Q&A: Responding to a massacre


Note: Bishop Matthews, who leads the Baltimore-Washington Conference, is a South Carolina native and was active in the civil rights demonstrations near South Carolina State University on Feb. 8, 1968, when state troopers fired into a crowd of students, killing three. He answered questions from United Methodist News Service’s Sam Hodges about the June 17 killings of nine black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Bishop Marcus Matthews, a South Carolina native and civil rights movement veteran, has had an intense personal reaction to the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. 2012 file photo courtesy of the Council of Bishops

How have the Charleston killings continued to affect you personally, and does your South Carolina background play into that?

Yes, it does affect me personally — and deeply — just as it has thousands of others. I’ve been in Emanuel AME. In its sanctuary; I’ve prayed for justice to come to all people. Growing up in South Carolina, I’ve personally known the ugliness of racism. But I also experienced how the church there continues to speak a word of hope and grace into that oppression. Experiencing hatred in a place that’s supposed to be home can break your heart. It’s up to the church, to us, to offer healing and a new vision, not just for the South, but for the world.

How would you like the churches in your conference and The United Methodist Church more broadly to respond to this event? Is there an agenda you see forming?

On the Sunday following the shooting, I called on the churches of the Baltimore-Washington Conference to light a candle on their altars. It was a symbolic act of light and love overcoming the darkness of hatred. That sacred act has been coupled with a vast array of conversations about race being held, formally and informally, in our conference. Our conference Commission on Religion and Race recently guided the cabinet through a discussion on multiculturalism. These are tough conversations to have, but they also bear the fruit of new understanding. In the light of the hate crime in Charleston, many of our churches are turning their grief into action. For many, this action stems around addressing some of the systemic issues that lead to violence. If there’s an agenda, I think it is that the church is rediscovering its voice and standing up to boldly speak the name of God. We can be silent no longer.

Do you think these shootings rank with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, as a turning point — or at least landmark tragedy — in civil rights history?

I simply don’t know. I think history will point to this as a significant moment in our nation’s history. It is my hope and prayer that the legacy of those who died that day will be one of grace, reconciliation and significant social change. I want our children and our grandchildren to live in a nation where black lives matter, where all lives matter, and they know they are beloved children of God.

Are you and your staff advising your churches on security matters, and if so, what are you saying?

In the days immediately following the shooting, the Federal Emergency Management Agency contacted Asbury United Methodist Church, a historic African-American congregation in Washington, D.C., to provide a “Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship.” Our churches took good, common-sense precautions, but it is an important witness for our churches to be open to all people.

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