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Tensions remain high at vigel at Martinsburg VA Center

February 18, 2002

Tensions remain high at vigel at Martinsburg VA Center



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Tensions continued to mount Sunday between the director of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Martinsburg and a group of people who have been bringing attention to complaints about alleged racial discrimination at the hospital.

The Rev. Ernest Lyles, who organized a prayer vigil at the hospital Sunday, said he was troubled about a letter he received from hospital director George Moore concerning the event.

Lyles said Moore stated in his letter that if there were any threats to the hospital's property or people staying at the hospital during the vigil, police at the hospital would take appropriate action.

Lyles said he was insulted at Moore's reference that such a religious event could be associated with violence.

Lyles told the 145 people at the vigil that the seven pastors who spoke during the event have more than 200 years of pastoral leadership between them.

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"We have never destroyed anything. I was offended by what is in this letter," Lyles said.

Moore could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The prayer was held in an attempt to bring "divine intervention" to the hospital and resolve the problem of alleged racial discrimination there.

Blacks began describing unfair working conditions at the hospital following a case in which a white worker at the hospital won $192,400 after complaining he was harassed for associating with black workers.

Thomas Lineburg said he was harassed by white co-workers for associating with a mostly black crew of carpentry workers. He said racial slurs were common and one of his co-workers kept racist and pornographic material in a locker.

Francis Polito, chief administrative judge for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said in a Dec. 28 order that the hospital failed to address racial discrimination and harassment issues in its carpentry shop.

Shortly after the decision was released, a public meeting was held at Destiny Church in Martinsburg, where black people described unfair working conditions at the hospital.

They described how they were denied promotions despite being given more job responsibilities, not getting fair treatment for job considerations, getting less on-the-job training than other people at the hospital and other problems.

Moore has said there are no widespread discrimination problems at the hospital, and blames the complaints on people who believe they can run the hospital better than the administration.

People sang "We Shall Overcome" as they filed into a church on the hospital grounds for the prayer vigil.

The group then heard from seven pastors about how to overcome problems of racism and other challenges in the world.

"We are children of God and we believe in the power of prayer. We believe that prayer changes things," Lyles told the congregation.

Lyles said he is confident that anything in the hospital "that is not approved by God will be removed in the name of Jesus. God can go where we cannot go and God can do what we cannot do," Lyles said.

Ministers came from as far away as Annapolis to lend support to Lyles and other organizers of the prayer vigil.

Among them were Wayne DeHart, a Gaithersburg, Md., minister who is the district supervisor of the Frederick (Md.) District of the United Methodist Church. DeHart said when he learned the challenge facing Lyles and others leading the vigil, "there was no place to be but here. He is my brother," DeHart said.

Randy Tremba, pastor at Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Presbyterian Church, said he remembers feeling afraid when he and his wife traveled to Kenya recently and realized they were the only two white people there.

Then they were welcomed by churches, where "there isn't black or white," Tremba said.

Tremba said dividing people into races was man's doing, for whatever reason.

"Whatever human beings have constructed, we can deconstruct," Tremba said.

Tom Hartshorn, pastor of Christ Reformed United Church of Christ in Martinsburg, said he didn't realize the problems that were going on at the hospital. Now he realizes he must "get off my you-know-what and do something today."

A second prayer vigil will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at the intersection of King and High streets in Shepherdstown. A third vigil will be held March 3 at the Jefferson County Board of Education office.

A panel discussion on racism is scheduled for Feb. 25 but a location has not been determined, Lyles said.

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