Arkansas UMs react to shooting of nine at AME church

By Amy Forbus

The June 17 murders of nine Bible study attendees at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., brought responses from people of faith around the nation, including United Methodists of Arkansas.

At an interfaith vigil held Sunday evening, June 21, at North Little Rock’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Betsy Singleton of Trinity UMC Little Rock gave the invocation. With Bishop Gary Mueller unable to attend due to his travel schedule, the Rev. Mackey Yokem, assistant to the bishop and executive director of mission and ministry for the Arkansas Conference, read a statement from Mueller as part of the gathering. The crowd of approximately 1,000 attendees included a number of United Methodists from central Arkansas churches supporting their sister denomination.

The creation of the AME Church occurred in 1816, when black members of St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia formed a new congregation. As explained on the denomination’s website,, “It was a time of slavery, oppression and the dehumanization of people of African descent and many of these un-Christian practices were brought into the church, forcing Richard Allen and a group of fellow worshippers of color to form a splinter denomination of the Methodist Church.”

In 2012, the United Methodist General Conference approved full communion with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and four other Pan-Methodist denominations. This step by the UMC’s lawmaking body means the churches acknowledge each other as partners in the faith, commit to work together in ministry and may share clergy.

Children of St. Paul UMC Jonesboro decorated a card for Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston, S.C. PHOTO BY PAULA SIGMAN

Children of St. Paul UMC Jonesboro decorated a card for Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston, S.C.

On the morning of June 21, prayers for the victims, their families, Emanuel AME Church, the city of Charleston, the first responders and the perpetrator of the crime echoed through congregations. The Rev. Dane Womack, associate pastor of First UMC Fort Smith, opened his sermon, entitled “American Methodism’s King: Racial Segregation,” by naming the nine persons killed in Charleston and offering a silent prayer for each one. He used 1 Samuel 8:4-20 as his sermon text, drawing a parallel between Israel’s exile and the racial exile created in the American church.

“We demanded we be segregated and we demanded God hear us. And God did,” Womack preached. “While God has remained steadfast and faithful to American Methodism—black and white—we have been unable to live into God’s hopes for us. We have been disobedient and largely apathetic with respect to issues of race…. We have been a participant and even benefactors of the divided, violent culture of American racism.”

Womack also told his congregation of a significant moment at Annual Conference, in which the Rev. Mark Norman became the first-ever African-American elected to Arkansas’ delegation to General Conference—and as leader of that delegation.

“We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves,” he cautioned. “Rev. Norman’s election… hardly undoes 250 years of failed racial reconciliation. But we do occasionally experience these glimmers of hope.”

In at least one case, two Arkansas churches joined together across their diversity: the mostly Caucasian congregation of Argenta UMC North Little Rock canceled its service to attend Wesley Chapel UMC Little Rock, a predominantly African-American congregation.

“I was touched by their offer to cancel their service this Sunday to come share worship with Wesley Chapel,” said the Rev. Ronnie Miller Yow, senior pastor of the church that sits on the campus of historically black and United Methodist-related Philander Smith College. Yow welcomed Argenta’s pastor the Rev. Will Choate to a seat in the chancel area, inviting him to speak early in the service and to give the closing benediction. During the offertory, musicians from Argenta UMC led the church in singing “Make Us One.”

“We wanted to be sure that our churches testified to the fact that [the Charleston mass murder] is not the end of the story,” Choate said, adding that people of faith know that hate does not get the last word.

Three hours by car from North Little Rock, Salem UMC in Fulton County held a service of prayer as an act of standing in love and solidarity with Bethel AME in North Little Rock.

“We informed Bethel’s bishop of our intent, and received a kind response last week,” said the Rev. Cherie Baker, Salem’s pastor.

Instead of a sermon, the 90-minute service included not only prayer, but also a time for those present to share what was on their hearts concerning the Church and race.

“The responses were powerful, as well as some of the statements of confession and commitment to action that emerged,” Baker said. “The group began to realize that there are no churches with any ethnic majority other than white within the five counties that surround us. And the question arose, why aren’t we out in the highways and byways, intentionally engaging people, welcoming them and loving them where they are?”

Monday night in Fordyce saw about a dozen churches represented at a community prayer service co-sponsored by St. John AME Church and First UMC and led by the two churches’ pastors, the Rev. Kent Broughton of St. John and the Rev. Bill Cato of First UMC.

“I delivered remarks and reminded the community that hate and prejudice has no place in God’s kingdom or in the Christian’s heart; rather, we trust God’s perfect love which casts out fear, mistrust, and misunderstanding,” Cato said.

He added that in his Sunday morning sermon, he had confessed to his congregation a family history of racial prejudice, “because I believe truth telling is an important part of the healing process. I told the congregation that I determined early on that the mindset of prejudice would have no place in my life,” he said. “I’ve tried to make racial reconciliation a focus of my ministry.”

Related viewpoint:After Charleston: What will we do?