Churches Respond to Emanuel Murders


--By Jackie Campbell--

Church bells tolled and candles were lit in many United Methodist churches across Western PA last Sunday as congregations remembered the victims of the racially motivated June 17 massacre of nine church members at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Some communities scheduled special ecumenical services and others focused attention on the racial divide and gun violence in their own communities. Discussions and planning continues in some local churches to address issues of racism in churches and communities.
In Monongahela, for example, during the Sunday morning prayers each victim and the perpetrator were lifted up by name, as was the Emmanuel AME church and and the community of Charleston. The Rev. Alan Morrison also tied the message of his sermon  to the violence in Charleston.
Using preaching notes from Taylor Burton Edwards on Discipleship Ministries' Worship webpages, Morrison tied the gospel image of the “storm” from the Sunday lectionary reading to the “storm” that hit Charleston. 
“It talks of how Jesus gets busy to calm the storm, and Jesus gets busy through the body of Christ to bring calm to the storm in Charleston.  This is the Jesus that we are to call upon in the midst of the storms of our life,” Morrison said. “The sermon ended with a prayer that prayed once again for Charleston, for communities all over the nation that are experiencing racism, for the AME church of our community and the other churches of Monongahela, and for the community.”
At Smethport UMC, “our sermon, based on the lectionary text from Mark, focused on the theme: Faith is responding as Christ would respond to real-life situations.  In particular, the faithful response of Mother Emanuel to the shooting and to the shooter were lifted up,” said the Rev. Rob Hernan.

Marching in Solidarity

 In Erie, the Rev. Matt Judd of Glenwood UMC scrapped his planned sermon and instead preached on the topic of racism using Galatians 3:26-29 as the scripture. He used a quote he had seen at the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio: “If not you, then who? If not now, then when? “Then, Judd said, “I challenged my people to be an advocate and let it start at the (All Lives Matter) march that was to be held that evening.”
On Sunday evening, 25 people from Glenwood were among approximately 400 participants in the silent march through Erie’s lower east side. The event was planned by the African American Concerned Clergy in Erie before the murders at Emanuel, but the turnout may have been greater because of them. Several United Methodists participated in the march, which ended with a worship service at the Shiloh Baptist Church. Rev. Bob Lewis of  Lakewood UMC said he was honored to be asked to read scripture during the service.

He described it as "a very spirited, positive worship service" that included family members who had lost loved ones to violence, police officers, representatives of the district attorney's office, clergy, Bishop Persico from the Roman Catholic Diocese, and community leaders.  It was a very positive worship experience, quite diverse in ethnicity, denominations and backgrounds," Lewis said. "All agreed that this was a positive, significant first step, with more to follow, he added.  
Elder Tony Ratcliff of Greater Bethlehem Temple, president of the concerned clergy, told the Erie Times-News that “events like the march are the silver lining to a very dark cloud.

"What I want to see come of all this, particularly with the evil done by the young man in Charleston, is that evil turned to good," Ratcliff said. "We can take that awful thing and turn it into a unifying event of love."
Rev. Keith McGarvey of South Harborcreek UMC said members of his congregation also participated in the march. 
At McGarvey’s Sunday morning service, before the pastoral prayer, he asked nine of the senior youth to help by picking up and lighting a candle from the communion table. “I spoke briefly about fear and anger taking over people …. and that the love of God overcomes,” McGarvey said.  Names, ages and profiles of each person killed were shared as the teens snuffed out each candle. 
“To remind everyone that evil will not prevail, but rather the love of Jesus will overcome--and that we must each be like a candle to light our world,” McGarvey said the teens and others leaving that morning for the Creation festival were commissioned “with the prayer that they may be a part of overcoming racism, hatred, and anger; that they be the light of Jesus to a sometimes, very dark world.”

At First UMC in St. Marys, Rev. Tim Hoover opened the service with a message about hate and racism.  "The message focused on the fact that hate never solves any problems but love as Jesus commanded will conquer the world," Hoover said. "After the message I asked everyone in the sanctuary to rise out of the pew and surround the sanctuary.  If someone was unable to get up, then the congregation would come to them.  I asked everyone to hold hands and look around the room and notice that we have black people, white people, tall people, short people, heavy people, thin people, people who wear glasses, and those who do not.  We have males and females, and it takes all of us to conquer this hate and racism that is pervasive in our society."
As each of the names of the those killed were read, nine candles placed in the middle of the aisle were lit one by one as each name was read.  At the reading of the name, the organist would play a bell tone on the organ. With the congregation still holding hands around the sanctuary, they watched a video by Steven Curtis Chapman entitled Charleston, then prayed for "wisdom and courage to face racism and work to eliminate it from our community."

At Holiday Park UMC, during prayers for the victims, their families and Emanuel church, Rev. Tony Fallisi said, "We also recognized a culture of racism that remains," He said that includes the racism experienced at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia that caused members to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church  in 1787.   "We prayed for the perpetrator of this senseless crime, recognizing that such evil actions do not occur in a vacuum and that there is a sickness in such perverse thinking, and quoting Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who encouraged us that " people of faith, we are called to place even the vilest offender into the hands of our loving God."
In Meadville, the Rev. Sarah Roncolato, pastor of Stone UMC, read a letter she sent to Bethel AME church in their community which said, in part, “As Christians in the Methodist family, today we stand with you, with our brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and all who suffer the pain of racism and violence. 
“We condemn the act of violence that took the lives of nine innocent persons while they prayed and studied in the house of the Lord. We commit ourselves anew to the work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred, in our Meadville community and across our nation. Together we lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, God's witness to and power over the violence and division that is our human condition
Little Cooley and Teepleville Churches in Crawford County also offered prayer and candle lighting. They used a responsive prayer lifting up the families, survivors and community. “Then as pictures of the victims were projected and their names read, a candle was lit for each,” said Pastor Mary Stewart. “The candles were spread throughout the chancel with red glass beads strewn across the floor representing the blood shed.” 
Bells were also tolled or rung as candles were lit at Unionville UMC, Perryopolis UMC, Trinity UMC in Erie, Christ UMC in Franklin, Madison and Smethport UMCs, as well as other local churches.
Harrisville UMC has responded to the tragedy in two ways, said Pastor Jeff Canter. “We held a special Solidarity Prayer Service on Friday evening last week and our blanket ministry is sending one of our embroidered blankets to each of the families who have been affected, as well as the family of the shooter.”
Garden City UMC scheduled an ecumenical service for Wednesday evening, June 24, with the pastor of the Monroeville AME congregation participating. New Alexandria UMC will host a Community Service of Prayer, Remembrance, and Hope, at 7 p.m.  Sunday, June 28. “All of the churches in our community will be participating, including Community United Presbyterian, Congruity Presbyterian, St. James Catholic Church, and No Walls Ministries,” said the Rev. Rhea Summit.  

Some congregations are planning follow up actions, classes or services. Rev. Melissa Geisler said leaders at Erie Trinity are discussing what else they can do to show their support to the Emanuel AME church.  At Asbury Heights senior living community in Mt. Lebanon, Rev. Drew Harvey, the chaplain, said there will be a series of discussions on forgiveness, based on Brian Zahnd’s book Radical Forgiveness. The people of Emanuel serve as wonderful examples.

How to Respond

 United Methodists from across the United States discussed how to respond during a national call-arranged by the General Board of Church and Society last Monday.  During the call, the Rev. Charles Boyer of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church invited United Methodists to join AME sisters and brothers to build bridges, share resources, and “work together to overcome the epidemic of racism and gun violence that plagues our society,” said Rev. Bill Mefford, who hosted the call.
“The General Commission on Religion & Race shared some incredible resources that we all need to use to address the racism in our churches and in our communities. These resources not only address anti-racism, but also how to have vital conversations!” Mefford added.
“We talked about what seems to be the inevitable cycle of these horrible shootings: How our outrage too often fades away as the media glare softens, and we move on to other things. This cycle will only be broken when our own silence and inactivity are broken,” he said.
Participants emphasized two major responses:  
  • If you are in a predominantly Anglo church, walk across the street or drive across town and sit down with leaders of a church that is predominantly made up of people of color. Start building crucial relationships. Listen to what they say, and learn from them.
  • Talk with people in your congregation who you believe share your passion about what you can do and who else you need to talk to help form a team.Begin now to start the change that is needed!
“The locus of change and transformation happens in the local church.. No one else is going to step up and address racism and gun violence in your communities. It is up to you,” Mefford said in a follow-up email to call participants. “No program will substitute for the power of relationships.”