A group of local clergy who meet regularly for fellowship and offer support to one another in their various religious roles in the community are taking a strong stand against the racism, bigotry and violence espoused last weekend by a group of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
With, as one concerned member of the group put it, “much discussion, edits, additions, subtractions, and compromises,” several of the clergy body drafted a letter that they then shared with other ministers in hopes of collecting clergy signatures across the community.
The letter, transcribed with input from a Catholic priest, a Unitarian minister, a Southern Baptist pastor, and a Missionary Baptist civil rights activist has the support and signatures of a number of diverse clergy members from across the Statesboro and Bulloch County community. The letter appears on page 8A in Sunday’s print version of the Statesboro Herald in space paid for by the group.
In an effort to bring awareness to the community, the group hopes the common statement demonstrates that local religious leaders stand for what is right and condemn without equivocation the behavior of neo-Nazis and white supremacists seen in Charlottesville Aug. 11-12.
Bill Bagwell, pastor of Pittman Park United Methodist Church, said:
“The news reports from Charlottesville, Virginia (last) weekend were disturbing to say the least. I strongly believe the rallying cry of white nationalists and white supremacists is at odds with the very heart of God.
“In addition, those who espouse thoughts of racism and bigotry chip away at one of our nation’s foundational principles – that we are all created equal.”
Events in Charlottesville
Last Saturday, Aug. 12, a car allegedly driven by a white nationalist who took part in the rally plowed into a crowd of people protesting the white nationalist rally the Virginia college town, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, hurting more than a dozen others and ratcheting up tension in an evening and a day full of violent confrontations.
Shortly after, a Virginia State Police helicopter that officials said was assisting with the rally crashed outside Charlottesville, killing two troopers.
The chaos boiled over at what is believed to be the largest group of white nationalists to come together in a decade. The governor declared a state of emergency, and police dressed in riot gear ordered people out. The group had gathered to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and others arrived to protest the racism.
Bagwell said he was grateful for the dialogue that was exchanged among local pastors in an effort to compose and sign the letter. He added, “While we acknowledge there are matters on which we do not see eye to eye, it is particularly encouraging how united we seem to be in opposition to these expressions of bigotry and hatred.”
The Methodist pastor said he proudly added his endorsement alongside other local faith leaders. “The letter was written with care, and I believe it is a new sign of our willingness to unite and work together across denominational lines on matters that are important to the very fabric of our community.”
Standing for what is right
Rev. Jean Owens and her husband, Pastor Frankie Owens, Original First African Baptist Church, endorsed the letter with their signatures as well. Rev. Jean Owens said, “My husband and I are united with the clergy, faith leaders and others in our community on the issue of a supreme race or in this case, white supremacy.
“We stand for what is moral and right, and ultimately what God Himself expects of His creation, and that is to love each other as He loves each of us.
“The end result will either be unity as the ‘human race’, or annihilation because of separatism in the human ‘races.’
Rev. Owens added emphatically, “No man is supreme. Only God is.”
Senior pastor of Statesboro First Baptist Church, John Waters, added his signature to the letter and said: “When the evil of racism appears, faith leaders need to speak with a clear and certain voice. The heart of the Christian Gospel, as well as the tenets of many world religions, is unambiguous regarding these matters.
“In a nation that continues to divide with caustic politics and angry voices, the faith leaders across Statesboro felt compelled to speak with a singular voice, sounding a clarion call about the unkind, ungodly and unchristian views espoused by white supremacists groups.”
Pastor Waters added, “But we also felt it necessary to speak against all groups that barter in race-baiting and hate mongering, regardless of where on the political spectrum such groups might fall.”
By coming together as a body of diverse clergy, in turn, the group hopes each congregation will follow suit. Waters said, “Our prayer is that the members of our congregations would recognize that each person is made in the image of God, and that the unity shown among our faith leaders would establish the pace of how diverse people can be civil and cooperative, representing the mind of Christ.”
Waters pointed out that in their diversity, the faith leaders of Bulloch County represent a myriad of views on political and social issues. “The drafting of the statement was done by God’s grace along with a genuine, authentic desire to demonstrate unity to our community.”
‘Toxic form of racism’
Father Douglas Clark of St. Matthew Catholic Church, echoed similar sentiments: “All human beings are created in the image of God. There is a unity of human race, despite our differences. We’re all children of God, and all brothers and sisters to each other.
“A toxic form of racism in which any group acknowledges itself as superior to any other group contradicts the basic idea of human family. As a Catholic priest, I’m very aware that the Ku Klux Klan was founded to denounce freed slaves, but also Catholics and Jews, so seeing KKK clothing and attire was very appalling to me and other ministers as well.”
Father Clark said, “Focusing on hatred directed at other groups of people does not conform to the gospel: love your neighbor as yourself.”
Pastor Lisa Deloach, City of David Worship Assembly, quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., when she said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
In her own words, she added, “The tragedy in Charlottesville is personal to me because I am a mother, and it could have been my daughter that got killed because of what she believed in. My heart goes out to Heyer’s mother, the officers and the injured.
“These groups stand for bondage; no longer will we be in bondage to white supremacy, neo-Nazi, KKK or hate groups. We will pray; we will speak. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Flame of Fire Prayer Walk
Pastor Deloach added that her congregation has, for quite some time now, put shoes on those thoughts in a very literal way. “The Lord impressed on my heart over a year ago to have prayer walks in the community. Our Flame of Fire Prayer Walk Ministry walks every second Saturday of the month.
“We pray for our nation, community, government, children, school system, families, unity in many areas, law enforcement and so on. It has always been a passion of mine to be a voice for the broken heart, injustice, the least, lost and the forgotten. We took a stance over a year ago to intercede in prayer for our community.
“Some of the same tragedies that happen in other cities can happen here.”
The letter ends with these words:
“It is time for us to declare together that we will no longer be silent or tacitly complicit in propagating such racial discord, which contravenes our nation’s foundational belief that all men and women are created equal, and which ignores the fundamental truth that each person is made in the image of God.
“As a diverse group of pastors, we collectively call upon the members of our congregations and community to join us as we pray for peace among all Americans and for the love of one another that will enable this great nation to heal its ancient wounds and to thrive as never before.”