Read UM News Service’s story, titled “Mourning for Charleston, then praying for action.” It reports numerous United Methodist expressions of sorrow, determination and hope responding to the racially motivated June 17 massacre of nine church members at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston,S.C. Three Eastern PA Conference pastors are quoted. Then read our own story that features compelling, insightful comments, capturing a range of emotions and perspectives, from sermons preached Sunday, June 21, by a dozen clergy in our conference.
The brutal killings of the pastor and eight members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last week and the dramatic events that followed no doubt prompted a lot of preachers to alter or put aside their Father’s Day sermons for Sunday, June 21. Across the nation and in pulpits around the Eastern PA Conference upbeat sermons honoring fatherhood were replaced by sad elegies honoring “Mother Emanuel’s” fallen and proclamations against the persistent sins of racial oppression and violence.
Any pastor who said nothing about this tragedy, its innocent victims, the young alleged murderer, or the anguished, grace-abounding forgiveness expressed during his arraignment–well, they may have done their congregation a troubling disservice.
More than a dozen preachers kindly sent us their sermon manuscripts or portions thereof, as requested. For some, the challenge may have been what to say–what social and spiritual wisdom or poignant consolation to offer. For others, the key morals of this sad story may have been readily apparent.
The Rev. Robin Hynicka’s struggle of what to say to his congregation at Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia was featured in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s not hard to make the decision to go there. But it’s an emotional and spiritual challenge,” he told reporters. “You have to take a leap of faith to begin to engage.
“Who was missing from the life of Dylann Roof (the accused murderer) that the negative space in his heart and mind resulted in such a racist, violent, destructive and hurtful act?” the pastor asked his members. “The challenge is for you and me to be present to others … in ways that transform arrogant ignorance and devious determination into holy moments of awakening and awe.” Affirming “that all persons possess the image of God,” he challenged listeners to take “any small-mindedness and hard-heartedness and turn them into expressions and experiences of God’s justice and grace.”
“Nine of our brothers and sisters died this week,” the Rev. James McIntire announced to his congregation at Hope UMC in Havertown. He, like others, read aloud the names of the fallen saints, intent on not letting them be anonymous. “What does race have to do with it?” he asked. “Everything.”
The Rev. Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, Philadelphia, lamented the bloody murders of faithful members that defiled Emanuel’s sacred space. “The gunning down of nine people within that very holy ground only because of their race is one of the worst crimes imaginable,” she said. “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.”
America’s tortured racial history provided ample context for many of Sunday’s sermons. And the Common Lectionary’s recommended Old and New testament scriptures, 1 Samuel 17 and Mark 4:35-41, respectively, also inspired illustrative metaphors.
“Racial and ethnic hatred is the Goliath of our day,” said the Rev. Beverly Andrews of Chiques UMC in Mount Joy. “This is a battle of the principalities and powers, and we must be ready, like David, to step up and use the tools God has given us as God’s people.”
The Rev. Karyn Wiseman, Director of United Methodist Studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, meanwhile, chose her metaphor from Mark’s Gospel. “We are living in the midst of a great storm, a storm of racism and violence,” she told an African American congregation. “But if you think Jesus is just asleep in the stern, ignoring our fear, you are just plain wrong. Jesus is present with us. Jesus is also expecting us, like the disciples, to have faith. And having faith means we act with the power of Jesus on our side to make this world a better place.”
The Rev. Frank Johnston Jr. interim pastor of Hope UMC, Douglassville, looked toward next week’s 239th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence’s signing. But, he asserted, “Even now the truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not fully exist. Hatred exists throughout our country, hatred against races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, religious beliefs. Too often that hatred pours itself out in violence.”
But the Rev Narie L. Grayson, pastor of Simpson-Fletcher UMC, Philadelphia, called that violence the way she and many others see it: as “racial terrorism.”
“There are some hostile, violent people who forcibly oppose racial advancement and spiritual growth,” she said, citing “an evil rooted in satanic influences of sin against humanity. Not only is this an attack against race, but against the Kingdom of God.”
The Rev. Thomas Robinson III, of Green Pond UMC in Easton, Pa., gave an alarming admonition that Dylan Roof’s purported goal, a “race war,” has many misguided supporters and could gain more.
“This land stands at the precipice of a new civil war,” Robinson warned. “Our young people want peace and are looking for someone to show the way. The Church has a holy obligation to lead the way in Christ. If we remain silent, another voice will rise up calling for a race war….That voice is out there, shouting from TV and computer screens, pointing fingers of blame and inciting flames of fear among the oppressed and terrorized as well as those who fear losing their invisible privileges. There are too many white voices speaking for this unholy war already. Roof was their latest pawn to be manipulated. Their message must be made impotent by the greater power of God’s all-inclusive love!”
McIntire described the systemic racism that some might say is hidden in plain sight as “a white problem.” He cited recent, widely reported, often fatal attacks by police on black citizens and frequently biased mistreatment of black motorists. And he complained that media pundits and presidential candidates have blamed mental illness, sin, culture and other influences for Roof’s alleged misdeeds. “Only one called it what it is, directly with no apologies,” he said, “a tragic reminder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our nation.’
“We let it go on and on and on,” said McIntire. “You and me. White folk of good intention. We don’t want to acknowledge the storm that beats at our boat day after day after day. Why? Because we’re still hanging on to the socially constructed categories of race as if they are our only life preserver.”
The Rev. Mark Terry was just as boldly outspoken in his sermon at Oxford UMC. He explained that 350 years of generational racism leaves a huge legacy to overcome with only the past 50 years to show significant racial progress.
“My sons may appear to start on equal footing with their African-American classmates,” Terry preached, “but my sons stand on the shoulders of generations that were told by society they were smart, and capable of great things, while their friends stand on the shoulders of generations that were beat down by messages that they were not smart, and not capable of great things. Those messages do not disappear overnight. I’m not asking you to feel guilty about all the advantages you have had. Evil wants to use your guilty feelings to keep you from acting. But we need to use the advantages we have been blessed with to help others who didn’t have them.
“Racism isn’t fought by otherwise well-meaning folks like ourselves because secretly, we fear the punishment we think we deserve,” he explained, citing white fears of losing long-held power, resources, safety and stability.
“When it comes to racism, there are three things you can be,” said Terry: “an active racist, actively working the system to keep people of color oppressed; an active anti-racist, actively seeking to change or dismantle institutions that oppress people of color; or a passive racist, who does nothing and continues to benefit from a system that is rigged in their favor. There is no fourth option. You can’t be passively anti-racist. In other words, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
The Rev. Bron Yocum did give her congregation at Grove UMC in West Chester a nod toward Father’s Day by sharing parenting recommendations offered by Harvard psychologists on “how to raise moral children.
“Check your child’s destructive emotions,” she suggested, using their words. “We need fathers and mothers to show us how to live in this world in ways that build up rather than tear down. We need parents who take time to help us … understand how to deal with anger or hate when it occurs.”
Yocum recalled a scene from the film “42” where a boy learned and mimicked the behavior of his father who yelled racist taunts at Jackie Robinson as the first black player in major league baseball went to the batter’s box.
Of course, today’s negative influences aren’t just parents and friends but also Websites and social media sites, including those belonging to a growing number of racist hate groups. Dylann Roof allegedly entered Emanuel Church and murdered nine people after being welcomed into their fellowship circle and spending an hour in bible study with them as they learned about a God of love and a Savior who commands use to love all our neighbors.
Nonetheless, some preachers also suggested steps to take to become “active anti-racists” and make things better.
“Do we still not know what are the things that make for peace and justice?” asked the Rev. Earl Roberts III of Lattimer UMC in Lattimer Mines. “Time and again, shocked and dismayed, everyone shakes their heads, weeps, and then demands action…action that never really comes. It is this way after every killing; after every incident of racism. I can almost imagine God asking our nation ‘Why are you coming crying to me about this, now?’ And us replying ‘But Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Shamelessly we ask, ‘Why do you allow such suffering God?’ God might well ask, ‘Why do you allow it?’”
The Rev. Don Keller, in writing his pastor’s column for the July-August issue of Scottsville UMC’s church newsletter, called on his congregation to not become “mired down in the wickedness of others lest we become overwhelmed and can’t see the goodness of God’s work in the world. But the evil that spawned this horrific event is still present with us. We must not let ourselves become desensitized to the point that it takes an event of this magnitude for us to notice that there is work to be done.
Keller advised his readers to mirror God’s love in every encounter with others and to “confront evil where you see it. Hatred, bitterness, anger and hostility are all around us– usually in forms so subtle they easily go unnoticed. Be aware of the small things, and speak out. It is your business because it is God’s business.”
One small thing that is a large matter for many is the display on the South Carolina State Capitol grounds of the flag that symbolizes the old Civil War Confederacy and the soldiers who fought to defend it against U.S. forces. While it was never actually the flag of the Confederacy nor of the state, it was the popular flag of rebellion raised more recently by anti-Civil Rights groups and individuals across the South. One of those individuals is Dylann Roof, who displays it defiantly in many of his online photos while calling for a race war.
The flag now seems destined for removal from the capitol grounds as a result of loud complaints and a strong push from increasing numbers of vocal advocates. Bron Yocum and other preachers added their voices to that effort.
“One of the oldest African American churches in the nation, a center for fighting racial injustice and discrimination, sits on a street named for John Calhoun, a man who defended slavery as a positive,” she said in Sunday’s sermon. “We are all in the family of God, as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, responsible for taking action to protect and defend our neighbor. We are residents of a nation that allows the celebration of a symbol of racism and hatred in government sponsored communication….Friends, it is time for those who bear the name of Christ to say ‘Enough!’ We can no longer deplore actions somewhere else but say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about that.'”
But it was another action of more substance than symbol that clearly moved many preachers and their congregations. The families and friends whose loved ones were slain at Emanuel may have demonstrated God’s gracious love in its purest form–by their astonishing words of forgiveness toward the alleged gunman.
The Rev. John Longmire, of Hempfield UMC, described their forgiveness as “the beautiful and compassionate way forward for the deep divide in our culture. They spoke truthfully about their sorrow. They forgave him of his sin and bestowed upon him grace. They called him to repent, and they offered him Christ. In a matter of minutes, they showed the world a new and better way. Here are saints of the highest nobility and character, and here is the church at its finest. A culture that often paints Christians as simpletons and fools cannot help but stand in awe at such amazing grace. As sisters and brothers in Christ, we cannot help but follow their godly example.”
Their act gave Frank Johnston a change of heart. “The news of this senseless shooting left me shocked, saddened and I need to admit, angry,” he said. “And then from Charleston came the news of love, forgiveness and hope. …We need to love our neighbors as ourselves and pray for our enemies and those who persecute us. That is what Jesus has told us to do! This is God’s promise to us. If we seek to honor Him in loving our enemies, He will supply what is needed …(and) give us the power to do what needs to be done…to heal that which is hurt and fix that which is broken.”
Said Beverly Andrews, “On Friday, we heard news reports of the families of the Charleston victims saying to the shooter, ‘I forgive.’ They didn’t say the shootings didn’t matter. They named and owned their terrible losses to the face of the man who took precious lives. And they claimed the power that God gives us to break our connection with hatred by not letting it live in our own hearts, whatever it may have done to us. Breaking connection with hatred releases us from being forever tied to the person, the incident, the horror of whatever evil we face.”
For Mark Terry loving encounters between strangers–even would-be adversaries–can lead to redemptive relationships.
“When Jesus is asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ he tells the Jewish man who asks the parable of the Good Samaritan, that, basically the person in his society who is least like him is the one he must love. We do no credit to ourselves, or to the Savior we claim to follow, if we love only those who are easiest to love–the people just like us. We have to do the hard work of loving, and lifting up, those who are different than us…”
Yet, to love is one thing. To be led by one who is different and humbly respect their leadership may be a greater challenge for many. We see this in the struggles of many to accept an African American U.S. president or having bosses or even bishops of another race, a darker race. Or having a pastor serving in a cross-racial appointment.
The Rev. Lillian Smith suggested that some in her mostly white congregation at St. Matthews UMC of Valley Forge may be struggling with her presence and position as their first black pastor–a challenge facing many church members in similar circumstances. But she remains quietly undaunted.
“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,” she reported telling her members Sunday. “I talk about the need to be more ethnically and culturally diverse because it is my heart’s desire that God’s multi-colored rainbow of people can practice true and beloved community this side of heaven.
“I don’t know when my hope will be realized,” Smith confided, but added, “I’m holding onto hope.”
Such hope for a true multiracial beloved community may be fragile, even sagging at times, yet buoyant at others. But it is the same hope–the same evidence of things unseen–that many pastors and churches hold onto, knowing there are more Goliaths to face, more tumultuous racial storms to overcome and sadly, more heart-wrenching tragedies to survive.
As Beverly Andrews told her congregation after they had sung one of the Rev. Charles A. Tindley’s classic gospel hymns: “It doesn’t say if but when the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” No doubt, more crises will come, and our resilient faith and forgiveness will continue to be crucial as we face them, made possible only by God’s amazing grace.
By John Coleman, Eastern PA Conference Communications Director