By Jessica Brodie
The world watched as racial protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, escalated into a frenzy that left three dead, nearly three dozen wounded and the nation shocked, angry and filled with fear.
But as the dust settled, the church stood strong, lifting up a message of love, prayer and hope in Christ.
On Aug. 12, a group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others gathered in the college town of Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which the city was planning to remove. As the rally intensified, protestors clashed with counter-protestors, and two hours after Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency, a speeding car rammed into the crowd of anti-racism protestors, killing one woman and injuring many others. Two police officers also lost their lives.
As news spread, The United Methodist Church scrambled to respond. United Methodist Communications placed full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today Aug. 16 stating simply the apostle Paul’s words, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Church leaders scrapped planned sermons to preach on Christian love during times of strife.
“We are called to … be advocates against prejudice, hate, racism and violence in any form,” said South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston, urging Christians everywhere to join him in prayer for the nation. “Prayer is powerful. Let us all unite in prayer, for much healing is needed. As followers of Christ, we have a sacred calling to lead our communities in tearing down the walls that divide us.”
Virginia’s Resident Bishop Sharma D. Lewis echoed Holston’s call.
“At a time when fear and hate are so readily in our faces, I would ask that you pray with me,” Lewis said. “Pray for the loss of life and the injured. Pray for those acting from hate. Pray for calmer heads to surface. We, as The United Methodist Church, must witness to others what prayer can do in times of fear and hate.”
Council of Bishops President Bishop Bruce R. Ough challenged United Methodists and all people of faith to be bold in their witness against racism and white supremacy, which he described as repugnant and against the Christian faith.
“I am shocked by the blatant resurgence of white nationalism, neo-Nazism and racially motivated domestic terrorism in the United States. I am dismayed (and frightened) by the animosity, division, extremism and evil that is spiraling out of control in the U.S.,” Ough said in a statement to the more than 12 million members of the UMC.
Ough said there should be no excuses or political justification for the evil that occurred in Charlottesville, “Nor let us forget that many such displays of white supremacy, racism and hatred go un-reported or under-reported in many places. White supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies are abhorrent and entirely inconsistent with the Christian faith.”
South Carolina reacts
In Bluffton, St. Andrew By-The-Sea UMC, a predominantly white church, gathered for a picnic with members of the predominantly black First Zion Missionary Baptist Church. The picnic had been planned long before the event in Charlottesville, stemming from a joint Bible study the two churches had done together in the spring as an attempt to break down racial barriers. But given what just happened in Charlottesville, they realized the picnic was an ideal opportunity to address the events and grow closer as a community to show others what it looks like to live a life of faith together.
In Beaufort, the Rev. Lane Glaze, pastor of Waters Edge UMC, and the Rev. Wendy Hudson-Jacoby, pastor of UMC new church start Two Rivers Church, took to the pulpit together Aug. 20 for a dialogue on “How is God Calling Us to be the Church in Today’s Divided World?”
Drawing from Ephesians 4, the two addressed the Charlottesville events and other acts of violence and hate by urging Christians to turn to Scripture and foster deep roots so the church can truly be a place where people of different mindsets can come together and safely address difficult issues.
Hudson-Jacoby urged Christians to model ways to live together to bridge divisions.
“Church is one of the few places in all our experiences where we get to intentionally interact with people who are different from us,” she said, noting we would do well to remember Paul’s words to the Galatians (3:28): that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ.
The Rev. Amiri B. Hooker, pastor of the East Camden Charge, Hartsville District, has addressed the Charlottesville events in each of his sermons since, and his churches have also had dialogue opportunities, from a prayer service to Sunday school to a Bible study.
“I am a social justice preacher and believe keenly in the traditional Wesleyan vision of the sermonic moment as a time for honest dialogue with the current culture,” Hooker said, noting he feels called to call out the sins surrounding the events in Charlottesville.
“What we’ve watched unfolding in Charlottesville, with hundreds of white people bearing torches and chanting about the value of white lives above others and shouting slurs, is not a ‘far right’ protest,” Hooker said during his sermon the morning after the events. “When you move that far right, past humanity, past decency, past goodness—you’re something else. You’re not a supremacist, you’re not a nationalist and you’re not alt-right. This is racism. This is domestic terrorism. This is religious extremism. This is bigotry. It is blind hatred of the most vile kind.”
He said as a preacher he has a responsibility to “stay woke” and name this sin outright.
“No, naming it won’t change it, but naming it is necessary nonetheless,” Hooker said. “It’s necessary to condemn it so that we do not become complicit in it.”
On Aug. 20, Hooker preached on idolatry in the face of God’s extravagant generosity, noting that America’s obsession with idols played into what happened in Charlottesville. He said statues in public spaces can become idols if we neglect to put faith in perspective and God first.
“When we place other things above God, that is the sin of disobedience Paul was writing about,” Hooker preached.
The Rev. Joseph James, Trinity UMC, Sumter, preached Aug. 13 on Charlottesville in a message titled, “Take Heart, It is I.” James drew from Matthew 8 on how Jesus, who was walking on the water in a storm toward his frightened disciples, called Simon Peter to join him upon the water. James said the boat is a place of relative safety; why go out there? Why step out? It must have been difficult for Simon Peter. What did the other disciples think?
“I must admit that over the last several days I have felt like I’ve been in a boat like the disciples riding in a storm. I think we all have,” James said, noting that between the North Korea tensions and these most recent events in Charlottesville, the world today seems closer to a disastrous conflict that in any time in the last 50 years. “I’m sickened by that. I’m afraid for our country. I’m afraid for what’s going to happen next.”
But, he said, we are all in this boat together along with billions of other people, and like Simon Peter, we are being called to step out in faith, look beyond party politics and stand with our African-American brothers and sisters to speak out and advocate love.
“It wasn’t easy for Simon Peter to take a step out of that boat, but Matthew reminds us that he did walk on the water. Whether it was two steps or 20, we don’t know,” James said. “But he got out of the boat.”
On judging, taming the tongue and modeling a better path
The Rev. Graham M. Bennett, pastor of the Livingston-Pine Hill Charge, Orangeburg District, scrapped his entire service in reaction to Charlottesville.
“I felt the Lord pull me away from the lectionary and want me to preach about Jesus calling for us to love one another as I have loved you,” Bennett said.
In his message, “No One Should Cast the First Stone,” Bennett urged people to focus on love instead of pointing fingers over what happened in the past.
“We are to move forward in the word of God,” he preached. “No race is without sin, and you cannot pick and choose what you want to be mad about. Point your finger at someone and look down—there are three fingers pointing back at yourself. Enough is enough.”
Bennett encouraged people to stop judging others and focus on Jesus’s directive to love God and others foremost.
The Rev. Dan Sullivan Jr., pastor of Wesley Memorial UMC, Chester, drew from James 3:7-12 on taming the tongue, which is “full of deadly poison.”
“Lord, what are we coming to? Do we respect life anymore?” Sullivan reflected. “We all need to respect, care and have love for our neighbor. We all may disagree with so many things with another, but all deserve a place at the table. It’s the way God intended. He loves us all whether you like it or not.”
He urged people to “start looking past color and not have ideology that causes us to hate.”
In her message to the Grover Charge, in the Walterboro District, the Rev. Shannon Bullion addressed the evil of Nazis, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and all with racist ideology and urged Christians to renounce hate speech as such.
“It has not changed from the 1940s to today,” Bullion preached. “Nazis who will chant today ‘blood and soil’ are about putting blood in soil. And they have never showed remorse for such. Folks, if we can’t count Nazi ideology as evil, then I don’t know who we are. By our Baptismal Covenant, we are vowed to renounce evil and to reject oppression. If we are baptized we have already renounced evil. And, living in the path of perfection, we must be renouncing it continually.”
The Rev. Stewart C. Kidd Jr., pastor of the West Kershaw Circuit, Columbia District, replaced the usual seasonal litany and, following a brief word about Charlottesville, offered a special prayer and benediction on unity, love and raising our vision “above the barriers of color, culture and creed that separate us.”
Others wove prayer and messages on Charlottesville throughout their message. The Rev. David C. Surrett, pastor of Central UMC, Newberry, addressed the Charlottesville events in his sermon and emphasized the renewed need for racial reconciliation and inclusive love.
The Rev. Bill Bouknight, who served as guest preacher at Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, urged worshippers to help “something ugly become beautiful.”
“The heat of discord is breaking America’s heart,” Bouknight prayed. “Oh God, spread your healing calm across America’s strained nerves. Forgive us for sometimes being part of the problem rather than part of the solution. … Use the Christian community to model a better path for America.”
Retired pastor the Rev. Keith Sweat felt called to recirculate an essay he’d originally written in response to another horror under another president, which he felt applied to what America is experiencing today. In the essay, “This Home by Horror Haunted,” from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” he talks about how Christians have two ways to react to hate in the world: keep chanting, yelling and blaming (and be shocked when violence keeps happening), or turn to the Spirit in surrender so God can guide you in what to do.
“Return to the church. Return to the Eucharist. Return to the living God truly present. Return in silence, and learn to love,” Sweat wrote (see his full essay at www.methodistreform.com/single-post/2017/08/20/This-Home-By-Horror-Haunted).
The Rev. Ed Stallworth, pastor of Inman UMC, Inman, said what happened in Charlottesville clearly shows we are not where we need to be. But he appreciates that we are getting there.
“Hatred and bigotry has caused too much pain and violence in our world,” Stallworth said. “That being said, I am a pastor of color—my father is black and my mother is Japanese—ministering in a predominantly white church where I am loved and supported. The world I live in, as a pastor in a small town church, would not have existed 30 years ago.
“So even though we are not where we should be, through the work of love, grace and justice we are moving forward, albeit too slowly.”
Bishop Holston’s response after events in Charlottesville:
The video images of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, will remain with us long after we have viewed them. Our newspapers and computer screens are filled with the images of violence. They are deeply disturbing and painful to watch.
As a people of faith committed to social justice and opposed to racism and violence, we come again to a time to examine and set for ourselves specific goals. These goals should be a faith statement of witness, advocacy and prayer.
Therefore, we are called to witness not only as faithful disciples but to witness to the world the injustices we see and experience.
We are called to serve as advocates to our beliefs and, in this context, to clearly be advocates against prejudice, hate, racism and violence in any form.
We are called to pray. Prayer is powerful. Let us all unite in prayer, for much healing is needed.
As followers of Christ, we have a sacred calling to lead our communities in tearing down the walls that divide us.
This is our prayer for the people in Charlottesville and for the people of our nation and world.
I invite you to join with me in supporting Bishop Sharma Lewis as she gives leadership to the people of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church at this critical time.
Grace and peace,
Jonathan Holston, South Carolina resident bishop
SEJ College of Bishops on racism and the church
“The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us grace to labor for.”—Thomas More, UMH, 408
Serving with you in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, we grieve the violence in Charlottesville. We renew our baptismal covenant to trust and serve Christ, to resist evil and to honor all in the human family.
We share with you our resolve to name, resist and dismantle racism in our churches, in our communities and in the world. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, we pray that the dividing walls of hostility come down so that in every place Christ becomes our peace.
At the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, a mission initiative for our region was embraced. That plan identified anti-racism as an essential focus of our shared mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Each of us is working with clergy and laity to build anti-racist commitment in our episcopal areas.
We would like to communicate with you the strategic anti-racist work across the jurisdiction. We will share with you the stories of the work of one of our annual conferences each month for the next year.
Our desire is not simply to pray but to also demonstrate the work the United Methodist Church is doing to confront racism. It is our prayer that this sharing will increase courage and strengthen community in every place in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
— Witness and invitation from the SEJ College of Bishops meeting in Atlanta Aug. 17