Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton and Western Pennsylvania Conference staff and leaders have called on all people of God to pray and act to heal relationships, halt divisive rhetoric and not let fear rule.
The Conference program staff, in its regular Thursday morning meeting read from Psalm 82, "A Plea for Justice," and the Rev. Greg Cox, director of connectional ministries, shared his horror at two killings in the previous days of African-American men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota. Acknowledging that all the facts weren't in and that "we often have knee-jerk reactions to headlines in the media," the staff members nonetheless expressed grief and despair.
Because the scripture calls all people of God to stand with the powerless and advocate for justice, they prayed and determined to act. The group decided to call all United Methodist congregations to prayer and fasting and provide some resources to help.
With the letter and resources in draft form late Thursday night, the nation heard the news that five Dallas police officers had been killed by sniper fire during a peaceful protest of the killings earlier in the week. The need for prayer and action to combat violence and hatred became more urgent.
One thing is abundantly clear, Cox said: There is a racial divide in our nation that can only be bridged by building relationships among leaders and people of all races and economic groups, casting out fear of anyone who is different, and ending divisive rhetoric. The staff members pledged to continue to seek solutions and encourage prayer and discussions within congregations and communities to build understanding.
A slightly revised letter was sent to all clergy on Friday morning. It includes this commitment and calls to action:
As a staff, we commit ourselves to seeking something different and new. We implore everyone in the body of Christ to join us. Transformation and redemption in and through Christ is not only possible; it is our mandate as the church.
We call each of you to join us in prayer. This Sunday, we invite you to use the attached prayer during your worship services. Use your time of concern and pastoral prayer as an opportunity to pray and to listen to the anguish of the black community.
We call on our leaders in churches and communities to pray for and build relationships with public safety officers, civic and school leaders, and others. We believe that only loving relationships dispel fear. We call on you to work with others for long-term solutions to end white privilege and racism in our government and institutions. Seek to be in relationship with those working for healing and justice, and refuse to allow fear to separate us from one another.
Finally, we call for a day of fasting and prayer. On Wednesday, July 13, 2016, we invite the body of Christ in the Western Pennsylvania Conference to be in a spirit of fasting where we repent and humble ourselves before God, that we might become more of who God is calling us to be. Attached is a fasting guide for you to share with your congregations and communities as we seek God’s will in our search for justice.
We commit to this conversation and to deepening ourselves spiritually until all of God’s children really are delivered from the hand of the wicked. We believe that change will happen when we are in relationships that honor the gifts and differences among us and when our love for one another is so perfected that it drives out all fear. We need to turn down the rhetoric that demonizes victims or police and back away from absolute positions that only serve to polarize and divide. Fear must not win!
Read the full letter here.
Meanwhile, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, in a blog and Facebook post, said this:
The racism, the violence, the fear, the hatred, the discord must be addressed. In a church that seems possessed by what separates us, the rhetoric must be re-focused on what we can and should be doing together. This is not a time for disunity. It is a time when we can and should join our hearts, hands, and voices in a common theme of justice, reconciliation, and peace.
If you are preaching this weekend, be pastoral and prophetic. If you are worshipping this weekend, be prayerful and courageous. If you doing neither, create within yourself a deep appreciation for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and work tirelessly that these senseless, reactionary, and violent behaviors might not threaten anyone, everyone for that matter, who deserves the same.
Read the full post here.
Other United Methodists also shared their pain and sorrow on social media.
"Yesterday we were responding to the tragic deaths of two black men shot and killed by law enforcement officials. Today we are mourning the death of five police officers shot in the line of duty and seven more shot and injured. Black Lives Matter. Police Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. And also, WE HAVE A RACIAL PROBLEM IN AMERICA. God save us from ourselves and show us a way out.," the Rev. Bob Lewis, pastor of Glenwood UMC in Erie wrote on Facebook.
Glenna Wilson, chair of the Conference Poverty Team, said this: With all my faith in God and the goodness of people I am heartbroken about the Dallas shootings. I pray for an end to violence of all kinds and long to visualize true PEACE ON EARTH. The answers are so complex and hard to find.
Many quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, issued a statement on behalf of the Council. In it, he said:
We call upon the people of the United Methodist Church to enter into the challenge and complexity of this present moment. We affirm that every person is created in the image of God. We acknowledge our complicity in the sin of institutional racism, which denies the inherently sacred nature of every person. We confess that we have often allowed our ideological differences to become more important than our unity in the One Body. We repent of our temptation to live in fear of one another and to seek security apart from God. We claim the essential need for all Christians of privilege to listen and seek deeper understanding when our brothers and sisters cry out for justice. We commit ourselves to speak on behalf of those who are denied justice. We support the difficult work of those in law enforcement and at the same time seek ways of moving toward better community engagement. We pledge to address the problem of mass incarceration of young black males in our society. We recognize the temptation to become numb in the face of persistent mass violence, and we hear the call as disciples of Jesus to move beyond lovers of peace to become peacemakers.