When Lea Gilmore was in her 20s, she lost 11 friends in one year to HIV/AIDS. It was in the ’80s, and people knew very little about the illness, Gilmore said.
So she educated herself. Then she spoke out against the stigma often associated with the disease and fought for better health care access. Gilmore says losing so many friends provided the foundation for her “activist spirit.”
A Baltimore native, Gilmore, 55, grew up in Northwood and graduated from Morgan State University in 1993. She eventually used that activist spirit when she served as deputy director of the ACLU of Maryland.
About a year ago, Gilmore joined Govans Presbyterian Church, a nearly 260-member predominantly white church in a mostly Black community, as its first service music director. She is a jazz, gospel and blues singer who has performed across the globe.
This year, Gilmore added a new role: serving as the church’s first minister for racial justice and multicultural engagement.
She and the church’s minister, the Rev. Tom Harris, who is white, launched a book discussion group last fall so members could discuss books about racial justice and equity. A racial justice ministry working group, made up of several church members and two community members, was launched in January.
Gilmore said her plan is to educate people on how to become an anti-racist.
“[I want to] get people to understand the difference between saying, ‘I’m not racist, and I am an anti-racist.’ The anti-racist is the person who is proactively not racist, and who is doing things to make a difference in the community,” she said.
Gilmore said she will feel successful when her church members feel confident speaking up, for instance, to their racist uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Besides creating Gilmore’s racial justice position, Harris said there are still things the church needs to do, such as avoiding token representation.
Moving forward, Harris said, the church will need to be more thoughtful with its hiring if it wants to be a more welcoming place, noting that “we can’t just keep having white people on staff.”
Harris said the church, located on York Road, is on a racial, socioeconomic dividing line. To the west side of the church is Homeland, one of the city’s wealthiest and predominantly white neighborhoods, and to the east and south of the church are predominantly Black neighborhoods that are not as well off economically, he said.
“We are in this amazing spot, which speaks to so much of the Baltimore racial history and racial division. We think we can have a real opportunity to make a difference, given our location,” Harris said.
Tanya Morrel, a white church member and a member of the new racial justice ministry working group, said she’d like to see more Black members at the church.
“We are in a predominantly Black city … we have no business having a predominantly white church in a predominantly Black city,” Morrel said.
She added that she questions whether the church has had a welcoming environment for people of color, saying one change she’d like to see at the church is calling out and noticing behaviors that make people of color feel less welcome. Morrel said she has been educating herself on race issues.
Morrel said Gilmore’s position would benefit the church.
“She’s very good at talking about race with people. If they’re uncomfortable and nervous, she makes them feel more comfortable,” Morrel said.
But unfortunately, many people will shut down if they’re feeling judged, she added.
“It’s part of the problem — this whole white fragility — is that people feel uncomfortable, and they shut down. And they blame everybody else,” Morrel said.
As a former leader of ACLU, Gilmore said she plans on bringing what she learned there to the church. While at the ACLU, she said, she worked on a broad range of social justice issues, including education, equity and LGBTQ+ issues.
In her new role, she said she’ll make sure the church is inclusive for all, including the LGBTQ community.
“Having them welcome within our sanctuary as well is very important to me,” Gilmore said.
This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor, Sundra Hominik at email@example.com.