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United Methodist Pastors Have Presence at Protests


June 02, 2020

After a few months of their ministry primarily being online, many United Methodist pastors took to the streets yesterday to be part of the protests calling for justice after the death of George Floyd.

St. Louis saw a wave of violence on Monday night. One retired police captain, David Dorn, was killed at 2:30 a.m. when he went to check on a burglar alarm at a friend’s store on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The 77-year-old African American man died on the sidewalk in front of the store after being shot in the torso. Four St. Louis police officers were shot in the line of duty over the course of the night. One person was killed by police in a store, allegedly in the process of looting.
 
There were more than 70 businesses damaged in St. Louis, according to local news reports. Much of the activity was downtown, but some damage occurred in other parts of the city. The only United Methodist Church downtown is Centenary, a historic church in between Pine and Olive near 16th Street. 

“Last night, I was praying, ‘God please protect our church. Please protect our church,’” Rev. Kathleen Wilder shared on Facebook. On the news, she could see fires burning on each end of the block. At 2 a.m. a cobblestone was thrown through a church window, and a friend came to the church and had the window boarded up by 4 a.m.

“Church we have so much work to do to break down the walls of oppression and build the kindom of God,” Wilder posted on Facebook.

Rev. Monica Jefferson serves St. Andrew in Florissant, just a few miles from Ferguson. As an African American woman who has spent over a quarter of a century in vocational ministry, it is hard for her to witness the current state of race relations.

“The trauma of being Black or African American in America continues to be painful. "I can't breath" in a different way. There is a pain that is so deep that it is inexplainable,” she said. “I am angry and frustrated one moment, and the next moment I recognize that with my trust, faith, family, an amazing spouse, friends, and a supportive Christian community I will make it through this.”

Before the recent events of police brutality that have the country reeling, Jefferson had been actively working against what she has found to be a “hoax myth” within the black and African American community regarding the coronavirus. Her congregation is very diverse, and she sees it as her calling to do everything that she can to bring people together.

“I go home and hug my spouse,  call my daughter often, celebrate my friends,  thank God for all the good stuff, and pray without ceasing,” she said. “For those who threaten and hate me...I watch my back, and let the community and God protect and help me.” 

Rev. Matt Miofsky of The Gathering was at the protest in St. Louis earlier in the day on Monday.

“This is my city. I’ve committed to serve it,” Miofsky said in a video he posted online. “When there is hurt or cries of injustice I feel it is my duty to be there, to learn and be part of that, and support and bear witness where I can. I don’t feel I can talk about things that I haven’t been to.”

Mifosky described the protests during the day on Monday as being peaceful.

“It’s almost like church,” he said. “Each speaker got up and spoke eloquently and passionately.”

He called for people to join him in praying for justice, and to look to their own lives for places where they can make a difference. 

Rev. Ivan James of Samaritan and Asbury United Methodist churches in St. Louis, said he has been discussing the situation in St. Louis with other pastors.

“While I support nonviolent protest which for the most part has been effective, I feel that the looting is a distraction and is counterproductive,” he said on Tuesday morning. ‘This morning I participated in a major protest - and that was when I cast my vote. Voting is the most effective way to dismantle the systems of injustice.”

In Jefferson City Rev. Trevor Dancer of First UMC joined in the Monday evening protest that formed at the state capitol.

“I thought it was important for me to be in solidarity with people that are angry, suffering, and perhaps hopeless. As a white person, my job was to be in support and not ‘on stage’,” Dancer said. “I wore my stole to identify myself as a clergy person, joined in the chants and listened intently. Jefferson City is a town I care about, I want justice and mercy to be defining to our community.”

Dancer described the protest as being immensely peaceful, with speakers repeatedly calling for peace and reminding the crowd that it was a peaceful protest. The Jefferson City protest included demands for reform in education, specifically cultural sensitivity training for teachers and school resource officers, and limits on Out Of School suspensions, which they contend are disproportionately given to students of color, leading to them getting behind in school and not graduating.

Dancer said about 45 minutes into the protest National Guard troops assembled between the protestors and the capitol.

“It was still extremely peaceful, but suddenly most people were staring over their shoulders with a lot more concern,” Dancer said. “The sheer presence and magnitude of their presence certainly escalated anxieties rather than minimize them.”

On Wednesday morning a group of clergy from the Kansas City area gathered at City Hall to push for an end to police brutality, specifically asking for body cameras on law enforcement officers and an independent review board. Rev. Emanuel Cleavers III of St. James UMC was one of the pastors present.

“We felt it necessary to make some demands,” Cleaver was quoted as saying in the Kansas City Star. “What happened to George Floyd is nothing new.”

The clergy called for stopping all forms of excessive force by police officers, included recent tactics used on people who peacefully protest.

Rev. Tex Sample is part of the Black Baptist Ministers Association in Kansas City. It should be noted that he is a white United Methodist, but he has a deep history of pushing for social justice that dates back to the Civil Rights movement. The Protest in the Plaza has asked the Black Baptist Ministers Association to join them on Tuesday evening to help maintain order. On Monday evening the Protest on the Plaza had turned destructive, and the organizers were trying to avoid a repeat of that situation.

Sample said during protests in the 1960s they not only had leaders, but also many rank and file leaders who took responsibility for people around them to make the group maintained a non-violent posture. He’s concerned that some of the groups protesting today lack such organization.

“I’ve been to a lot of these, and I don’t worry too much about safety,” the 85-year-old pastor and seminary professor said. “I watch where I am. I wouldn’t stand next to someone throwing a bottle, unless I’m trying to keep him from throwing the bottle.”

Sample is an active member of three other social justice groups: Urban Summit, More Square and Jobs for Justice. On Monday evening he spoke at a Kansas City tenant association protest, which is particularly concerned with the ending of eviction protection from the CARES Act.

“We could see 300 people get evicted here this week, and another 500 a week from now,” Sample said.

Although he continues to work on this cause, that doesn’t mean he isn’t horrified about recent police brutality.

“What was done to George Floyd was a sheer violation of the law and an explicit case of brutality. I don’t see how anyone could call it anything else,” Sample said. He’s concerned that the police, and even government as a whole, is in danger of losing a status of legitimacy that is required for a democracy to function.

Sample has been in a lot of marches and protests, he hasn’t been in one during a pandemic. That doesn’t worry him much either, though. He wears a mask, gloves and tries to stay six feet away from other people.

“I try to stay in shape, so I can still participate in things like this,” he said.

Sample is pastor of Trinity in Kansas City, a United Methodist church with 77 members and a dozen people who are active on a Justice Task Force, and he’s very grateful to be able to lead that congregation.

“Those people are amazing,” Sample said.