Hands in prayer, not fists

Focus on God helps S.C. with shooting, flag removal, more

By Jessica Brodie

Wave after wave, South Carolina has weathered an ocean of grief, racial turmoil and strife over the past month. But now, as the waters settle and life returns to a relative normal, United Methodist leaders are praising God for the spirit of Christian unity and love that kept this state with hands clasped in prayer instead of clenched in fists.

It was a month that saw emotional community reaction to so many occurrences: shock and horror after the racially motivated shooting of nine black worshippers June 17 by a lone white gunman in Charleston; polarized response after the landmark Supreme Court ruling June 26 legalizing gay marriage; widespread fear throughout June and into July after black female pastors began receiving threatening letters stating they should not be in charge of churches; heated pressure for removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House that ultimately prompted its removal July 10; and in the aftermath of that removal, Ku Klux Klan and Black Panthers rallies July 18 at the State House that drew thousands.

Yet through all of this, church leaders said, God has prevailed, with people turning to Christ and Scripture for solace. After the shooting, instead of mass protests and riots, there were prayer services and unity wreaths. In response to the KKK rally, churches stepped up with a counter prayer rally. The list goes on.

“South Carolina has led with their faith in reaction to all these things,” said Conference Communications Director Matt Brodie. “We haven’t had the violent outcries because we stepped forward in faith first in reaction to the events, and this helped us come together and achieve goals as a community instead of simply pointing fingers. It’s a testament to what our faith community is in South Carolina: people stepping up in faith, hope and prayer rather than anger and violence.”

Shots heard across the nation

The nation grieved with South Carolina after a gunman opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston during a Wednesday night prayer and Bible study, killing nine people including its pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator. Known as Mother Emanuel, the church is thought to be the oldest AME congregation in the South.

As United Methodists and others stood in prayer and grief with their AME brothers and sisters, police soon arrested a suspect: Dylann Storm Roof, 21, a white man with a history of mental illness and racial issues. He reportedly confessed to the shooting and said he’d hoped to start a race war.

South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston issued a statement (read the statement here) calling for people to pray for understanding and peace after the tragedy.

“As a people of faith committed to social justice and opposed to gun violence and racism, we grieve the lives lost and destroyed by this horrendous act of violence,” Holston said in his statement. “The reality is that no one is unaffected. We are all impacted by the horror that occurred in this place of worship.”

Love in the aftermath

In the days after the shooting, dozens of churches across the state responded in Christian love, holding prayer services, meditation times, hymn-singings, vigils and other expressions of God-led support. Locally. Trinity UMC, Charleston, members rang bells in unison with other Charleston churches the Sunday after the shooting, while as far away as Greenville, Disciples UMC rang chimes of the trinity for Charleston and the saints who died that day.

“Our hearts are heavy regarding the tragedy in Charleston,” wrote Dr. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg, Columbia District superintendent, in a mass email to her pastors communicating various ways churches are coming together after the tragedy. “We all wonder ‘Will violence ever end?’ In this time, let us turn to each other and to God to find comfort in the Word, prayer and worship.”

Across the denomination, expressions of love and unity poured out. United Methodist Communications placed a full-page color ad in the Charleston Post and Courier calling for communities to join together in support of the victims and their families and asks readers to share their prayers on the denomination’s Facebook page.

In a letter to the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Warner Brown, Jr., president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said, “We call on United Methodists and all people of good will to support the victims of this and all acts of violence, to work to end racism and hatred, to seek peace with justice, and to live the prayer that our Lord gave us, that God’s ‘kingdom come, His will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.’”

The UMC’s Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops of the United Methodist Church issued a statement noting they stand with their Methodist family at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and inviting people to join in acts of prayer, compassion and justice on behalf of our Pan-Methodist sisters and brothers.

“We condemn this act of violence in the house of the Lord,” their statement reads. ”We commit ourselves anew to the work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred. And we lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.”

President Barack Obama and Holston were among many who were at Pinckney’s massive four-hour memorial service—dubbed a “home-going”—June 26. Obama flew in on Air Force One to deliver the eulogy at the College of Charleston, preaching on grace, love and the importance of the church in times of sorrow and joy. He closed the eulogy by singing the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”

Holston was one of several church leaders invited to sit onstage with the president during the service.

Caution, vigilance also urged

But even as prayers reached a crescendo after the shooting, voices of caution could also be heard. Both in South Carolina and across the United States, church leaders were urging churches to engage in security reviews and safety procedures in the event of a similar attack.

In an email to her pastors, Hartsville District Superintendent Dr. Robin Dease called for prayer but also said the shooting prompted her to ask churches to take extra precautions.

“Police have ruled this as a hate crime,” Dease wrote. “We know that there are persons who are mentally challenged, and copycats may surface. I don’t believe in locking the church doors because it sends of message of ‘us vs. them.’ However, we need to ensure persons are safe.”

In Los Angeles, the predominantly black Holman UMC told the United Methodist News Service they feel no distance between them and Charleston and they are reviewing how they balance hospitality with security in the aftermath of the shooting. Likewise, Braden UMC, Toledo, Ohio, also a predominantly black church, is doing the same.

In South Carolina, UMCs were among those invited to an NAACP briefing on statewide security July 9. Conducted by law enforcement, the briefing covered current investigations into the recent rash of church burnings and other violence across the South.

From murder to marriage

A week after the shooting, June 26, the church was hit with more major news: the landmark Supreme Court 5-4 ruling legalizing gay marriage. The news prompted heated denominational debate on the church’s position on homosexuality, with some applauding the decision for its inclusiveness and others lamenting a ruling they believe gives a legal nod to sin. UMC law bans clergy from performing same-sex marriages and forbids churches from hosting such ceremonies. The UMC Book of Discipline also states that it does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.

Many in the UMC feel the decision will prompt even more debate on the church’s position on homosexuality, expecting the ruling to factor into whatever discussion arises at the next General Conference. General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, meets in May 2016 in Portland, Oregon.

As he did after the shooting, Holston issued a statement (read the statement here) again calling for deep prayer over a matter that has the potential to be greatly disruptive.

“This issue is a deeply divisive issue in the church and often dominates our conversations, making it difficult to focus on the mission and ministry of the church. As we seek to live in Christian community, I ask for your prayers for the people called United Methodist and particularly for those General Conference delegates from South Carolina and other conferences as they prepare for a time of holy conferencing and faithful response to this difficult issue,” Holston said. “Let us always remember that God calls us to be in faithful ministry with all persons through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

A new threat

As June moved into July, the church was suddenly faced with a new threat: news that black female pastors in South Carolina—mostly AME, but at least one United Methodist—had received threatening letters stating they should not be in charge of churches. Written by a man identifying as Apostle Prophet Harry Leon Fleming, one letter states “woman cannot be head of the man in church, home and the world” while another says women must repent or “you and your children will die.” Coming so soon after the Charleston church shooting, the letters struck fear in many, prompting the conference to issue a warning to South Carolina UMCs and urging churches to contact their district superintendent if they receive a letter.

Luckily, said Rev. Ken Nelson, conference secretary and director of clergy services, the situation seems to have been resolved. The man who wrote the letters turned himself in to police.

“It was an individual who thought it was a non-biblical principle for women to be pastors,” Nelson said, noting the man was quoting Scripture that was construed as a threat. “He said he had no ill intent toward these women whatsoever, no intent to harm them.”

The man has not been charged.

… And then the flag

Dominating the headlines for weeks was a massive public outcry over the Confederate battle flag, which until its removal July 10, had been flying on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. In the wake of the Charleston shooting, many began to clamor loudly for removal of the flag, calling it a symbol of racism and slavery and particularly inappropriate after the recent racially motivated murders. Photos of the self-confessed shooter showed him waving a Confederate flag. However, other equally loud voices defended the flag, which they called a symbol of Southern pride and heritage.

After weeks of debate, including corporate pressure, the South Carolina House approved July 9 a Senate bill to remove the flag from State House ground; Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law at 4 p.m. that afternoon, and the flag was removed the next day.

Holston again called for prayer, stating that no matter how one views the flag as a symbol, the removal of the flag was “a
significant step.”

“Removal of any symbol that people revere presents unique challenges,” Holston said in his statement (read it here) on the flag’s removal. “Such symbols are not easily released. Let us use this moment as a touchstone for thoughtful and respectful conversation. It is imperative that love be vigilant and truth be bold. With this understanding, we recognize that a new day is dawning. So, friends, let us think big. Pray bigger. Let us become disciples God can use as we faithfully seek a more excellent way.”

Rallies in reaction

A week later, on July 18, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at the State House to protest removal of the flag. A counter rally by the New Black Panther Party was also held, and both parties clashed, despite state police placing themselves between the two groups.

But again, the church responded in the way it does best: in love. As soon as news broke about the KKK rally, Trenholm Road UMC, Columbia, organized a Counter Rally of Prayer.

“We are calling all who are opposed to racism and the Christless ideology of the Ku Klux Klan to join us to bear witness to the life-giving and life-changing love of Jesus Christ,” Trenholm Road senior pastor the Rev. Mike Smith said in his invitation to the prayer rally, which drew hundreds even in the 101-degree heat. Also coordinating the rally were the Rev. Tim Hodge, pastor of Crossroads Community Outreach Center (a Pentecostal Holiness congregation in West Columbia), and the Rev. James Walden, pastor of Riverside Community Church (an Evangelical Free Church in America congregation). A large number of United Methodist clergy and laity attended, along with many clergy and laity from other denominations.

Smith said the event was “a rousing success” and a positive counter to the message of hate and divisiveness the KKK was attempting to send.

“Our goal is to do more of this kind of thing, along with other visible signs of unity and shared ministry,” Smith said, noting that the day after the rally, he received calls from 11 different pastors across the denominational spectrum in the Columbia area who were inspired by the event and want to find ways (to paraphrase Pope John Paul II) “to stand together for the God of life in the midst of a culture of death.”

Some information from UMNS news stories.

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