Chanting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter,” close to 150 United Methodists swarmed the plenary floor at General Conference May 16 to voice concern for the oppressed and marginalized.
Clergy and lay men and women of all races — many wearing the rainbow stoles that signify full inclusion for LGBTQ — carried a banner proclaiming, “All #BlackLivesMatter: bisexual, transgender, poor, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, disabled, women, men, youth and children.”
The marchers included members of various groups, including Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the Reconciling Ministries Network and Love Prevails. Amid applause from both delegates and observers in the stands, they marched twice around the floor, chanting, “No more hate” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia’s got to go.” They ended at the center table for proclamation and song before marching out.
“(Black Lives Matter) is a movement that has opened the door and stepped into The United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Pamela Lightsey, who helped organize the march. Lightsey is an associate dean at Boston University School of Theology and the first ordained black lesbian pastor in The United Methodist Church.
“We are upset about the lack of voice The United Methodist Church has given against police force (toward) black and brown bodies across the U.S. … which says they do not intend to put the power of this huge denomination against this.”
The demonstration began shortly after the 2 p.m. plenary session, presided over by Bishop Michael Coyner of the Indiana Episcopal Area.
Just after marchers entered the plenary, the live stream of General Conference shut down for two to three minutes, which caused an outcry on social media. When the live stream was restored, those watching the feed were able to view the rest of the demonstration.
Sara Hotchkiss, business manager of General Conference, said that live streaming continued but the feed image momentarily switched to the logo because no one was recognized at the microphone.
Coyner also presided during the General Conference 2012 session when hundreds of reconciling United Methodists did a similar protest, that time to raise awareness about human sexuality issues.
One of the marchers, clergy candidate Jarell Wilson from the Rio Texas Conference, said General Conference must address this issue.
“For me, this is part of what we’re called to do as the church,” Wilson said. “Across the globe, black lives are being devalued. It is necessary for The UMC, as a body representing 12.8 million people, to speak to the value of black lives.”
Nehemiah Luckett, from the New York Conference, said the movement goes far beyond race and into injustice for all oppressed people.
“I think it’s important that there’s solidarity — not only that black lives matter, but also … ‘gay black lives matter’ and ‘transgender black lives matter,’” Luckett said.
Erin Wagner, Florida Conference, said that solidarity is exactly why she marched with the group.
“I support all those marginalized in the church, from LGBT individuals to black lives and the combination thereof,” she said.
Lightsey called it “an intersection of oppression” that hurts black people, brown people, poor people and women.
“This is not the last protest of General Conference,” Lightsey said.
Many who did not march showed their support by chanting and clapping from the sidelines.
Gaye Fisher, from the California-Nevada Conference, said United Methodists must realize how important it is to hear all voices at the table.
“We are the church, and yes, we have legislative things to do, but we’re also the body of Christ,” Fisher said, noting that sometimes the business of General Conference drowns out the people crying to be heard. “It’s more than the vote.”
Others said the demonstration caught them by surprise.
“Being from South Carolina, I know this is an emotional issue, but The United Methodist Church has always made an effort toward racial justice and reconciliation,” said delegate Martha Thompson of the South Carolina Conference. “With over 30 percent of our General Conference from the central conference, these delegates were unaware of this issue.”
After demonstrators left the plenary, Coyner called for prayer before business resumed.
Later that afternoon, General Board of Church and Society executive Susan Henry-Crowe issued a formal apology for using the term “all lives matter” in her remarks after the protest. She said the church and its leaders should unequivocally declare that “black lives matter.”