United Methodist pastors across the U.S. scrambled to rewrite sermons and find other ways for their Sunday services to refute the racism on display in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Various United Methodist groups also issued statements calling for prayer and justice after avowed neo-Nazis, fascists and other white nationalists attacked protesters marching against them. The attacks turned deadly when a car rammed into protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.
The message across the denomination was clear: Christ calls disciples to reject white supremacy and work toward a just and loving world.
The Rev. Phil Woodson, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, also testified to the ways people were already heeding that call amid the weekend’s tumult.
On Aug. 12, First United Methodist provided a safe space to the injured and others escaping the violence of that day’s white supremacist rally.
“There was and is only one path forward, and that is one of overwhelming love,” Woodson preached Aug. 13. “And yesterday that love took the form of flipping over tables to literally protect this building and those who sought sanctuary inside.”
The Rev. Chenda Lee, adult discipleship pastor at multiethnic Annandale United Methodist Church in Virginia, joined a group of church members in traveling about two hours to Charlottesville to stand against the white supremacist rally.
“I saw hate yesterday. It is that same hate that led to Jesus’ death on a cross,” she preached on Sunday. “But here’s the thing about hate: It is no match for our God of love.”
Bishops across the U.S. urged clergy and worshippers to take time to address the sin of racism. At some churches, congregants renewed their baptismal vows with special emphasis on the commitment to “resist evil, injustice and oppression.” Other churches added special litanies or a time of confession.
Bishop Sharma Lewis, who leads the Virginia Conference, urged United Methodists “to stand together as the people of God and have our voices heard.”
In her Aug. 14 statement, she also announced that her conference plans to have a Convocation on Race and Reconciliation on April 14, 2018.
“I have found in my ministry that racism is rooted in ignorance,” she said. “In addressing racism, we must be intentional in getting to know our brothers and sisters and address the sin of racism, hate and violence.”
Bishop Mike McKee, who leads the North Texas Conference, was among the episcopal leaders encouraging clergy to preach against racism and testify to Christ, who crosses all boundaries. His message to those behind the pulpit: “I have your back. Speak pastorally and prophetically.”
McKee told United Methodist News Service he received dozens of emails from clergy who appreciated his advice.
For members of Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson, Missouri, what transpired in Charlottesville brought back painful memories of their own community’s strife in August 2014. That year saw the death of Michael Brown and the clashes between police and protesters that followed. The predominantly African-American church is located less than a mile from where the protests took place.
The Rev. F. Willis Johnson, Wellspring’s founding pastor, used this Sunday’s service to “make space for lament.” The service included time for people to work on the church’s “prayer tapestry” — a loom where churchgoers weave together their appeals to God.
Johnson reminded congregants: “Living out our faith is an act of resistance.”
Earlier on his Facebook page, Johnson also urged fellow preachers to use Sunday to “address the inhumane state of our nation and humanity.” He was gratified to see a number of pastors eagerly accept the challenge.
Among them was his friend, the Rev. Jacob Armstrong, lead pastor of the predominantly white Providence United Methodist Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee.
With Johnson’s help, Armstrong’s church has been trying to address racism and initiate conversations to bridge racial divides in their own community. The previous week, Armstrong began his sermon by saying “We stand against the evil of racism.” He repeated that message this Sunday.
“I’m thankful for us, that it’s not just reacting to one incident but part of our continued work and calling that we feel as a church,” he said.
The multiethnic Urban Village Church, with four worship sites in Chicago, has long focused on combatting racism. The Rev. Brittany Isaac, pastor of the congregation’s Edgewater site, worked late into the night and even a bit of the morning reworking her sermon.
“The way I talked about it is that what happened in Charlottesville is horrible and those who want to bring help, that’s wonderful, but then we come back here and we have work to do in our city as well,” she said. “We may not have the overt racism that’s being broadcast in Charlottesville, but we have systems including in our own church and in Chicago that we need to address.”
The United Methodist Church, like many denominations in the U.S., has a fraught history on both slavery and civil rights. Although Methodism’s founder John Wesley strongly opposed slavery, the church would split in 1844 over the issue, and its reunification in 1939 included the segregation of African-Americans. Methodist membership has included both late segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Still, on the events in Charlottesville, United Methodists spoke with universal condemnation of hateful rhetoric and actions.
The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race warned, “Free speech and the ability to protest, while the right of every American, should not be used to terrorize, intimidate or incite violence.
“As Christians and United Methodists we believe in the right of all people to thrive as individuals undergirded by a society of laws rooted in our common humanity, our common good, in short — in the love and justice of God.”
United Methodist Women also condemned “the racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry” seen in Charlottesville. “We urge United Methodist Women and the entire church to speak out and resist fear, hate and scapegoating,” the group’s statement said. “This is our Christian witness.”
Advocacy groups across the theological spectrum also echoed that message. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a traditionalist group, proclaimed on Sunday that its members “categorically reject the myth of white supremacy.”
The group’s statement continued: “We pray for God’s justice to be established and for the healing of our nation from wounds and evil that have existed for too long.”
Reconciling Ministries Network, a progressive group, said this: “Black and brown bodies and lives are sacred. Resistance to white supremacy is faithfulness.”
The Rev. Dawn Hand was heartened to see so many groups speak out, but she warned that as long as hateful rhetoric continues, she expects such violence again.
Like so many other pastors, she also reworked to her Sunday sermon for the congregation of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. Hand, the church’s executive pastor, is African-American and the congregation is largely white.
“Our national leaders, our church leaders, people of good will and faithful people everywhere need to put this in check,” she said. “We have to understand that we are the ones who can help mitigate it.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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