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

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This post is also available in: Portuguese

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

Charles Moore reading before officiating the marriage of his stepdaughter (image via William Renfro)

Among his final wishes, Moore requested a Presbyterian minister and church to host his memorial service. He had become friends with Lou Snead of Faith Presbyterian Church during the ’90’s while serving at Grace United Methodist Church in Austin. Both churches were about a mile apart and both ministers followed the “social gospel” — the belief that churches should address social problems.

Together, they welcomed poor and LGBT people into their congregations and founded South Austin Assistance Ministries, a poverty assistance group that endures to this day. When Moore retired in 2000, he told his congregation to attend Faith Presbyterian if they found his replacement too conservative — about 15 joined Snead’s church after Moore’s retirement.

While both men shared a social vision, Snead didn’t share Moore’s pessimistic worldview. He agrees that the politics of white privilege, capital punishment and guns are all moving in the wrong direction, but it doesn’t depress him; he just feels more voices need to present an alternative vision of what could be.

Moore, on the other hand, would feel distraught and hopeless after reading about politics and world news; Snead started suggesting that Moore’s wife and in-laws hide the morning newspaper to keep Moore from getting upset. Had Moore lived, Snead says, he probably would’ve found hope in the progress of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders’ proposed economic reforms.

“Like most people, to me this was a tragedy,” Snead says, “that Charles somehow had reached a point where he felt like he could no longer effectively address these ethical moral issues anymore without doing something drastic and ending his life.”

Even though Snead lead Moore’s memorial service, Moore chose all the hymns and eulogists. He also specified that he wanted no talk of the afterlife nor judgements about his death, but rather, he wanted the memorial to celebrate his commitment to social justice. Towards this end, he named Andy Smith, one of his openly gay congregation members at Grace United Methodist, to speak about his LGBT work.

Smith had first come to Moore’s church after hearing about his progressive stances on LGBT issues, but soon learned that they had lots in common: they both grew up in East Texas and both attended Tyler Junior College and SMU. As a founder of the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas (a gay conservative group), Smith began bringing his Log Cabin colleagues to Moore’s church and soon found Moore challenging their views with sermons against the death penalty and in support of transgender rights.

“His sermon about Lazarus coming out of the tomb has stayed with me for more than 20 years and remains the single best sermon I’ve ever heard,” Smith said during his eulogy.

Smith said:

“I remember Charles saying… ‘Lazarus, come out of that cool, comfortable tomb. Be involved in the world and make a difference.’ [Moore’s sermons] made me uncomfortable and eventually caused me to leave the cool, comfortable tomb of ignorance, misunderstanding and retribution in the name of justice…

I’m very sorry that Charles felt he hadn’t done enough to advance the causes that he cared so much about, as I feel that he made a huge difference with me, with Grace, with those issues, and, I think especially as his story is told and more people learn about him… with others too.”

Reverend Jeff Hood, another memorial attendee, had met Moore through the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He felt like most of the ministers and clergy in attendance didn’t know what to make of Moore’s suicide.

“I’m not sure that you could call this a suicide,” Hood says. “I think that Charles felt like he was forced by our society to do this act. He felt like he did not have any other option. So on some level I feel like our society is what killed Charles. You might even be able to call this a murder, a murder at the hands of an evil, unjust and immoral society.”

“I saw it as a very spiritual and beautiful thing,” Hood continues, “but it really kinda terrified [other clergy] and they kinda ran away from it.”

While some expressed guilt over not reaching out to Moore before his death, an older colleague told Hood, “There’s nothing about this to admire. The job of a reverend is to get as many runs batted in as possible, and Charles just struck out.”

Moore probably would have agreed with his colleague. The lack of national response following his death might have exacerbated his feelings of inadequacy. Although nearly 300 people attended his memorial, no local TV stations covered it: neither NBC, CBS, FOX, nor 60 Minutes. He would have gotten more coverage had he done it at SMU, but history is history, and perhaps news coverage is a poor measure of Moore’s influence.

For all his work on racial equality and LGBT rights, the modern day Methodist church also struggles with both issues. A 2008 Church report found Methodists members to be 90 percent White and only 5.8 percent Black — a more than 10 percent deviation from the U.S. Census. In 2009, 23 historically black United Methodist churches closed forever, leaving “fewer than 2,300 black churches in the entire denomination.”

Despite a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, the Church still forbids its clergy from officiating same-sex nuptials, and that’s unlikely to change. A 2012 vote to soften the Church’s stance on homosexuality lost 61 percent to 39 percent with the Church’s large native African contingent voting unanimously against it. The African contingent will comprise 40 percent of the overall church by 2016, the next time they’re likely to reconsider their anti-gay stance.

Some think that only a schism can resolve the disagreement, yet signs of change persist. In 2011, the Church suspended Amy DeLong — an openly lesbian pastor who officiated a lesbian wedding — but they did not defrock her; in fact, they asked her to draft guidelines assisting future ministers with serving their LGBT congregants within the confines of Church law. Similarly, in 2013, the Church denied the ordination of Mary Ann Barclay, an openly lesbian ministerial candidate, and yet, the denomination’s highest court asked the ordination board to reconsider Barclay. Barclay — who now lives as a non-gendered person — was subsequently rejected, but the court’s intercession remains noteworthy.

So while Moore’s death didn’t spark a revolution, it could have planted seeds for other significant changes. “Even if things don’t make national and international news,” Hood said, “you have no idea who you’re going to effect. And if you do affect someone, then maybe your stand is worth it.”

As one of Moore’s eulogists reportedly said: “Charles saw the world on fire and he refused to let it burn.”

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