This past spring, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Pastor Natalie Wimberly of Greenport’s Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church had a vision. “I saw people holding candles, in his memory,” she explained.
She also imagined at least a small percentage of her 60-member congregation would gather, despite the fact that COVID-19 had kept so many stuck at home. Since March, Wednesday and Sunday sermons had been held on Facebook Live and Zoom, as many of her beloved members are elderly or at risk. Organizing an outdoor vigil under these circumstances was a big ask, she knew. But this was personal — George Floyd’s family were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was organized in 1796 and today has 1.7 million members worldwide. Captured on film, Floyd’s death beneath the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was the spark that lit Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, including here on the North Fork. Pastor Wimberly wanted to participate, to honor Floyd’s memory, as well as that of every other Black person who had been unjustly killed in this country. “George Floyd’s family is part of the A.M.E Zion church,” the pastor said. “I wanted to do something.”
This dream was realized on June 5 — but instead of a few dozen people showing up, hundreds filled Third Street outside the white clapboard church where the Rev. Wimberly has been pastor since 2016. Volunteers arrived early to make posters, tape six-foot distance markers in the road and on sidewalks, and place folding chairs near the podium for the local religious leaders, parents and children who had been invited to speak.
What amazed Pastor Wimberly about the event was just how many white people came. They far outnumbered Black and Latino people in a crowd that stretched for two very full blocks along Third Street, which the police had blocked off for the event. This neighborhood, historically African American and known as “The Bottoms” to older generations, remains a tight-knit community of Black families who have lived in Greenport for generations. Jacqueline Edwards, a longtime church member who helped organize the event, was also surprised by the turnout.
“I was born and raised in Greenport,” she said. “My husband’s family home is directly across from the church. I did not think that the vigil would be that well attended because I did not think that many people would show their concern for Black Lives Matter.” She added that she was deeply moved to see such a diverse sea of people holding signs in solidarity. Many more held battery-operated candles that were passed out during the event, which began with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” playing on loudspeakers and followed with the pastor inviting young and old people to the podium. Many shared their own experiences with racism in Greenport and beyond.
In one of many moving moments, teenagers read the names of 50 other Black lives lost — Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were among the nearly 300 names Pastor Wimberly had compiled for the event. Toward the evening’s end, she preached about these lives lost and led the entire crowd to chant “Black Lives Matter” in unison.
While Edwards was moved by the number of people who showed up, she was not surprised by the Rev. Wimberly’s ability to move the crowd. “She did that night what she does every Sunday in church,” Edwards said. “She preached from her heart.” Wendell Mealy, a Clinton Memorial member since the 1980s, agreed, and credits the pastor’s reputation in Greenport for the turnout. “People trust her, and I think they wanted to hear what she had to say.”
She has done so much to bring people together since she arrived. Her door is always open – to everyone.Wendell Mealy of Pastor Natalie Wimberly
Pastor Wimberly is so beloved among her congregants and beyond that it’s hard to believe she has been in Greenport for only four years. “I did not even know the church existed until I was called to serve as pastor here in 2016,” she explained over a pot of Monk’s Blend tea in her cozy home adjacent to the church, which could double as a library of African American literature. Three bookshelves line her living room walls, packed with titles like Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures,” Harriet Jacobs’ “Incident of a Slave Girl” and Harry Belafonte’s memoir, “My Song.”
“I like to read in my spare time,” she said, adding she does not have much of it.
Before coming to Greenport, she pastored at St. Francis A.M.E. Zion Church in Port Chester, N.Y., for 15 1/2 years and says leaving that community was hard: “You baptize, marry and bury people. You go to graduations, basketball games and birthday parties, and along the way, you fall in love with the community.”
This is why for months, at the start of her Greenport appointment, she commuted back and forth between two congregations, unsure how long her tenure on the North Fork would be: “I finally heard that little voice that said, ‘Stay put.’ ”
This August, she was reassigned to continue her work in Greenport — welcome news for her and her congregation.
“She does so much more than preach,” Mealy said. “Her door has always been open — people know they can come and talk to her, in total confidence, about whatever is ailing them.” This has been harder in COVID times, but she continues her Monday through Friday prayer call and bi-weekly preaching remotely. The pantry that was based in the church kitchen every Wednesday and Thursday is on hiatus, as are the Saturday lock=ins, slumber parties she hosted for the young people in her congregation. She has also accompanied teens on youth trips to Washington, D.C. and Birmingham, Alabama. “Her biggest impact is on the youth,” Mealy said. “She has helped them see there is so much more out there in the world for them, and that they have the power to make positive change — in their lives, and others.”
A native of Indianapolis, Natalie Wimberly has always considered herself an activist. “I was born in 1957, right after the Montgomery bus boycott, so I’m a product of that age,” she said. “And I’ve always believed, if you see something that is wrong, you have to speak out.” She recalls a moment in sixth grade when her teacher called her father because she’d had written “Black Power” on her notebook. “I was in my Angela Davis phase,” she said, smiling brightly at the memory. “Ms. Rita Brannon saw it, and said, ‘There’s no such thing.’ I responded, ‘Yes, there is. And you’re going to find out about it.’ ”
Her father was not mad at her. On the contrary, she recalls seeing both him and her stepmother weep when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968, and then cry again only two months later, when Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. She also remembers the question on everyone’s mind at that time: “What do we do now? Where do we go from here?”
The future pastor was only 11 years old, but she knew her voice would lead her to answer that question. “I was always comfortable speaking out,” she said. That led to a college drama scholarship, which shifted to a pre-law major with a minor in African American history. “I wanted to practice constitutional law and become the first Black female on the Supreme Court,” she said.
While placed on a waiting list for her preferred law school, her relationship with God “began to blossom.” Instead of pursuing a law degree, she worked as a teacher, a juvenile investigator with the Indianapolis Police Department and in retail before she got the calling. “I’ll never forget that experience,” she said. “It was clear: ’I want you to go preach.’ Next thing I know, I found myself sitting at seminary.” Her first assignment was in Greenville, Ky., followed by a short stint at her home church in Indianapolis, then Port Chester and, finally, Greenport.
This town is not so different from small-town Kentucky, where “everybody knows everybody,” the Rev. Wimberly observed, adding, “The blessing for me was that I was never treated as an outsider.” Mealy and Edwards both say that her open-arms approach to the community makes people feel like they can speak to her without any judgment. “When she came into our church in 2016 she was part of the community in no time,” Edwards said. “She came with a loving and open heart, and so was received in the same way.”
Pastor Wimberly is grateful for this. “I see myself as a liaison between the community and the church,” she said. “The church should be a lighthouse, a refuge. As Christians, we take care of the downtrodden — the widows, the orphans, people who are sick or troubled.”
She has done all this and more during her tenure in Greenport, and says the COVID lockdown has made the job that much more challenging. “I lost a nephew to the coronavirus, and church members, too,” she said. “We have not yet had funerals. We can send emails and texts, but we can’t embrace one another. Touching does so much for the heart and soul. When you can’t find words, just a touch of a hand or on a shoulder or one’s back says, I understand. I am with you. I love you.”
But she also believes that speaking out about injustices is part of her calling as pastor, which is what moved her to hold the vigil in June. “I was in seminary when Rodney King was beaten by police,” she recalls. “But this feels different. Racism has really been exposed. It is a disease, like cancer, and we need to treat it in order to prevent any more destruction or death.”
Preaching is one way, as is protesting, and both have led the way to what she believes will come next…
“We have to get to a place where people stop shouting and instead start talking to each other. A place where we can sit down at the table with one another and learn to listen.”— Pastor Natalie Wimberly
This is precisely why she envisioned a candlelit vigil on that June evening. It was an opportunity, she said, for everyone in the community to stand together. “There is so much pain associated with racism and bigotry,” she said. “People have been angry — but we have not yet grieved. And grieving opens the door for healing. And reconciliation.”
Right after the crowd chanted in unison, she asked everyone to turn on their candles and raise them into the air. Third Street twinkled in the twilight as the crowd stood together in silence. The moment was profound, and illuminating. “She was asking people to let their light shine,” Edwards said. “I think that touched the hearts of so many people. It allowed people to find their own light in the darkness.”