Church Leaders Mourn Tyre Nichols, Seek Change

Church Leaders Mourn Tyre Nichols, Seek Change


By Heather Hahn | UM News

The Rev. Deborah Smith, senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, introduces Tennessee-Western Kentucky Bishop Bill McAlilly before his sermon at the Memphis congregation Jan. 29. The bishop chose “Love and Justice” as his topic, preaching to those grieving the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died after being beaten by police. Screengrab courtesy of Centenary United Methodist via Facebook by UM News.
The Rev. Deborah Smith, senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, introduces Tennessee-Western Kentucky Bishop Bill McAlilly before his sermon at the Memphis congregation Jan. 29. The bishop chose “Love and Justice” as his topic, preaching to those grieving the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died after being beaten by police. Screengrab courtesy of Centenary United Methodist via Facebook by UM News.

Key points:

  • United Methodists across the U.S. have joined in grief and prayers for Tyre Nichols and his family in the days since the release of video footage showing Memphis police beating him.
  • Some called for the passage of federal legislation to change law enforcement practices. Some recalled their own experience with police violence.
  • All called for justice and the recognition of Black people’s humanity.  

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.

“There are absolutely no words to express the feelings attached to the death of Tyre Nichols,” said Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton, who also leads the New York Conference. “As a parent, it is heartbreaking to hear a young man cry out for his mother. As a pastor, it is heartbreaking to imagine the grief felt by parents who know that this didn’t need to happen.” 

Views from Tennessee

A number of United Methodists spoke out just before the footage of Nichols’ encounter with police was released and soon after.

Tennessee-Western Kentucky Bishop Bill McAlilly reflects on Nichols’ tragic death in his blog post “How Long?”

The Rev. Dr. David O. Weatherly, the interim district superintendent in Memphis and a native of the city, wrote about his prayers for the city ahead of the video footage’s release.

But he added in the midst of heartbreak, it remains important to “not only lament but also continue to call all people to the standard of life established by Jesus and proclaimed by God’s church.”

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. 

Blackwell also urges United Methodists to support federal action for police reform such as the proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as well as support for voting rights

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. 

Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference Bishop Bill McAlilly, whose area includes Memphis, addressed those questions during his Sunday sermon at Centenary United Methodist Church.

“My prayer is that Memphis will become the catalyst for these senseless murders to end as we pursue this call for justice — justice for all,” he preached. “Might this city — this moment in time — be a wakeup call for the United States of America to say, ‘Enough. Enough is enough.’”

McAlilly had already planned to make Centenary his first stop after returning from medical leave earlier this month. Even before Nichols’ death, the church was already dealing with loss. 

In July, the Rev. Autura Eason-Williams — the United Methodist district superintendent who helped oversee churches in Memphis and was a friend to many in the conference — was killed in her own driveway in an apparent carjacking. Then in October, the Rev. Roger Anthony Hopson — Centenary’s pastor since 2017 — died suddenly of heart failure. McAlilly wanted to bring comfort, and he rewrote his sermon to speak to the pain of Nichols’ death. 

The bishop acknowledged he had mixed feelings as he stood in Centenary’s pulpit that morning. His nephew was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, and like Nichols, his nephew was a father who left behind young children.

Nevertheless, McAlilly wanted to speak to God’s call for love and justice even in this dark time. 

“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.”

The bishop likewise wanted to offer support and comfort to a worshipping community where many have first-hand experience with discrimination and danger at the hands of police.

That includes Smith, Centenary’s current pastor and a former district superintendent. 

As a college freshman, she joined what she expected to be a peaceful march led by King in solidarity with striking sanitation workers. But she saw Memphis police officers suddenly come in with batons to break up the march. Smith was able to escape to a telephone booth but watched as the police battered her fellow protesters. 

She eventually was able to dodge through the crowd to reach the safety of her grandfather’s shop. But nearly 55 years later, she was still shaken recalling the experience. 

“That’s an image I'll never forget because they were just recklessly hitting people,” she told UM News. 

The Rev. Cynthia Davis, a retired district superintendent who also attended Centenary’s service, recounted her family’s traumatic experience with law enforcement. She said shortly after the beating of Rodney King in the early 1990s, her brother was beaten by Nashville police — even though he was a fellow officer.

Her brother was on an undercover sting and got pulled over because his police-issued vehicle had expired tags. Police officers pulled him out of the car, threw him on the ground, pinned him with their knees and began hitting him. Davis said she doesn’t know what would have happened had her brother’s supervisor not seen what had happened and intervened. 

At a time of so much upheaval in The United Methodist Church, Davis said she would like to see church members act as a unified body of believers who say: “No more.”

“This has to stop in every city, every town, every county,” she said. “Everybody needs to say violence is not the way of God.”

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?”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News