By Jessica Brodie
FLORENCE—The headlines have incited fear, anger, tears and protest: “Cop Charged with Murder.” “Fatal Shooting of Teen by Ferguson Police Officer.” “Streets of Rage.” “His Hands Were Empty.”
Across the nation, news about recent shootings of unarmed African-American men by law enforcement officers from Charleston to Baton Rouge have catapulted the nation into dialogue and debate. Reports circle of excessive police force and cities labeled “hostile to black residents.” Lawsuits and mobs have erupted. In some parts of the country and in South Carolina, there is a culture of fear and distrust among races, police and civilians.
But this month, the church is hoping to replace some of the pain and fear with education, awareness and a healthy dose of Jesus.
Three United Methodist districts—Florence, Hartsville and Marion—are uniting to host a conference-wide event Oct. 21, “Holding Up Your Corner: Talking about Race in Your Community.” The event is an opportunity for the conference to have needed conversation regarding police, poverty and racial violence.
Dr. Reggie Lee, congregational specialist for the Florence and Marion districts, is organizing the daylong event, which will discuss creative ways the church can be a bridge in this issue, as well as dialogue about the church’s biblical response to police violence, mass shootings and protests.
“It’s a legitimate way to be in solidarity,” Lee said. “This is not just a black issue. This is an American issue.”
The Southeastern Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops has made speaking against the ills of racism a priority, and South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston and other church leaders are encouraging people to attend the event and work toward a solution.
“As followers of Christ, we have a sacred calling to lead our communities in tearing down the walls that divide us,” Holston told the Advocate. “When the church commits itself to witness, advocacy and prayer, we make community-building a priority.”
The Rev. Tim Rogers, Marion District superintendent, said the event is a step in the right direction.
“I think there’s a general atmosphere right now of concern for our country and our culture,” Rogers said, noting he is aware of a new level of anger in a lot of places. “Jesus did not commend the people who hope for peace; He commended the people who make peace. I think we are in a season where we really need people who are actively working to create peace, and the church should be the primary place that provides those people.”
Rogers said the old saying applies: If you’re not working to make things better then they’re probably getting worse.
“We all need to be working to try to make it better,” Rogers said.
‘Church cannot skirt the issue’
Lee said most police officers are fine people.
“They take these low-paying jobs because they want to serve the community. But like our preachers, some wolves come in sheep’s clothing, and we have to have a systemic way of rooting these people out of the police department just like we do out of the ministry,” Lee said.
Lee said our nation was founded on “separate but unequal,” and though we’ve made significant strides in laws and other areas, in many ways the nation is still very much unequal.
“As God’s people, as announcers of the people of the Kingdom of God, we are required to continue to raise our voices in protest that the spirit of our nation in many places has not changed,” Lee said.
He said this is a return in some ways to historic Methodist roots: being a church committed to those who live on the margins.
“The Wesleyan movement was Wesley’s protest in many ways of the excesses of the Church of England,” Lee said. “The church had become a vessel of the state and no longer heard the cry of the poor and needy in its midst, so Methodism was initially tied to a ministry to the poor, which included persons of color who had been disenfranchised.”
But today, Methodism has lost its traction, Lee said, because it has lost its understanding of how to be in ministry.
“Violence is the marginalized way of yelling: Don't you see me? Don't you hear me? Don't you care?” Lee said. “I believe the people in The United Methodist Church in South Carolina do care.”
Particularly in South Carolina—after Emanuel 9 and the killing of Charleston’s Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by a police officer—it is critical for United Methodists in this state to come together and have critical and serious conversations about the church’s response to this, he said.
“For the church to skirt this issue pushes us further into obscurity with the masses,” Lee said.
About the event
Holding Up Your Corner will be held at Central UMC, Florence, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. All clergy and laity in the conference and beyond are invited, and 0.5 continuing education units are available. Cost is $10 and includes lunch.
Discussion will center on the book, “Holding Up Your Corner: Talking about Race in Your Community,” by the Rev. F. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring UMC, Ferguson, Missouri.
Ferguson was the site of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer. The shooting sparked protests and civil unrest and generated national debate about the relationship between law enforcement and African Americans, and about the use of force by police.
Organizers are hoping people will read the book prior to coming, but it is not required.
Drawing from Johnson’s book with concrete opportunities for dialogue, the day will include teaching, a video and table conversation, plus a panel of district superintendents and lay leaders from the three districts, who have a unique view of various communities because they constantly travel throughout their district.
Lee said he knows of people coming from Charlotte, as well as from other denominations.
The deadline to register for the event is Oct. 17. Register at www.umcsc.org/data/tridistrictevent
For more information: Florence District Office, 843-669-5992 or [email protected].
By Jessica Brodie