ALCOA, Tenn. (Aug. 3, 2015) -- When nine people were fatally shot in a Charleston church on June 17, Sandra Johnson, like many pastors, struggled to find peace.
She visited and worshiped with the nearest African Methodist Episcopal congregation. She wrote a searching article for the 91 Abingdon-area churches she oversees as a United Methodist district superintendent.
She pondered how Christians could be more proactive in building community rather than simply reactive to evil.
On July 16, another gunman opened fire on Chattanooga, Tenn., and five more people died. Johnson was in town on the morning of the shootings. She heard the sirens and saw the emergency responders speeding by. She was more than alarmed.
“Chattanooga, my home town, like so many other cities had made the national news -- for the wrong reason,” the Rev. Johnson wrote to fellow Holston Conference Cabinet members. “My prayer is that we will lead out of faith and not fear, and out of hope and not frustration.”
But how? What can churches and church members do right now to build peaceful communities?
How can churches and church members dismantle the time bombs of hate and bitterness in their own towns?
The Call asked Johnson and four other Holston United Methodists to think about it.
GO OUTSIDE, START SMALL
“This is obviously a high-profile, terrible tragedy in Chattanooga. But on an ongoing basis in backyards of every city, violence is happening,” said Steve Diggs, chief executive officer of Emerald Youth Foundation in Knoxville, Tenn.
“If you’re just now becoming aware of violence and evil acts as a church, where have you been?”
The organization where Diggs has worked since 1988 now ministers to more than 1,500 children, teens and young adults annually through a network of churches. The son of a United Methodist pastor, Diggs made the decision years ago to raise his family in an inner-city neighborhood served by Emerald Youth Foundation. He hears and sees stories of violence every day.
“Maybe it’s time for the church to be a little more bold as peacemakers, to let it be known that we represent the Prince of Peace in our communities,” he said. “There are practical things we can do in our backyards and outside our front doors. Go outside and engage with the neighborhood and children and families.”
As an example, Second United Methodist Church recently voted to partner with Emerald Youth Foundation to provide space for the after-school program in its Knoxville neighborhood. The arrangement will give the congregation an opportunity to be involved in mentoring and tutoring as well as provide a meal, small groups and choir on Wednesday nights, Diggs said.
“Find an organization or group that you can work with,” he suggested. “You don’t have to go it alone. You can start with 15 to 20 kids. It doesn’t have to be in the hundreds. Start small and start where you are to build bridges and relationships.”
Diggs said he applauds Bishop Dindy Taylor’s challenge for congregations to reach out to children in poverty within their own communities.
“That initiative couldn’t be any more timely in light of what we’re talking about. What happened in Chattanooga really brings it home to our neighborhoods ... Violence at any level is a symptom of a much deeper brokenness. People need the love of Christ.”
STATEMENTS OF UNITY
The Rev. Elston McLain is pastor of Mount Moriah Parish, including five United Methodist churches in inner-city Chattanooga: Eastdale Village, Hurst, Stanley, Randoph and Wells.
After the fatal shootings in the city where he leads predominantly African-American congregations, McLain said he was inspired by the subsequent newspaper headline, “Chattanooga United.”
“People of all walks of life were marching and praying together to create true community,” he said.
Like Johnson, he would like to see churches leading the way to build communities on an ongoing basis, before and behind the headlines.
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best. ‘The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create true community,’” McLain said.
The challenge is to move from “theoretical to practical”: “The Christian journey is not a spectator’s sport but a participatory engagement. The UMC should be intentional and the lead catalyst for the change the world needs to see.”
Prayer services and programs that include and transcend all ages, cultures, classes and races may be a first step in helping a congregation reach out to their neighbors, he said. “They should be done together as a signature piece in the media to make a strong statement of unity to help the least, last, lost and left out.”
If they haven’t already, congregations can lead the way as community peacemakers by strengthening relationships with churches in their own districts and then spread out from there, McLain said. “May we live out our Wesleyan Creed to be one with God, one with each other, and one in ministry unto the world.”
MAKE SPACE FOR EQUALITY
"I was eating lunch with a parishioner near the sites where the shootings took place,” she said. “I was really in shock as the news kept reporting and the events kept unfolding.”
For the church to become a voice and embodiment of hope and peace, Harris believes “the first thing we do is acknowledge that the world we live in is violent, terribly so, and Christ is present in the violence.”
Second, Holston United Methodists must come to terms with their own prejudices and use their privileges for good.
“Repenting of our prejudices means acknowledging that we have prejudices, understanding that they are detrimental to humanity, and working towards reversing our discriminatory views,” Harris said. “The next step is posture of openness and humility so that we can begin the work of self-examination.”
Unless one first looks into the mirror, “it is much more difficult to get to a place in our soul where God can begin to reverse those views … So often well-meaning people enter into what I would call ‘ally’ relationships without doing their own work, and they perpetrate harm due to their lack of awareness.”
Using one’s privilege well “means that we are not a savior but an ally for those who are non-dominant,” Harris said. “We stick up for folks when they are absent from the conversation, bring more non-dominant voices into the conversation, and then step back to listen as those voices speak for themselves … In essence we begin to level the field and make space for equality.”
Building peaceful communities begins with individuals, Harris said. “It means that we are intentional to ‘do no harm’ and ‘do good’ with our words and our actions.”
She added, “Perhaps it means speaking peace to a person we would have never considered acknowledging. Perhaps it even means not passing along emails or Facebook posts that call for killing or perpetuation of violence.”
REACH FOR THE MARGINALIZED
Bex Simmerman was “especially sad” when she heard the Chattanooga shooter was of Muslim faith. “There’s a huge gap in the understanding and fear between Christians and Muslims, and I hate to see something that could increase and widen that division.”
For six years, Simmerman served as a Christian missionary in Muslim communities of Khartoum and Darfur, Sudan. Today, she’s a graduate student in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Simmerman’s home church is Hixson United Methodist, and her father is the Rev. Walt Simmerman. She visited Chattanooga only two days before the shooting.
“Tragedy like this creates a window of vulnerability in a community. From there, there are two options,” Simmerman said. The first is fear, bitterness, and more division. The second is opportunity for reconciliation, building bridges and relationships.
“I don’t think extra laws are going to fully stop terrorism, but building loving relationships can,” she said.
“People in the majority culture – in Holston, it’s white, middle-class, Christian, Southerners – need to practice loving and welcoming their neighbors rather than letting fear divide us,” Simmerman said. "Jesus didn’t sit in his own community, but he reached out to the marginalized and pulled them in. He was always working with the marginalized.”
“Don’t let fear, and even the media, dictate the story line of our relationships,” she said. “Most things you see in the media portray Muslims as violent people.”
Feelings of isolation can be a risk factor for brokenness leading to violence. So when you see a stranger or outcast at the grocery store, smile and be kind, Simmerman suggests.
“Invite a Muslim family to dinner. Be nice to the kid at school who doesn’t fit in,” she said. Simple acts of kindness and love “are going to help people feel safe in their own communities.”
When the Charleston shootings happened, Rev. Sandra Johnson thought at first that evil had won.
“It is reported that Dylann Roof almost didn’t follow through his plan to kill, perhaps because of the warm welcome and the kindness he received from the group,” Johnson wrote to her district churches.
Later, Johnson was struck by the witness of Emanuel AME Church members, who spoke words of forgiveness and grace. “Their response to this horrific tragedy was one of love. In the midst of their loss, pain, and anger, they relied on their faith in the Resurrected Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. Love won.”
Since then, Johnson has been thinking about how, in the aftermath of tragedy, churches throw open their doors and communities gather for unity services.
“I wonder, what it would be like if that became part of our church DNA? To come together with intentionality to build relationships as the Body of Christ, rather than, when it all pipes down, we go back to our secluded places.”
Every day, church newsletters and Sunday bulletins offer a “smorgasbord” of ministry opportunities for Christians to reach across fences to help shape lives or simply to be present, Johnson said. One of the most obvious opportunities available now in Holston Conference is the year-long challenge for every member to give at least $10 and 10 hours to ministries supporting children in poverty.
“Our ’10 hours of service’ affords Holstonians another opportunity to move beyond the walls of the church building to engage our communities, to meet people where they are,” she said.
The goal is “put our faith into practice,” which will require intentionality and dedication – and giving more than what we typically give, Johnson said.
“I can’t speak for all African Americans or for all United Methodists. What I’m struggling with is my individual response, because it has to begin with individuals. On this side of heaven, evil doesn’t have to have the last word. Evil shouldn’t be our only motivation for responding as a church.”
Johnson said she will begin by spending Tuesday night with homeless families living at State Street United Methodist Church through the Family Promise ministry.
“We have to be intentional about being with one another,” she said.
After the shootings: Resources for congregations (Aug. 3, 2015)
Family of slain Marine calls on Chattanooga church (July 29, 2015)
'Heart aches for the hometown': #Chattanooga (July 18, 2015)