BY KAREN RICHARDSON DUNN
We gather in the parking lot of Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ on a raw, misty Friday morning: 25 women, two men, my teenage son, Dylan, and his best friend. We’re mostly members of First C, along with a few other local folks, clutching our coffee cups and clear plastic backpacks (recommended for security reasons), ready to head to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March.
Those in van 3, in which I’m a passenger, are ebullient and a bit nervous. As we drive up Interstate 81, we’re thrilled when we pass two RVs plastered with “Nasty Women Onboard” signs, our first indication that we are entering “march territory.” At our next rest stop, a convenience store in southern Virginia, a mini-reunion takes place in the parking lot as a group of pink-hatted ladies, also driving up from Asheville, stream from a Subaru to hug the women from our own group. A moment later, an elderly lady pulls up beside our van, rolls down the window, and instructs us to “give ’em hell” up in Washington.
Back in the van, Sondra Helton-Moeller, the organizer for our trip, takes the wheel. Helton-Moeller retired from the U.S. Army after 28 years of service, then made the move to Asheville to begin the next chapter of her life. When I ask her why she felt compelled to organize marchers from First C, she explains, “The evening of the election seemed like the longest night of my life. [I wondered] How could this be happening? How could we as a nation be so willing to set ourselves back from all that we have worked so hard for? I had such a sense of helplessness until I heard about the march in Washington.”
She continues, “The march may not change the outcome of the election, but our voices will be heard. I am marching for the strength that we will all need and will gain from one another … to bring healing to so many of us. And I would like this march to not only bring healing but bring awareness to those who have been blinded by hate and discrimination.”
Around 6 p.m., we arrive at our destination, Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Va. We are given an exuberant welcome and a marchers’ feast, then sent off with our “host families” to bed. The next morning, we hit a packed, sea-of-pink Metro train by 7 and gather at First Congregational Church in downtown D.C. for breakfast. I catch up with the two men in our group, Greg Clemons and Jeffrey Whitridge, who are celebrating their recent engagement.
“When we heard the announcement in church back in Asheville about the march, we turned to each other and said, ‘Let’s go!’” says Clemons. “I support women. We came from women. I respect and stand for women. And I’m here, too, to protest the election. The new administration needs to see we’re not going to be quiet. This will be transformative.”
Whitridge adds, “I want everyone’s voice to be heard. This is the right thing to do. The theme of our wedding is Love Is Everything. We need to keep changing toward the positive.”
We head out into the gathering crowds, passing the Capitol Building and the fog-shrouded Washington Monument until we come to a complete halt, unable to move even an inch forward or sideways. I am elated but also concerned, and I ask my son, Dylan, how he’s doing. He smiles, looking around him at the roaring, jubilant crowd waving banners and snapping photos with their cellphones, and says, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “It gives me hope.”
I have no reply. I have no words at all. This isn’t my first D.C. march; I’d participated in others in my younger days. But as I attempt a squished, up-on-tiptoe, 360-degree turn in place, it’s not the immensity of the gathered crowd that leaves me speechless — it’s the magnitude of their joy.
If only, I half-pray, all the world could be like this.
Yet, the next morning as we board the vans to return to Asheville, I can’t help but ponder the words of Jen Psaki, the White House communications director for the Obama administration, who warned: “I worry [that the Women’s March] will give too many people license to congratulate themselves for their activism and move on with their daily lives.”
When I had asked the folks from our group before the march what initiatives they hoped to engage post-march, they really couldn’t give me an answer. But about an hour into our return trip, soon after we receive word of the crowd who gathered in Asheville for the Women’s March (estimated by organizers at 10,000), Helton-Moeller turns suddenly in her seat at the front of the van and says, “Hey — let’s meet next week for dinner to talk about what we’re going to do next!” Her words are met with a chorus of “Yes, let’s do it!” At our next rest stop, Whitridge reports excitedly, “Our van was quiet on the ride up, but now we can’t stop talking about what we can do to keep the momentum going!”
By the time we arrive back at First C at 8 that evening, we’ve made a vow: We will commit ourselves to continuing the work of the march — which for us is pretty straightforward: to care for our country and our democracy by caring for the human beings who inhabit it.
I climb out of the van, and Dylan and I head for my truck and home. We ride together in silence for a while, both weary and filled to the brim with everything we’ve seen and heard the past 24 hours, and then he turns to me.
“You know, those of us who are coming of age under this administration — we’re going to see so many terrible things happen. But because we will see all these terrible things, we’ll make sure that they never happen again. My generation will make sure things will be different.”
The Women’s March — in D.C., in Asheville, across the globe — has only just begun.
Karen Richardson Dunn is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and a member of First Congregational UCC in Asheville. She facilitates the Southern Conference’s Creation Justice Network.