White Pastor in Texas sets self on fire to protest racism
On June 23 of this year, Rev. Charles Moore stepped out of his car in a shopping mall parking lot in Grand Saline, Texas and set himself on fire. The retired United Methodist pastor was 79 years old and was a life long advocate for social justice. He died later that night at Parkland Hospital in Dallas -- leaving behind a trail of notes and a lifetime of activism to offer an explanation for his dramatic act.
As social justice advocate Reverend Jeff Hood told The Huffington Post, Rev. Moore was trying to send a message with his dramatic act -- both to the United Methodist Church and to the country at large. "Reverend Moore thought this was going to be a whole lot bigger of a deal than it turned out to be," Hood told HuffPost. "He expected it to make national news."
Texas-based Tyler Morning Telegraph obtained a copy of one of the notes Moore left behind from the Grand Saline police, and it offers a glimpse into a man deeply troubled by injustice and racism and who carried this pain for decades. He describes the racial discrimination that existed in his hometown of Grand Saline when he was growing up and which often lead to horrific violence. Moore wrote:
"I will soon be 80 years old, and my heart is broken over this. America, and Grand Saline... have never really repented for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermath. What my hometown needs to do is open its heart and its doors to black people as a sign of the rejection of past sins."
In addition to his hometown, Moore faulted the United Methodist Church for failing to reverse what he saw as backward, discriminatory practices like homophobia and support for the death penalty. In other notes Moore reportedly expressed frustration over his alma mater Southern Methodist University's successful bid to house the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Earlier letters may have even suggested he originally planned to commit suicide on the school's campus in protest.
In a note dated June 16, 2014, Moore wrote:
"This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer's insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family."
Rev. Hood also uses the metaphor of Jesus at Gethsemane to challenge any who would criticize Moore. In an article on his website Hood writes:
The temptation of the hour will be to turn our heads and call The Rev. Charles Moore insane. If we do we should also turn our heads from Jesus and call him insane too. For we must not forget, Jesus sat in the Garden of Gethsemane and made a conscious clear decision to step out into death...just like Moore.
People who knew Moore recall a man deeply committed to his beliefs and who spent a lifetime working toward social justice. Rev. Jack Albright, who knew Moore in Carthage, Texas and worked with him during the civil rights movement, told the Dallas News:
"When people are raised and spend their life in an atmosphere of segregation, it's very threatening to make changes. The issue was how hard do you push, especially if you are going to create a lot of confrontation."
Moore's son-in-law Rev. Bill Renfro told the United Methodist News Service that there should have been someone in the pastor's community to help him manage his sense of guilt.
"It would have been nice to have had some sort of counseling, somebody to point out that his life had mattered, that he hadn't failed. He had done plenty."
Despite Renfro's sentiments, Moore's letters suggest that he was intent upon using his own death to inspire action in those around him. In one note he reportedly wrote:
"I would much prefer to go on living and enjoy my beloved wife and grandchildren and others, but I have come to believe that only my self-immolation will get the attention of anybody and perhaps inspire some to higher service."
More important than the act of self-immolation, however, is the message Moore was trying to send, Hood told HuffPost. “I don’t know that the answer lies in the fact that he burned himself to death," Hood said. "The answer lies in why he burned himself to death and why that matters.”
Rev. Dr. Sid Hall, who worked on social justice actions with Moore since the 1990s, also said that the manner of Moore's death is not as crucial as his message. "I am very clear that his act was not a suicide in the sense we usually think about it," Hall told HuffPost. "I know this because Charles was driven not by escapism, but engagement."
The question of why Moore's act matters lies in something Hood referred to as "radical discipleship," which Moore demonstrated throughout his life. He helped organize the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), for instance, which operates today as a resource for those opposed to capital punishment.
And in 1995 he went on hunger strike in hopes of persuading the Council of Bishops, which was meeting in Austin, to change the Book of Discipline's language on homosexuality, which states among other things that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
Rev. Hood, who also serves on the board of TCADP and advocates for LGBT acceptance, describes the role Moore's activism has played in his own life:
"Because Moore lived, I am able to do the work that I do. My respect for Moore is unwavering and I am proud to follow in his footsteps. Jesus asks us to give our lives and Moore did."
For any who feel inspired by Moore's life work but who are troubled by the way he died, Rev. Hall told HuffPost, the key is to continue moving forward:
"I believe the primary lesson we must take from Charles’s life-long convictions, even as we struggle with the way he chose to die, is that we must remain awake to the horrors that surround us and work together to interrupt them, in the name of our deepest humanity and for those of us who are Christian, in the name of Christ."