By the Rev. Carol Cannon and Dr. James B. Vigen
About 100 people from the Orangeburg area gathered on a cold Sunday afternoon in January at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church to watch the movie “Selma,” eat a light supper and share in table conversation following the movie.
The participants came from seven congregations—Bamberg Circuit (Bethel and Mount Zion UMCs), North Orangeburg UMC, Orangeburg Lutheran Church, St. Andrews UMC, St. Paul’s UMC and Williams Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church—plus a few invited friends. Of the seven sponsoring congregations, four were predominantly African American and three predominantly Euro-American. The audience was approximately 70 percent African American and 30 percent Euro-American, which reflects the representation of each race in Orangeburg.
“Selma” is a 2014 historical drama film based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
The “Selma”-watching event’s origins began when the pastors of the churches met a year ago to consider how to bring their congregations together to witness to unity in Christ and build relationships in order to improve the community and build a more just and loving community for all. They decided to sponsor a midday worship service followed by a simple soup luncheon during the Wednesdays of Lent. The services and meals were well received, and people asked to do more activities together.
Other events have followed: a joint worship service with a mass choir to remember the Emanuel Nine, the pastors visiting local community projects together, serving at a local soup kitchen and holding a joint “Blue Christmas” service.
The viewing of “Selma” together was more controversial in that it directly addressed the issue of race. Still, as Iris Rheney, a member of St. Andrews, said, “This was one of our goals from Forward Focus—to reach out into the community to those we don’t interact with daily and help meet their needs. That is what God calls us to do.”
The facilitator for the event was Rev. Leroy Cannon, pastor of Christ Mission, a Columbia-area outreach church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As its response to the massacre of the Emanuel Nine, the South Carolina Synod of the ELCA has purchased the license to show “Selma.” It has also developed resources to help people of different racial backgrounds engage in conversation from a Christian perspective about how to improve race relations in our communities. Cannon has led more than 50 similar meetings all over South Carolina.
The response to the event was overwhelmingly positive. Responses, including learnings from the movie, were: “We need to have more conversations like this.” “We cannot just come to church; we have to go out in the community.” “We are all stronger when we stand together.” “The system has to work for everyone, not just for those in the church, but for everyone.” “If ever I’ve seen a ‘God thing’—tonight was it! It was awesome.”
The organizers of the event were blessed, as well. As one of the pastors said, “This is not an ending point. This is something God is calling us to build upon. Progress has been made in the past 50 years, but God is still leading us forward in paths of unity, healing, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation.”
If you are interested in holding a similar event, contact one of the pastors involved: Revs. Arthur Rose, Dwight Nelson, James B. Vigen, Robert and Carol Cannon, Will Harper or Stanley Rivers.