Four Methodist bishops. Four denominations. One place. One cause.
“They have sensed the need for leadership and have come to give unity to families across the state who have been impacted by officer-involved shootings,” said The Rev. Dr. Robert Kennedy, pastor of St. Peters African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Charleston.
Kennedy stood Wednesday night at the head of his North Charleston church, packed with hundreds, and introduced The Rt. Rev. Richard Franklin Norris, presiding bishop of the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; The Rt. Rev. Kenneth Monroe, presiding bishop of the South Atlantic Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; The Rt. Rev. James B. Walker, presiding bishop of the Seventh Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Rt. Rev. Lewis Jonathan Holston, presiding bishop of the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“We come tonight to make a plea for liberty for minorities who are not always treated fairly,” he said, adding that while there are good cops, there are also those who make poor decisions on the job and something needs to be done.
The night’s program was filled with heartfelt song and prayer and remarks from the bishops, along with testimony from local pastors. The April police shooting of Walter Scott and the video of it, recorded by a bystander, was heavy on the minds of all throughout the night.
Scott was shot at eight times as he fled North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager during a traffic stop. Slager has since been charged with murder.
“We were aghast by the video images of the death of Walter Scott,” said Walker. “A broken tail light (which is what Scott was originally stopped for) should never mean a permanent break in a family’s circle.”
He said an encounter with police is 100 times more likely to result in death in the U.S. than any other industrialized country in the world and called for justice for Scott and a jury trial in Slager’s case.
Walker talked about mass incarceration and a racial disparity in prison statistics. He also addressed issues of a child-support system that he said targeted dark-skinned individuals.
“When we say black lives matter, we are saying our first priority should be for those who violate the law to face justice,” he said, adding that it should be justice for everyone, no matter what race. “When we say black lives matter, it is to remind ourselves to stand against a current system of injustice.”
The Rev. Keith Hunter, pastor of Wesley United Methodist in Hollywood, spoke about Bryant Heyward, a member of his congregation who was shot by a Charleston County sheriff’s deputy last month after his home was broken into. Hunter said his small community was shocked by what happened and continues to pray for Heyward, now paralyzed, and his family.
Norris called his gathering with the other three bishops a historic moment.
“There is a need for a uniform voice that will cry out,” he said. “This is the greatest country in the world, but there are some warts and moles that disfigure our appearance.”
He said the bishops came to North Charleston to stand with the families affected by the poor decisions of police officers, but also said they were praying for law enforcement for God to give them wisdom, strength and guidance. “We’ve come tonight with no condemnation, but with an understanding that if we unite ... God will show His will,” Norris said.
He promised more meetings between the bishops.
Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, also a reverend and pastor at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, commended the state legislature for strides it was already making.
Holston drove home the bishops’ message and called for everyone to work together and to be advocates. He said healing is needed in North Charleston and that prayer would be the pathway there. “We have to examine our lives,” Holston said. “Whenever one of us suffers, we all suffer and so without justice for all, there is no justice at all.”.