As outpourings of concern, protest and prayer continued in the wake of last week’s shootings of two African-American men by police and the killing of five police officers in Dallas, United Methodists were among those responding.
In a statement styled as a worship litany, Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, acknowledged the “challenge and complexity” of events that reflect both the injustices of institutional racism and the need for a connection with and deeper understanding of all parts of U.S. society.
“We support the difficult work of those in law enforcement and at the same time seek ways of moving toward better community engagement,” Ough wrote. “We pledge to address the problem of mass incarceration of young black males in our society.”
Alton Sterling, 37, was killed July 5 by police arresting him outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Philando Castile, 32, was killed July 6 in his car during a routine traffic stop near St. Paul. Videos of both incidents sparked outrage and protests across the country.
One of those protest marches took place July 7 in downtown Dallas. As the peaceful event was ending, a lone sniper targeting police officers killed five — Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamirripa, Michael Smith and Lorne Ahrens and wounded seven others.
President Barack Obama met with their families and gave remarks at an interfaith memorial service on July 12 in Dallas. President George W. Bush, a United Methodist, also spoke and Rev. Sheron Patterson, United Methodist North Texas Conference, gave a prayer.
The service took place at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
In May, the United Methodist General Conference passed a resolution calling for an end to the “criminalization of communities of color in the United States.”
United Methodist Women, which introduced that resolution, responded to last week’s incidents in a statement that reminds the church of that action and of the need to hold police accountable and to end “policing practices that too quickly escalate routine police encounters with people of color into life-threatening events and poison critical community-police relationships.”
United Methodist Women “equally condemns” the use of vigilantism as a response to police shootings, the statement said, along with “the ability of civilians to obtain semiautomatic weapons created for war, such as those used by the sniper to kill the five officers in downtown Dallas.”
Rev. F. Willis Johnson, who as pastor of Wellspring Church, a United Methodist congregation in Ferguson, Missouri, dealt with the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown, said he was inundated with requests for help last week.
“My colleagues and clergy friends are frustrated and fearful,” Johnson wrote on Ministry Matters. We want to talk, and then preach, but many of us don’t know what to say.”
He offered some advice on what to do or not do in response to the week’s events.
“Acknowledge that everything is not right, with ourselves first, and then with our systems and our world,” Johnson wrote. “Affirm one another’s pain, understanding that it is real, and that the other’s pain is also our own pain. Act in ways that bring healing and hope to those places of pain.”
Certainly, the shootings were the topic of Sunday sermons across the country, including Dallas, Baton Rouge and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where the incidents occurred.
“I don’t want them to feel so angry that it leads to a sense of ambivalence. I don’t want them to leave so hurt or demoralized that they say the problem is so large that it’s hopeless,” Rev. Joe Connelly, Wesley United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, told NPR Sunday about how he planned to preach to his mainly African American congregation.
Rev. Jacqueline King, pastor of the all-White First United Methodist Church outside Baton Rouge, invoked John Wesley as inspiration for how to respond, NPR reported.
“It’s time to start looking at our souls,” King said, “not only the individual soul, but the soul of our country and congregation. You know, we are not well at this time.”
On Sunday, Wesley also served as the starting point of a ‘Youth Rally for Peace’ as participants marched from the church to the state capitol building, where youth activists spoke. Demonstr-ators returned to the church but when some decided to keep marching, a standoff ensued with police officers, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported.
In an interview with the Louisiana Conference, Connelly noted that a “rowdier” crowd of adults began the second march that ended in 48 arrests.
“Individuals have a right to protest. We in Baton Rouge are calling for peaceful protest. We have to live here,” said Connelly, who hopes that the city can “live into a new Baton Rouge.”
In Dallas, KERA news reported, Rev. Richie Butler told the congregation at St. Paul United Methodist Church, founded by freed slaves a century and a half ago, that it was okay to be angry.
“Gun violence should evoke a righteous anger, poverty should evoke a righteous anger, homelessness should evoke a righteous anger,” he said. “The fact that some kids get a better education than other kids should evoke a righteous anger in all of God’s children.”
Abigail Durden, a ministerial intern at Grace United Methodist Church in Dallas, walked with a group of Project Transformation interns at the Black Lives Matter march in downtown Dallas.
“The dividing lines between blue and Black are not so strict,” Durden said as she spoke about her experience in the first sermon she delivered to the congregation.
“I grieve with Dallas for the lives of the law enforcement officers unjustly killed. I grieve with Dallas for Alton Sterling, Jose Cruz and many many others unjustly killed. We are all Dallas. We are all formed and love by God.”