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.
Church bells tolled at 10 a.m. in that city on Sunday as government and community leaders joined grieving but defiant worshippers at Emanuel. In Charleston and elsewhere, many congregations mourned the loss and vowed to take a hard look once again at the plague of racism and violence in the U.S.
Rather than dissect the killer’s motive, suggested the Rev. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg, Columbia, South Carolina district superintendent, focus on the bigger picture.
“We may be tempted to overanalyze what happened, but let us look forward and ask, ‘What will motivate us to prevent this kind of violence from happening again?’ she noted. “What will motivate us to tear down racial, political, ethnic, economic, and religious boundaries, and build a world of harmony and peace?”
Clergy Ties Help Alabama Pastors address Tragedy
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.
Praying, then acting
After the murders of members of a historically significant African-American church were reported, Bishop Warner Brown Jr., president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, sent a letter to African Methodist Episcopal bishops offering United Methodist support and calling on church members to work toward a more peaceful future.
Action is required beyond prayer vigils, said the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin, pastor at College Place United Methodist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, in her sermon. “We must open our mouths for silence is consent. Individually and collectively, we must stand for that which is right, if and when we see and engage troubled people who have said they wish to harm others. We are morally responsible for saying, for doing something.”
Still, when family members of the victims told the accused shooter they forgave him, “that’s the positive response of a child of God,” said the Rev. George Ashford Jr., pastor of Journey United Methodist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
But communities need to wake up and look at society’s challenges, Ashford added. "Anytime the church is under attack, we're all under attack."
The shootings were a personal loss for Ashford, since he lived next door to one of the victims, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., when Simmons lived in Columbia. But he has faith that “God is going to make a way.”
Across the nation
Like many pastors, the Rev. Robin Hynicka of Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia spent a long time searching for the right words.
Among his reflections: “Who was missing from the life of Dylann Roof that the negative space in his heart and mind resulted in such a racist, violent, destructive and hurtful act?
“The challenge is for you and me to be present to others, both those similar and those not so similar, in ways that transform arrogant ignorance and devious determination into holy moments of awakening and awe.”
For some pastors, like the Rev. Adam Shahan, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma, the occasion also served as a teaching moment about the historic segregation within the Methodist Church that led to the creation of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and the founding of Emmanuel church.
“While we must admit our being complicit in dividing the Methodist institution by race, we can also commit to being a part of embracing racial and cultural uniqueness, diversity and equality that looks more like the Imago Dei and less like the damaging decisions of our denomination's past,” Shahan said.
Here are brief excerpts from other sermons and statements:
The Rev. Lillian Smith, the first black pastor of the mostly white St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church of Valley Forge in Wayne, Pennsylvania: “Part of the reason I was open to serving you in ministry was because of a hope that we could finally overcome racial differences towards living God’s beloved community. I’m holding out hope.”
North Georgia Bishop Mike Watson, in comments June 18 during an annual conference session: “The world needs to see the church find a better way. The world needs to see us be totally, completely honest with each other.”
The Rev. Richie Butler, St. Paul United Methodist Church, Dallas, preaching Sunday of triumphing over hate: “He thought he could bring about a race war. If he had gone to the club, that might have happened. But he went to the wrong place. ... He went to a place of love.”
Oklahoma Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr., in a letter to the conference: “There is a place in each of our communities where there are victims of racism, poverty, and marginalization who need the light of Christ to shine in their lives, and who better than us to be the bearers of God illuminating light?”
The Rev. Joseph Daniels, writing for the Baltimore-Washington Conference: "We must face the truth that once again we have a horrifying problem of race in our communities that unless dealt with head on, will not go away."
Fort Worth Area Bishop Mike Lowry: “We must confess that culturally we have worshiped at the altar of violence. For too long and in too many ways, we have celebrated violence as a solution to our problems. Our Lord calls us instead to be a people of peace. ‘Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid’ (John 14:27).”
The Rev. Linda Noonan, senior pastor, Chestnut Hill United Church, Philadelphia: “This Sunday we are all AME. As a congregation affiliated with the United Methodist church, we have common roots and common ancestors. As people of faith, we are connected. So when you take the lives of our brothers and sisters, you take our lives as well.”