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Ousted Tennessee lawmaker attended Boston church

Phillip Martin
Ousted Tennessee lawmaker attended Boston church
Ousted Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson attended Union United Methodist Churchfor several years. COURTESY PHOTO

An Easter Sunday service at the 200-year-old Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End is always a special affair. But this year, it took on extra significance, with the congregation taking time to support a fellow church member halfway across the country.

One of the two Black state representatives expelled from Tennessee’s legislature this week, Justin Pearson, attended church at Union Methodist when he lived in Boston — and he continues to Zoom in for services regularly.

Pearson and another state representative, Justin Jones, protested on the Tennessee House floor last week in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. But the Republican-led legislature declared the protest a breach of decorum and voted to oust the two Black lawmakers from the body entirely — setting off alarm bells for democracy advocates nationwide.

Jones was reinstated as interim legislator by the Nashville Metropolitan Council.

That prompted lead pastor Rev. Jay Williams to begin this year’s Easter sermon like never before.

“We dedicate this reading to our very own Justin J. Pearson. He and Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson, the Tennessee Three. They protested against violence, mass murder, school shootings. That can genuinely tear at the fabric of our society. Justin J. Pearson is a member of this church, and we pray for him,” Williams said.

Gloria Johnson, a white lawmaker who protested alongside Pearson and Jones, was not expelled from the legislature.

At the church, Williams said that Pearson’s protest against gun violence in the State House chamber was an act of courage — and the argument that it undermined decorum doesn’t hold water.

“Some rules are made to be broken,” Williams said.

On the large screen at the front of the church sanctuary, Williams played a video of a news interview of Pearson, revisiting his moment of insubordination in the Tennessee State House.

“How is it that even now, with mass persecution on this Holy Week, after my own brother Justin Jones, Representative Jones, gets expelled from the House, is that we still have a hope?” Pearson said in the video. “How is it that still the descendants of enslaved people, how is it that you still have hope? Well, it’s because even from the bottom of slave ships, my people didn’t quit. Even in cotton fields and rice fields, my people didn’t quit,” he said.

Pearson became a regular at Union United after he graduated from Bowdoin College in 2017 and moved to Boston. He worked for the nonprofit Year Up, which gave free job training to young adults. He returned to Memphis at the start of the COVID pandemic and continued to attend services at his church in Boston via Zoom.

“He has been part of this community for years,” said Stephanie Garrett-Stearns, who teaches Sunday School at Union United Methodist Church. “And so when news broke about what was happening in Tennessee, we rallied as a congregation to make sure he was feeling all the love that we have for him here in Boston.”

Garrett-Stearns says there appears to be zero dissention among Union United’s diverse congregation on this issue.

“We are standing with the representative and with his family. We have come together to support what the family needs at this time with so much disruption. And really just wanting to make sure that all of the Christian love that we have in our hearts is making its way to Tennessee,” Garrett-Stearns said.

Congregant Lee Pelton, the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, said Justin Pearson and Union United reflect the Black church’s tradition of standing up for the dispossessed.

“He’s channeling MLK and a little bit of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael about an issue that is a public health crisis in this nation,” Pelton said. “We have more guns than we have people. Young people from the ages of 1 to 19 will die every three hours, every day. And gun killings are the highest cause of death among young people,” Pelton said.

And to that sentiment, in his sermon, Rev. Williams said “Amen.”

Phillip Martin is a senior investigative reporter for the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting.