Pastoral Letter regarding the Tulsa Race Massacre
"We recognize racism as sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons. We rejoice in the gifts that particular ethnic histories and cultures bring to our total life." --United Methodist Social Principles, 2016
Greetings in the name of the risen Christ.
100 years ago, a massacre occurred in Tulsa which destroyed one of the most prosperous African-American neighborhoods in America. The Greenwood District, or Black Wall Street as it was commonly called, was decimated by a white mob not deterred by law enforcement. Over 300 residents of Greenwood were killed, many buried in unmarked graves, and many more were arrested for committing no crimes. Thousands were left homeless and a neighborhood was ransacked, leaving behind millions in property damage. After that, the story of this event was mostly forgotten.
During this time, there were two branches of Methodism in Tulsa – the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South – that would eventually become part of The United Methodist Church. Other branches of Methodism were active in the community, including the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which is the only edifice to survive the massacre.
Both downtown churches, Boston Avenue and First, were utilized as make-shift hospitals for the injured. At the same time, church leaders in many of the Methodist-affiliated churches preached sermons blaming the victims of the massacre for inciting it. After Tigert Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, South moved to a new location, their former building was sold and the site became the corporate front for the Ku Klux Klan. It is important that we recognize our own explicit and implicit actions in perpetrating and responding to this horrific event.
As we observe the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, United Methodists across the state of Oklahoma stand with the people of Tulsa as we look forward to a more inclusive future even as we look back at this moment in time. In the words of John Hope Franklin, “If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present; (one) must begin with the past.”
For many Oklahomans, this injustice was not a topic studied in school or something known by a majority of our citizens. Until a few years ago, it was one of the least-known incidents of racial violence in United States history. As faithful followers of Christ, we must not allow that to be an excuse going forward. What can you do to observe this tragic event and glean some lessons from it? Here are some resources:
In mid-May, the conference hosted a webinar called “Tulsa: 100 Years Later” featuring two African American church planters in the Tulsa area interviewed by Rev. Bessie Hamilton, the conference’s leader for multi-ethnic initiatives. You can view that webinar here. There will be a follow-up webinar on June 23.
The denomination’s Discipleship Ministry unit on preaching and worship offers a daily prayer related to anti-racism. You can sign up to have those delivered to your email inbox.
Last year, the Council of Bishops launched a campaign to dismantle racism. They called upon all levels of the church to engage with this effort. As a part of the campaign, the General Commission on Archives and History put together a church study called “Pride, Shame and Pain: Methodist History with Racism and Efforts to Dismantle It.” We encourage you to download the materials and schedule times in your settings when you can utilize this resource.
You can find out much more information at the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission’s website, including information on a May 31 televised special commemorating the Massacre as well as other events.
Before the COVID 19 pandemic, the annual conference had intended to hold an in-person gathering in Tulsa, to include worship, education, tours and a time to repent for our role in the massacre, but we were forced to cancel those plans. In light of that, we invite you to join our conference on Monday in praying the historic prayer of confession that we use when approaching the Lord’s Table:
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This year’s annual conference offering will be used in the Tulsa area as we plant two new multi-ethnic faith communities as well as assist in efforts to commemorate this horrific event.
As we remember the 300 lives lost and a community decimated 100 years ago, let us commit today to ending the complicity of silence about this massacre and all acts of racism. Let us commit to bringing God’s healing to those who have been damaged by the wrongs of the past and present sin of racism. And, as Christ has commanded, let us love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, and our neighbors as ourselves… all our neighbors.
May God continue to remind us our past while pointing us toward a brighter, more inclusive future.
Bishop Jimmy Nunn on behalf annual conference leaders