More than 1,500 United Methodists representing the 641 churches of the Baltimore-Washington Conference are gathered in Baltimore for our annual meeting right now. We will be about the business of the church, but in our holy conferencing, the echoes of racism and injustice will tug at our souls.
I've grown accustomed to that disquiet of racial unrest. Before Baltimore and Ferguson, even before the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, there was the Orangeburg Massacre, when, on Feb. 8, 1968, police opened fire on college students who were protesting the segregation of a nearby bowling alley.
I was a senior at South Carolina State University on that day when the march to the All-Star Bowling Lanes was planned. The community had been protesting for three days, and city officials called on the South Carolina Highway Patrolmen to come in and use any means necessary to prevent students from leaving campus.
That night is seared into my memory. I remember being surrounded by 200 of my fellow students. There was a moment of silence and then what sounded like hail or a rainstorm all around us. We dove to the ground after hearing the sounds of bullets ricocheting through the trees.
Many of us began to crawl back to campus. You had to crawl or you would be shot. Some of the students were shot in their feet. That night, 27 people were injured by gunfire. Three students were killed, including my friend, Henry Smith.
The headlines in the Times and Democrat read, "All Hell Breaks Loose." I remember being angry, and in shock and needing somehow to believe God was still present. It was precisely at that lowest moment, lying there on the ground, that I remembered the words of a prayer I said at bedtime when I was growing up: "Jesus loves me and I love him."
The shooting lasted only eight minutes, but in those moments I felt both abandoned by God and then felt almost unafraid, full of God's presence. It was only by the grace of God that my life had been spared. That day profoundly changed my life, putting me on the path that resulted in my becoming a bishop in The United Methodist Church.
That prayer has come back to me as I've tried to make sense of the young black men losing their lives in our communities. "Jesus loves them, let them love Jesus." Let them know their lives matter. Let us all find hope, even when it seems illusive.
That, to me, is the one gift the church might give our culture as we struggle with racism. Prayer brings hope. Prayer transforms. Prayer makes a path for change.
As we United Methodists gather during this week to be present and to pray, I pray for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and her leadership. I pray for the police officers facing charges, and I hope for the family and friends of Freddie Gray. I pray for those who have been wounded or killed in record numbers by gun violence since mid-April.
I pray that the church will be relevant, standing together for a world free of racism. And I pray that the sacrifices of Orangeburg in some way matter. But most of all, I pray our hope is transformed into action — action that allows people of faith everywhere to see racism as a spiritual issue and begin at once to address it.
Bishop Marcus Matthews is the top leader of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference for the United Methodist Church; his email is BishopMatthewsOffice@bwcumc.org.