Congregation at Prayer Vigil, Mother Bethel AME

UMs join interfaith vigil at Mother Bethel AME Church

If the young assailant who allegedly killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Charleston, S.C., on June 17 wanted to start a “race war,” as he reportedly wrote, then he should be disappointed, because his heinous act seems to have had the opposite effect. Indeed, there seems to be a race to peace through solace and solidarity happening across America in multi-racial gatherings to honor and mourn Emanuel’s victims.

One of those gatherings was at Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia Thursday, July 18, when United Methodists sang, prayed and witnessed with hundreds of other people of many faiths at a 90-minute prayer vigil. It was the night after the brutal massacre, and the names of Emanuel’s fallen pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and his eight members were read aloud. Pinckney, a popular South Carolina state senator, will be buried Friday, June 26, and eulogized by President Barack Obama.

“Because you hurt, we hurt,” said one worshipper to a television news reporter afterward. “This is Philadelphia, and if any one part of our city hurts, we all hurt.”

“We were all mourning together,” said another. “We are all committing to work together, in the face of devastating loss.”

“The attack on one house of worship is an attack on all of us,” said yet another person. Many held back tears, while others wept freely. “This is a tragedy for our whole country.”

“We’re here tonight as a grieving community fighting and struggling to keep our faith,” the Rev. Mark Tyler told the gathering. He is the pastor of Bethel, the Mother church of the AME denomination.

Bethel was organized in 1794 by the Rev. Richard Allen when he and other black members of predominantly white St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church (now UMC) left because of racist mistreatment to start their own congregation. Because of continued persecution, they separated and established their own denomination in 1816, led by Bishop Richard Allen.

Emanuel in Charleston was the first AME church to form in the South that same year. When angry white Charlestonians later burned Emanuel to the ground in retribution for the slave rebellion led by one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, many of the church’s members came to Philadelphia and joined Mother Bethel.

Rev. Tyler welcome people of various faiths to the prayer vigil, as all condemned the recent killings, which many felt was an act of domestic terrorism. One Jewish leader said, “Today we mourn together because terror is terror, hate is hate.” A number of religious leaders implored those gathered to unite against such hatred.

Rev. Gregory Holston at pulpit

Rev. Gregory Holston

“And if we don’t say that now, we’re going to let the terrorists win,” the Rev. Gregory Holston, pastor of New Vision UMC, told the crowd. “And I’m not going to let the terrorists win; and I know you’re not going to let them win.” Holston and Tyler are friends and leaders of the grassroots social justice organization POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild).

Other local voices who spoke from the pulpit included Muslim Imam Abdul-Halim Hassan, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Bishop Dwayne Royster, who heads POWER, and the Rev. Jocelyn Hart, Presiding Elder (Superintendent) of the AME Church’s First District.

At one point Tyler said to the diverse congregation, “I know most of you are not from AME.” But someone seated in the pews interrupted him: “We are all AME.”

St. George’s pastor, the Rev. Maridel Whitmore, and several members attended the prayer vigil, as well as other United Methodist clergy and laity. Whitmore handed Tyler a letter from Philadelphia Area UMC Bishop Peggy Johnson just before the service began.

“I join many other hearts and voices in grief at the horrible, senseless killing of nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.,” read the letter, which was also e-mailed to members of the Eastern PA Conference. “This incident adds yet another frustrating layer of pain to our sorrow from the many brutal shootings and bombings that have taken lives and wreaked havoc across our nation in recent years. We grieve for the families of those who were tragically slain by this gunman, and we are grateful to God that he has been apprehended by police.

“We in the Philadelphia area join our many ecumenical and interfaith partners in praying for the people of Mother Emanuel and Charleston. As we lift our anguished prayers to God, we must also renew our concerted efforts to teach people that hate and violence are not valid means for solving problems, and that angry thoughts and words too often lead to violent deeds. We must teach that hate and racism are not acceptable in any setting of our society, least of all in our churches. And we must work together prayerfully toward the day when such crimes as this will no longer happen.”

Whitmore, the first female pastor of Mother Bethel’s historic mother church, was moved by the interfaith prayer service, as were many. “I thought the atmosphere was an astonishingly calm mix of defiance and anger, pain and grace,” she said. “There was also a palpable sense of unity and joy in this triumphant, healing faith that we share.”

Editor’s Note: Donna Miller, Archivist and Interpreter at Historic St. George’s UMC, reports that Bonnie Mettler, creator of My Racial Ignorance, a series of race-themed paintings on display at the church, has agreed to extend the exhibit until August 2016. Her decision will allow viewing by attendees at the 50th Quadrennial Session of the AME Church’s General Conference, to be held in Philadelphia in July 2016. The six-day international conference will send daily tours of attendees to St. George’s and Mother Bethel to witness the historic birthplaces of their denomination.

In the meantime, says Miller, the exhibit and the social hall provide “a wonderful venue for frank discussions about race. The art is a perfect starting point and provides an emotional trigger to get people to open up. If the (Eastern PA) Conference would like to hold any discussion groups for clergy or others, we would love to offer our location.”

To learn more about the paintings view The Importance of Not Knowing, a 5-minute video at https://vimeo.com/89951652. The explorative short film by Liz Carpenter features local artist Bonnie Mettler, her show, My Racial Ignorance, and the historic racial tragedy that inspired it: the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth who was tortured and killed in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

To arrange a viewing of the exhibit and a discussion of race onsite contact Donna Miller at Historic St. George’s UMC, 235 N. 4th St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. Telephone: 215.925.7788 . E-mail: office@historicstgeorges.org. Visit the Website at www.historicstgeorges.org

By John W. Coleman, Eastern PA Conference Communications Director
Crawford Wilson Photos, Courtesy of Mother Bethel AME Church