United Methodists show hospitality to Jena, Louisiana, marchers

September 21, 2007

Sep. 21, 2007    


By Linda Green and Yvette Moore*

A United Methodist church welcomed demonstrators and a churchwide agency called for equal justice in the wake of racially charged events at a high school in Jena, Louisiana.


On Sept. 20, tens of thousands of people from across the United States converged on tiny Jena to show their support for six black students facing criminal prosecution in the beating of a white student. The students, who have become known as the "Jena Six," were charged as adults for attempted murder in the beating, but charges were later reduced following protests of racial bias. The white student was treated and released from the hospital the same day and attended a school event that evening.


The beating was the latest in a series of incidents at and around Jena High School that included a group of white students hanging nooses from a tree at the school.


While businesses in Jena, a small, rural town of 3,000, were closed Sept. 20, the predominantly white Nolley Memorial United Methodist Church remained open and provided hospitality to some of the primarily African-American marchers.


The church had erected a sign with the denomination's welcoming message of "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors" at the edge of town, "but I am not sure they saw the sign," said the Rev. Lyndle Bullard, pastor of Nolley Memorial.


When he, members of the 400-member congregation and annual conference officials arrived at the church at 7 a.m., the parking lot was full, and cars were also parked in the cemetery. "We just started greeting people and finding out where they were from," Bullard said. "We thanked them for coming and welcomed them to Jena. We talked about hospitality.


"We were the only church that was open in Jena," he said. "As the sign said, we were open. We did the right thing. We could have closed and said, 'we don't want you here,' but that was not an option. It was obvious that the only option was to be open."


The size of the march concerned Jena citizens so much that many closed businesses and left town, the pastor said. One automobile dealer moved the dealership’s cars out of town. News reports estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 people attended the Jena rally.


"But the people (the protesters) were wonderful, and it was a great surprise," Bullard said.


The Rev. Darlene Moore, pastor of Camphor United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, attended the Sept. 20 rally with members of the congregation and students from Louisiana State University.


"Throughout history, many people have had to stand up for what is right," she said. "So must the church stand up for justice. After all our country has been through, why do we have this climate today? There are things that all Christians can do to make a difference. First and foremost, we must read the Bible and live by the Bible, practicing those teachings. We can organize and participate in dialogues that build a climate of listening to one another and respecting each other."


Working for healing

"The United Methodist Church in Louisiana is continuing to play a role of support as the parties involved seek justice, reconciliation and healing," said Betty Backstrom, director of communications for the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference. "Bishop William W. Hutchinson, along with other statewide ecumenical leaders, recently participated in conversations with church and community leaders in Jena in an effort to resolve the issues at hand. ... The entire conference is praying for justice and for healing as we assist in finding ways to work toward a godly resolution."


The Jena rally was one of many held around the United States on Sept. 20 in support of the Jena Six.


Some commentaries and editorials have observed that the Jena Six situation may have sparked the next movement of African-American youth. College students from across the United States traveled to Jena to make a stand for racial justice and equality as their parents and grandparents did in the 1950s and 1960s. They were concerned not only about the Jena Six case but about inequality throughout the country.


"It is important that young people of all races are paying attention and responding to this controversy," said Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. "Many of them have experienced racism, violence, threats and unfair punishment from authorities. Some can relate to what has happened to their peers in Jena. Some fear it could happen to them."


Women's Division speaks out

The Women's Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries issued a statement on the case and sent letters urging Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti and U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana Donald Washington to intervene.


"What is happening in Jena is the reflection of much deeper institutional racism in our nation," the statement said. "Fifty years after the gains of the civil rights movement, we are witnessing a 'new Jim Crow' racism that functions through unequal schools, courts and police forces that disproportionately criminalize and jail poor young black and Latino youth.


"Like our Methodist foremothers whose local missionary societies led the Southern anti-lynching societies and created The United Methodist Church's first Charter for Racial Justice Policies in 1952, we are compelled to speak out about what Jena, La., means for us as a nation today.


The letter from the Women's Division called on the government officials to:

  • Investigate and monitor the criminal cases against the youth;
  • Guarantee the youths' constitutional right to fair and equal treatment under the law; and
  • Pursue justice in the situation.

The division called on United Methodist Women members to send similar letters to government officials in Louisiana and elsewhere. The division asked members to pray for the Jena community, in particular:

  • For the six young men and their families, and that they receive justice;
  • For justice, healing and reconciliation for all the families of Jena;
  • For the faith communities of Jena and of Louisiana, that they continue efforts to bridge the racial divide and witness to God's work of justice and mercy in the world; 
  • For the United States to mend "a failed criminal justice system that incarcerates black men at alarming rates in an unequal application of the law."


– A UMNS Report

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Moore is executive secretary for communications for the Women's Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.