Clergy ties help Alabama pastors address tragedy

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Two United Methodist pastors in Alabama – rocked by last week’s shooting deaths at Emanuel AME Church – were able to draw on personal relationships and a commitment to stronger ties among denominations of Wesleyan heritage in offering hope and comfort.

The Rev. R. Lawson Bryan, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, has been a leader in building relationships among clergy of The United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in his city.

“For some time, I had had on my heart and mind the idea that the Wesleyan family is far more rich and diverse, and far larger, than any one denomination,” Bryan said.

Mourning for charleston

Through Sunday sermons, prayer vigils and public statements, United Methodists are expressing feelings of sorrow, determination and hope over the racially motivated June 17 massacre of nine church members at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

He began three and a half years ago by organizing clergy lunches. The relationships built there led to a 2013 Pan-Methodist Pentecost service in Montgomery. The service was repeated this year. The Wesleyan denominations also have joined to form Lenten covenant groups.

When news came that nine black people had been shot to death after a Bible study at an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina – with a young white man accused of the crimes – Bryan contacted his clergy friends by email. That led the Rev. James Arnell, pastor of St. John’s AME Church in Montgomery, to volunteer to host a citywide prayer service at noon on June 19.

Bryan had a role in that service, as did the Rev. Brian Miller of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Montgomery. Bishop Paul Leeland of the Alabama-West Florida Conference gave the benediction.

Police communication

The clergy group had already worked together to establish communication with a new police chief following disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri, over police conduct. The relationships proved constructive again in pulling together the prayer service.

“Because of the groundwork we’ve laid, certainly our congregation and other UM congregations felt the need to be present and felt a connection that I don’t know we would have felt without having gotten to know each other,” Bryan said.

The Rev. David Saliba used to be executive pastor at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery and in 2013 helped bring together the clergy group. He had been appointed pastor of First United Methodist Church in Greenville, Alabama, by the time of the first Pan-Methodist Pentecost Service.

In recent years, Saliba has been pursuing a doctorate of ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, and in his cohort was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME and one of the shooting victims.

The pastors became friends at Wesley, and Saliba recalled Pinckney’s excitement at a project Saliba did looking at the potential for collaboration across racial lines by The United Methodist Church and other Wesleyan denominations.

“That was a huge part of his heart, and all anyone can do anywhere to help create or nurture those partnerships will truly honor his memory,” Saliba told his congregation in a eulogy of Pinckney on Sunday, June 21.

Pinckney was a South Carolina state senator as well as a pastor, but in the midst of a packed schedule called to congratulate Saliba on the birth of his first child, and to tell him the world needs “more good Dads.”

Saliba said in a phone interview that he considered Pinckney a role model who lived out Micah 6:8:  "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Saliba's eulogy included the line: “I want to be more like Clem.”

When Saliba got the news about Charleston, he was on a mission trip in Chemax, Mexico. Youth from Alabama worked with youth there on projects and Saliba said that helped him remain hopeful even as he grieved.

“We were serving and being served by people who looked differently, spoke differently, came from different cultures, and the differences were celebrated by both our team and the people of Chemax,” Saliba told his congregation. “Difference was not a source of fear, but an opportunity for the enrichment of our souls.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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