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

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

Charles Moore doing work in India with the Ecumenical Institute. Though his wife Patricia joined him abroad, his two sons stayed with other families in the U.S. during their absence. (image via William Renfro)

Focusing on Grand Saline also overlooks a second important point: that people who kill themselves are often mentally unwell. Moore killed himself not only to protest racism, but also because he was depressed. Moore had many regrets and doubts about his life’s work. In order to rebuild communities with the Ecumenical Institute (EI) during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Moore effectively broke up his family, something he regretted for the rest of his life.

After arriving in Chicago in 1968, Moore sent his 12-year-old son Steven to an EI family in Michigan so he could live and work on community projects with teens close to his own age. Moore, his wife Patricia and their six-year-old son Guy began living in a tiny dormitory apartment in an EI ghetto compound. Guy remembers it as a war zone with intruders scaling the perimeter fence at night, bricks thrown through the apartment windows and gang members looting and shooting while he traveled to and from school. As one of the only White students at Leif Ericson Elementary, Black kids would beat Guy up for money, not realizing his parents made only a modest stipend for their work.

Guy barely saw his parents at all. Except for a brief morning break and bedtime, the EI’s regimented schedule kept Patricia and Charles in church and community activities from 5 a.m. until well after dark. Guy says that other adults basically raised him; over time, he began distrusting his parents and keeping feelings to himself. Charles and Patricia would fly Stephen in several times a year for Christmas, his birthday and odd weekends, but they’d never live together as a family again.

Patricia felt conflicted. Although she admired the EI’s world-changing goals, she found Chicago frightening and disliked seeing her children grow up without her. She considered divorce, but says, “Back when I grew up, divorce was very much frowned upon and when you made a life choice for your mate, that’s was it: a life choice. I thought I had to do [the Ecumenical Institute]because that’s what he was choosing to do.”

Charles said that if she ever divorced him, he’d call her a deserter and take full custody of their kids, so she stayed. After Charles and Patricia left for six-month EI assignments in India, Guy and Steven went off to live with other EI families and eventually dropped out of school. That proved the breaking point for her. She moved back to the U.S. in 1977, reunited with her children and divorced Charles the following year.

Charles eventually expressed his tremendous guilt to his youngest son. “He wished that he had done things differently and was sorry for the suffering that Steve and I went through and that he wasn’t a very good father,” Guy says. “He was always concerned with large scale human struggle and sometimes that came at the expense of his family.”

And yet, watching Charles interact with his grandchildren, Guy saw a new man — a man who gave hugs, said “I love you” and played games — all things Charles never did with his own kids.

“I think he was just now learning how to love,” says Patricia of Charles’ final years. “It’s one thing to love humanity, saving humanity. It’s quite another thing to love on a daily basis those with whom you are intimate. Say what you want, but it’s never easy.”

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Charles R. Moore, Methodist, minister, Grand Saline, Texas, immolation, suicide, note, Grand Saline, wife, Barbara

Charles Moore’s goodbye letter to his wife Barbara, penned in 2014. (image via William Renfro)

Contrary to popular depictions on TV and movies, most suicide victims don’t usually leave notes; only 25 percent of them do. They also don’t usually choose a significant or sentimental location for their suicide, they just choose the location that provides the best chance of success. Most families also don’t publicize loved ones’ suicides, since suicide carries a stigma of insanity, unhealthy living and emotional neglect. But in all three of these instances, Moore proved an exception.

Underneath the manila folder containing his suicide notes, Renfro found a second folder with a self-written obituary with a picture of himself taped to it, his final wishes for his memorial service and a list of people to contact, including the 60 Minutes reporter who had interviewed him during his 1995 hunger strike. It conveyed to Renfro that Moore wanted his story shared with the world. So with his widow’s permission, Renfro and his wife made digital copies of Moore’s notes and sent them to local and national media.

“In my own mind,” Renfro said, “I just wanted the story to be out because to me his death was more than just ‘Strange Guy Commits Suicide In Horrible Manner.’”

 The folder also contained Moore’s goodbye letter to his wife Barbara. The letter read:

“I know that some people will call me crazy, and accuse me of cruelty to you and the rest of our family, [and]insist that I just wanted attention… but I am also convinced that some will be moved to action… by voting, giving money, demonstrating and so on… I know that our families are going to be deeply hurt by the gruesome choice I have made (especially my grandchildren), but maybe the positive response will make a difference.”

Immediately after his suicide, Barbara fell into a deep depression. Though Renfro and his wife shielded her from media inquiries, the stress and anxiety following Charles’ death worsened her atrial fibrillation and fluctuating blood pressure. Some days she’d break down in tears unexpectedly and apologize for being so weak. One time she passed out at home and had to go to the emergency room. She moved into a senior apartment complex near Austin to be closer to her daughter, but within five months, she too was dead.

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