January 31, 2023
Centenary United Methodist Church’s regular Sunday worship service was anything but routine.
The Memphis, Tennessee, church — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met with striking sanitation workers just days before being assassinated — now gathered to mourn Tyre Nichols, another man whose brutal death has shaken the national conscience.
The Rev. Deborah Smith, the church’s senior pastor who had marched with King in Memphis, opened the worship service by quoting King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
That idea is a key part of how Centenary lives out its Christian faith, Smith said.
“Tyre faced a gross injustice,” she later told United Methodist News. “And he’s one of those who perhaps could be classified as somebody on the margins of society. … Jesus came preaching love, justice and mercy. And here we are, we’re still doing that.”
The Centenary congregants are among the United Methodists joining in grief and calls for change in the days since the city of Memphis released body camera footage showing police kicking, pepper-spraying and punching Nichols after a Jan. 7 traffic stop. The 29-year-old Black man, who loved skateboarding and photography, died of his injuries three days later — leaving behind devastated friends and family including a 4-year-old son and a loving mother he cried out for in his pain. Nichols will be laid to rest on Feb. 1.
The Rev. Antoine “Tony” Love said he thinks the church has a role to play in addressing the heartbreak. He is the chair of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, The United Methodist Church’s official Black caucus.
“I think the church has to really help us to reclaim our ability to see people,” said Love, who is also assistant to the bishop in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. “The world and the culture teach us how to see through people — looking at people without really seeing them. I don’t really understand how you can beat another individual unless you don’t really see them, you don’t see their humanity.”
Nichols’ death came nearly three years after George Floyd took his last breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, sparking protests nationwide and a renewed commitment among United Methodist bishops to antiracism work.
Since Nichols’ death, five Memphis police officers have been fired and now face charges of second-degree murder. On Jan. 30, the Memphis Police Department confirmed it has suspended two more officers — one of whom used a stun gun on Nichols. The Memphis Fire Department also has fired three EMTs who, the department says, violated protocol at the scene.
Still, even in this pursuit of accountability, some have pointed to racial discrepancies. The five officers facing charges are Black and the officer who shot Nichols with a Taser, and is at this point only on suspension, is white.
The Rev. Dennis Blackwell, United Methodist pastor at Asbury Community Church in Woodlynne, New Jersey, noted that just because many of the officers involved were Black does not rule out systemic racism’s role in Nichols’ death.
The officers involved were the product of a system “laced with implicit bias against brown and Black people, against the poor, against the marginalized,” Blackwell said.
“When you socialize in the current context of that system, then you will carry out the system’s evil demands and evil expectations against people who the system has deemed do not have any value or self-worth.”
Blackwell and his group Black Methodists for a Better Future had already planned to use Feb. 1 as a national day of prayer and fasting to ask God’s help with the problems of gun, domestic and economic violence, and also systemic racism. What happened in Memphis adds urgency to those prayers.
But even amid prayers and advocacy, many are asking how to stop acts of violence at the hands of police — the people communities rely on to serve and protect. As many who watched the video footage observed, Nichols did everything he could to de-escalate the situation.
Many Christians are also wondering how they might make real the beloved community Christ modeled and King preached.
“God takes sides, and the church ought to be taking sides also,” he preached. “Somebody’s going to critique my sermon this morning and challenge me, saying, ‘Doesn’t God love everybody?’ Well, yeah, he does love everybody.
“But a close reading of Scripture tells us that God has a track record for paying particular attention to those whom society has overlooked. God comes to the aid of the mistreated, and he prioritizes their care and their well-being.”
Centenary has twice come to national attention with that message. The church’s service the first Sunday after King’s death was nationally broadcast, and its service the past Sunday was featured on National Public Radio.
Smith, the church’s pastor, expressed frustration that even after so much time since King’s life and death, protests and marches are still necessary. Like most Black parents, she also lives with the fear that her son will not come home safely from an encounter with the police.
“I believe the only way we’re going to get there is truly by loving one another unconditionally— not loving because your skin color’s the same, hair texture is the same, or maybe just your whole makeup is the same,” she said. “Just loving people in their differentness is what Jesus did. Why can’t we do that?”