US: Retired United Methodist minister sets himself on fire to protest against racism, homophobia

Ashley Chhibber July 15, 2014
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Family and colleagues of a retired United Methodist minister who set himself on fire to protest against racism and homophobia have spoken about his life-long fight for equal rights.

The Rev. Charles Moore, 79, committed suicide on 23 June, having driven across Texas to his childhood home of Grand Saline, before dousing himself with gasoline and lighting himself on fire.

Moore chose Grand Saline for the negative memories it held of racism and prejudice, and particular of lynching, which he witnessed as a boy.

Although he spent much of his early life fighting racial segregation, in later life he directed his attention first against the death penalty and then to combating prejudice within the Methodist church against gays and lesbians.

In the 1990s, he took an active role in encouraging gay Christians to join his own congregation, and in challenging the prejudices of an aging church-going population for whom religious condemnation of homosexuality was the norm. He promoted gay members to leadership positions within his church.

A colleague, the Rev. Sid Hall, described Moore as having “a conviction that if the Bible stood for anything, it stood for radical inclusiveness”.

“If you ever were on the side of powerlessness, if you were ever on the margins yourself and were looking for someone to help you, Charles was the person,” he said.

In 1995, he started a hunger strike to protest against the United Methodist Church’s treatment of gays and lesbians. It made headlines and lasted for 15 days, before bishops issued a statement acknowledging the church’s negative contributions to the ostracism of gays and lesbians, and encouraging Methodist churches to welcome LGBT members of their congregations.

Yet in his retirement, he began to doubt whether he had done enough over his life to champion civil rights, and whether there was any more he could do in death – an inner turmoil revealed through notes and letters to his family, found after his death.

In one note, he wrote: “I have always felt that death for a cause was my destiny, but never so much as during the past several years — when it has admittedly been a preoccupation.”

His notes showed hesitation, however, as when he wrote: “The turning leaves on the trees in my front yard are almost reason enough to keep living.”

Eventually, he settled on self-immolation as his only course of action. Another note records: “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.”

The choice of this method is believed to refer to the peaceful protests used by Tibetan monks opposed to Chinese rule.

Kathy Renfro, Moore’s stepdaughter, said that he “failed to realize… the emotional turmoil that he would leave behind”. Her husband Bill, who is also a retired minister, added: “He did this selfless act, this sacrifice for others, but he also did not think thoroughly through the consequences of the act.”

This Friday would have marked Reverend Moore’s 80th birthday. A service was held in his memory on Saturday.

More: anti-homophobia protest, Christian, Civil Rights, equal rights, Gay rights, methodist, racism, suicide, Texas, US

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