT scan on us and scan us from head to toe. I wanna thank all the pastors who showed up and all the people that showed up, from 5 years old to 80. Kudos go to the young ladies who’ve been here for the last two weeks, standing strong for what they believe in.”

He went on to say, “It’s hard for people to understand, but until black lives matter, all lives don’t matter. We’ve got to be inclusive, and looking at the young people that are here today, we’re getting there.”

He then addressed this reporter directly and told me, “Your father and I may not see it, but you will.”

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Left to right are Amy Kampis, Tabitha Bynum, Rev. James Fields and Brittnee Peterson. (Heather Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

Heather Mann