Why A 79-Year-Old Progressive Methodist Minister Burned Himself Alive

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SMU, Perkins, Seminary, School of Theology, chapel

Perkins Chapel at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology site prominently among the brown brick buildings referred to by students as “The God Quad”. (image via Daniel Villarreal)

Moore had originally planned to set himself on fire on June 23, 2013 somewhere among the brown-brick buildings and white chapel walkways of his alma mater, the Perkins Theological Seminary of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University. He first arrived at SMU in 1954 — a poor, newlywed and aspiring young minister from a small Texas town — and graduated from the seminary in 1959 with his Bachelor of Divinity. The experience left a lasting impression on him. In letters, he called Perkins his “soul’s home” and a revolutionary institution where “world changers are shaped.”

But over the decades, his views of SMU and its brand of Methodism had soured. In a June 22, 2014 letter entitled “My life/death appeal to Southern Methodist University and beyond”, Moore accused William Lawrence, the Dean of Perkins Seminary, of enthusiastically lobbying to get the newly constructed George W. Bush Presidential Center onto campus even though Bush had executed 150 inmates during his time as Texas governor.

The Methodist Church opposes capital punishment and Moore considered it a classist, racist, costly and ineffective means of deterring crime, tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. As an organizer of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, he claimed to have protested executions at least 100 times at the Texas governor’s mansion. Thus, a building honoring Bush seemed to him a grievous contradiction of the university’s Methodist aims.

Moore also saw SMU and Methodism in general as disappointingly homophobic. From 1990 to 1999, Moore used his position as minister of Grace United Methodist in Austin to advocate for LGBT people. Ignoring the Church’s disapproval of “the practice of homosexuality” — and the local bishop’s threats to have Moore voted out — Moore regularly preached radical compassion for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people; he even performed “holy union” ceremonies for same-sex couples who could not then legally marry; he opened his church to the gay Capital City Men’s Chorus and the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

In 1995, he gained national attention for his two-week hunger strike opposing the Church’s anti-gay stance during a local convening of international bishops. Moore resumed eating once the conference released a statement urging Methodist churches to be “hospitable to all,” something Moore considered a small but significant victory.

And yet Moore felt troubled by a 2011 Princeton Review ranking of SMU as the twelfth most anti-LGBT campus in America. The dubious honor reminded him of Gene Leggett, a talented classmate and fellow minister whom the Methodist Church defrocked for being openly gay in 1971. It disgusted Moore that the Methodist church used the same defrocking proceedings against Leggett as they use for ministers accused of rape, pedophilia and extortion. It also disturbed him that in 2013, the Church defrocked Reverend Frank Schaefer for officiating his own son’s same-sex wedding.

Moore had wanted the Church to restore Leggett’s position and apologize for its anti-gay stance — indeed, Leggett dedicated the remainder of his life to the effort. But Leggett died in 1987, still defrocked, and to this day the Methodist Church forbids same-sex marriages and disallows any “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as ordained ministers.

Lastly, Moore worried that the university, and the world in general, wasn’t doing enough to address America’s racial and economic inequalities. Moore had spent his career advocating for Black and poor communities, and the 2012 re-election of President Obama gave him hope for a new age of racial and economic justice. But his optimism quickly faded with the rise of racist Tea Party supporters, especially Ted Cruz, an influential Texas Tea Party senator who Moore considered a demagogue. With the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling rolling back the 1965 Voting Rights Act and more voter ID laws disenfranchising black voters, the second decade of the new millennium began looking more to him like the pre-Civil Rights era when he first started preaching.

Charles R. Moore, Methodist, minister, Grand Saline, Texas, immolation, suicide, fire, Grand Saline

Charles Moore preaching at St. Stephen’s Methodist Church in Boston. (image via William Renfro)

Moore had advocated for racial integration in 1959 as a minister of the First United Methodist Church in the east Texas town of Carthage — in return, several congregants called him a communist. Later that year, he refused to don blackface in the church’s “nigger minstrel” show. Then one night, when a deacon asked Moore if he’d ever “let a nigger in his home,” Moore replied, “Of course, I would,” and the deacon suggested Moore pack his shit and move.

Another evening, while visiting the home of a parishioner, a vandal ransacked Moore’s office library, stealing several books on race. His wife Patricia began receiving strange phone calls from men telling them to leave town. They eventually did, relocating to San Antonio around 1961 so he could serve as pastor of Jefferson Methodist Church and St. Matthew’s Methodist Church, but even there, St. Matthew’s church leaders didn’t want Moore inviting an all-black choir to sing in their sanctuary.

Moore eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. theology program at Boston University and the Harvard Divinity School in 1965, but he he left two years later to go rebuild Chicago’s ghettos with a group called the Ecumenical Institute. When his family arrived to Chicago’s West Side in 1968, it followed the April assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and two days of rioting which resulted in 11 deaths, 500 injuries, over 2,150 arrests, 125 local fires and $10 million in damages. The city’s Black citizens had just begun dismantling the racist zoning laws which had kept them segregated for decades in overcrowded ghettos with few sanitation services, few recreation areas and high rates of crime and police brutality.

Eager to help, Moore spent his next four years with the Ecumenical Institute building a community center, organizing family and career workshops and recruiting others to the cause. He left the institute nine years later, but continued working on behalf of impoverished families into the ‘90s by founding South Austin Assistance Ministries, an organization of four churches that pooled their resources to help local poor people — the organization exists to this day with 18 churches now in its membership.

Moore’s letters to SMU weren’t mere airings of grievances — he had intended each one as a suicide note. In his first one dated June 23, 2013, Moore hoped that his on-campus immolation might compel former president George Bush to support a bill ending the death penalty in Texas and encourage the regional Methodist bishop to posthumously honor defrocked gay minister Gene Leggett for his honesty, bravery and service.

But Moore couldn’t go through with it. He reportedly commented in a July 19 note, “It isn’t easy to contemplate, let alone carry out, the ending of one’s life,” and then authored a second letter to Bush and the Dean of Perkins on August 2. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it then either. A year passed, then the idea rekindled itself, with a new hope of illuminating slightly different issues.

In a June 16, 2014 letter, Moore wrote that he hoped his death would get the Perkins Seminary and Methodist Church to pursue the progressive aims included in Methodism’s Social Principles: namely, the abolishment of the death penalty, protection of environmental laws and the reproductive rights of women, an opposition to war and support of free public education and tax structures favoring the poor. Also, to draw attention to contemporary racism, Moore wanted to end his life on June 19 or “Juneteenth” — the holiday commemorating the official emancipation of slaves in Texas — but still he couldn’t do it.

He typed a fourth suicide note the day after, stating, “I was very disappointed yesterday that my courage failed…” June 20 marked the 50th anniversary of three black civil rights workers burned to death in Mississippi by the KKK; he thought his suicide might help “keep the memory of those three brave men alive.” But he demurred once again, writing on the 21st, “Another day gone by — another failure — but it is hard to face the flames.”

In a June 22 suicide note, Moore reaffirmed his decision to end his life at SMU, saying, “I love this school and know what great influence it could have…” Even so, he added, “I am deeply sorry… to create such a horrendous scene on this beautiful campus.” He pledged “only to hurt myself and to not to damage any more than necessary the beauty of SMU.” But yet again, he couldn’t do it.

Had he tried any of his five intended dates, it’s uncertain whether he would have succeeded. Only a fraction of the seminary’s students and faculty would have been on campus during the summer session though security might have caught wind of his actions and put a stop to them. It’s a moot speculation because the next day, Moore finally went through with his plan.

But instead of immolating himself at SMU, he drove his Volkswagen hatchback 87 miles away to his hometown of Grand Saline and set himself aflame there.

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