In recent weeks, West Ohio United Methodists have been moved to participate in peaceful protests and in the ministry of presence. Individuals and congregations have stepped up and spoken out about racism and violence around the state. This is the first of a two part article.
Obeying the Holy Spirit During Social Unrest
Three days before Pentecost Sunday is the celebration of the Feast of Weeks, commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery under Egyptian rule. It presents the perfect backdrop for the tension that came from another viral video revealing a black man's death at the hands of a police officer as he cried, "I can't breathe."
"One of my staff persons, who is a black woman, was in pain," said the Rev. April Blaine, who leads Hilliard United Methodist Church. "Although we can pray, the question is, 'What is your work?'"
Urged by the Holy Spirit, she went to the Ohio Statehouse on June 7.
"It was beautiful," Blaine said. "I saw a lady handing out masks and others giving out water and snacks. The crowd was predominantly young African Americans. I felt the need to pray at the statehouse steps."
A woman asked her, "Can I pray with you?" It was an African American woman in her early 20s wearing a homemade "God Loves you" T-shirt. "Her name was Ashley," Blaine continued. "We shared how much we longed for God's people to be able to see one another, our humanity and the possibilities of what we could build together. We cried together and encouraged each other. It was a true moment of grace for us both."
Realizing she was between protesters and police, Blaine began to cry.
"I have marched before," she said, "but this was the first time I went alone in my clergy robe and stole, simply for the purpose of being a witness and a presence of love. Contemplative prayer has helped me to let go of my own stuff and hear the Spirit. It made room for me to go on Sunday."
A mother of an 11-year-old black son, Blaine said, "I was there for me, to spend time with Ashley, but also to stand in solidarity for my son."
'Rally for Love' Supports Black Lives Matter
"We decided we wanted to stand with our community and feel their pain," said Aimee Hastie-Brown, Communications Team leader for Bethel International United Methodist Church, Columbus. With the full support of her lead pastor, the Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Brown began planning the Black Lives Matter "Rally for Love."
The congregation wanted to break their silence and be a part of the solution.
The team quickly worked to get the event promoted on social media platforms on Friday. By Saturday, 60 people confirmed they were coming, and on the day of the rally, 100 were in attendance.
Members of the community came alongside members of Bethel to stand in protest. "There were people just showing up to stand with us," Brown said. "Some were in wheelchairs.
"It brought tears to my eyes," she continued. "To see the support from my church made me proud they were willing to stand up, break the silence and be a part of the solution."
Brown shared a quote from Schwerdtfeger that has kept her through this time of tension: "If the church does not have the strength to stand with the oppressed of the land, we do not have the strength to stand at all."
"In the long term," Schwerdtfeger said, "Bethel is committed to peaceful protests along Bethel Road each Monday from 5 to 6 p.m., until real change is implemented. All are welcome." Schwerdtfeger is collaborating with others to detail what that change needs to be.
Front Row to Early Protest at Broad Street UMC, Columbus
On Sunday, May 31, the Rev. Deborah Stevens arrived for livestream worship.
Like many churches, Broad Street United Methodist has been providing livestream worship since the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person worship. On this Sunday, Stevens said, "We could hear the protest during worship." She is the church's lead pastor.
"After church, we walked through the neighborhood, finding broken glass in the streets. Assessing our building, we realized that ours was the only building that was untouched by graffiti or vandalism during Saturday night, when protesters were pushed by police onto our block."
That afternoon, Stevens and her staff witnessed a multitude of events. A dumpster fire erupted near an apartment building behind the church. A young woman was visibly shaken, Stevens said, after "witnessing violence by the police and trying to get to her ride that would not come to her." The church also helped with funding for a parishioner who was impacted by the protest.
"There is an anxiety level when the community is experiencing trauma and that community is close to where you do ministry, the pastor said. "Presence matters."
Broad Street has remained present to their neighbors, greeting people going to and from protests. "We have decided to not be afraid," Stevens said.
"Our message is simple.," she added. "It's on our sign, 'Black Lives Matter.'"