Can the Church bring justice?

Selma Pettus Bridge march

Marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during the 50th anniversary observance this year of the "Bloody Sunday" protest wherein police savagely assaulted persons seeking voting rights for African Americans. (UMNS photo by Mike DuBose,)

(UMNS — Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston and Staten Island conjure up new images following the deaths at the hands of the police of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

The rage … has spilled over to violence and confrontations between citizens and the people called to be their protectors

All of the victims were black and unarmed. Rice was 12 years old. Virtually all of the officers were white. (For more details, see “Editor’s note” at the end of this article.)

The rage that followed the deaths has spilled over to violence and confrontations between citizens and the people called to be their protectors. Some officers were indicted while others were not.

In the midst of pain and confusion, where is the Church? Can the Church provide answers? Can the Church be the vehicle that brings justice?

Community building

“When we pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ we are committing ourselves to the work of community building,” said the Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan District of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

The Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi

Moore-Koikoi

Moore-Koikoi joined other clergy in an April 27 march for peace as riots broke out across the city after Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury suffered while in police custody. She put herself between the rioters and the police.

“The Church has to provide the vision for what can be and the assurance that the vision is possible in spite of the present circumstances,” Moore-Koikoi said.

The Rev. F. Willis Johnson was on the frontlines in Ferguson, Mo., when protests erupted after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed Aug. 9 by Officer Darren Wilson. More waves of protest followed Nov. 24 when the St. Louis County prosecutor announced a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.

Johnson, pastor of Wellspring Church, a United Methodist congregation, will be part of a gathering in St. Louis planned for the one-year anniversary of the shooting. It will be a time to look at what has happened and to encourage people, he said.

“The Church is charged with racial reconciliation,” Johnson said. “The church should see itself in the spirit and the call which we were formed. We are supposed to be by the profession of our faith and the presence of our witness a rock.”

The Church as a rock

The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church called for the denomination to commit to working toward a Church “that is anti-racist and pro-humanity,” during the council’s May meeting in Germany. Bishop Warner Brown Jr., the president of the council, wrote a letter to the people of The United Methodist Church calling for the denomination to lead the way.

“As a black man who grew up in the very Baltimore neighborhood we have watched explode, this is personal,” Brown wrote. “I grieve over what I see in my old neighborhood. The anger in the community is real because of decades of distrust.”

The Rev. Bonnie McCubbin, pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Baltimore and a police chaplain, said change comes from one-on-one encounters and getting to know “the cultural other” long before riots break out. (Read her commentary of walking a fine line; in her role as pastor and police chaplain.)

Moore-Koikoi said it too easy to become accustomed to systemic issues of racism, poverty, violence and the prison industry. “I have learned that the statement, ‘That can never happen here,’ is a tool we use to deceive ourselves,” she said.

‘Spiritual discipline of inevitability’

Johnson calls it “the spiritual discipline of inevitability”: You never know when tragedy might strike or what form it might come in, but come it will.

The foundation of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church’s community work in San Francisco is providing more than 800,000 free meals a year.

“Be in community with those who are poor and on the margins,” said the Rev. Karen Oliveto, pastor of Glide. “Help them have voice and agency to combat feelings of invisibility and hopelessness.”

Glide provided community gatherings with an open mic when the stories about Trayvon Martin and Baltimore and Ferguson hit the news. The open mic gave people a place to share their anger, frustration, disappointment and grief.

Culture of police

Terrell McDaniel, a licensed psychologist in Tennessee and a member of Belmont United Methodist Church, does a lot of police selection and evaluation. He said the police are an extension of the community, not separate from it.

In Nashville, McDaniel said he was told from the beginning that the police force did not want anyone with any kind of bias. That includes race, but also biases toward rich people or poor people or people who may be gay, he said.

“Looking at Ferguson, there was obviously a very bad cultural perception within that department,” McDaniel said.

“Police officers actually look a lot like social workers,” McDaniel said. “Great candidates imagine their role as helping citizens.”

McCubbin said the police officers in Baltimore “are distraught with pain and grief.”

“We like to think about the officers having the ‘power’ but in reality, they are simply humans trying to do their job to the best of their ability,” she said.

Ministry of reconciliation

Disciples of Jesus Christ “have the joy of being called to the ministry of reconciliation,” Moore-Koikoi said.

Johnson of Ferguson said talk, listen, affirm, respect. He said affirmation doesn’t mean compliance nor is it a license to condemn.

“It’s respecting what is righteous and what is always righteous and in complete alignment with God is our humanity,” Johnson said. “We affirm and we listen to each other because we are all made in the image of God.”

Editor's note: Kathy Gilbert is a news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

More information, including official positions of the denomination and resources on racism are available at United Methodists seek racial justice

’Black Lives Matter’

Protests and riots have erupted in several large cities where unarmed black people were shot or died in the custody of police. United Methodists are joining the voices proclaiming “Black Lives Matter.” Here are the highlights of seven high-profile cases:

  • Freddie Gray, 25, died April 19, one week after being arrested for possessing an alleged illegal switchblade in Baltimore. The cause of death was spinal cord injuries he suffered after his arrest and while in police custody. A variety of criminal charges have been filed against six officers for second-degree murder, manslaughter and second-degree assault.
  • Walter Scott, 50, was shot by Officer Michael Slager on April 4 after the officer stopped him for a broken taillight while driving in North Charleston, S.C. Slager was indicted by a grand jury for murder.
  • Tamir Rice, 12, was fatally shot Nov. 22 while playing with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland. A 911 call reported a male pointing a “pistol” at people. Officer Timothy Loehmann and another officer responded to the call, and Rice was shot seconds after the arrival of the police. Community leaders in Cleveland said they will invoke a seldom-used Ohio law and go directly to a judge to request murder charges.
  • Michael Brown, 18, was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Wilson said the teen accosted him after ignoring an order to surrender. Wilson resigned from the Ferguson Police Dept. A grand jury decided not to indict the Wilson.
  • Eric Garner, 43, died July 17, 2014, on Staten Island after Officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in a chokehold during an attempted arrest for selling loose cigarettes. A grand jury declined to indict Panteleo.
  • Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams died Nov. 29, 2012, after a car chase involving 62 police cars. Officers fired 137 shots at the car. Officer Michael Brelo was charged because he jumped on the hood of the car and fired 15 shots. Brelo was acquitted after the judge said he could not determine if Brelo alone fired the fatal shots.

Letter to the Editor