McKendree Pastor Stephen Handy Helps Lead Service of Remembrance and Repentance

Holly Meyer
Nashville Tennessean

The Rev. Sam McGlothlin wrote a liturgy lamenting the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police for a class project. 

Four years later, McGlothlin pulled out the prayers. They were needed again. 

McGlothlin, no longer a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School but an associate pastor at Belle Meade United Methodist Church, was searching for a way her congregation and community could respond to George Floyd’s death together.

The 46-year-old Black man died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death shocked many Americans, spurring ongoing nationwide protests and calls for change. 

Belle Meade church leaders and members decided to hold an outdoor prayer service June 5 and invited a cross section of the community. They decided to use the liturgy McGlothlin wrote that used both words and movement, but it needed updating.

“We thought that to do those prayers together in person using our bodies was a way that we could pray and sort of put ourselves in the positions that some of these people have been put in to really feel what that must have felt like,” McGlothlin said in an interview with The Tennessean. 

She asked fellow United Methodist minister the Rev. Paula Smith for help. Smith, who leads Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, added the recent victims of police brutality to the list of prayers:

“We fall to one knee and remember George Floyd, who was killed in broad daylight, who said ‘I can’t breathe,’ who called for his mama, who pleaded for his life. We remember the horror and terror Black men and women have endured at the hands of white people. And now we hold silence for 8 mins to honor his life, not his oppressor.”  

Titled the “Embodied Prayers for Pardon and Power,” the liturgy, a script that helps a group move through a communal prayer together, is now available to the entire United Methodist Church.

The second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. is in the midst of a global church initiative to dismantle racism. McGlothlin and Smith’s liturgy is among the resources that have been compiled online to help United Methodists end racism and advocate for racial justice. Other efforts are underway in the local church, too. 

“Words are great, words are important — but action is really important,” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, said in a June news release announcing the initiative. “Pick up your pen, pick up your voice, pick up your feet, and do something.”

On June 5, a crowd gathered on the grass outside the Belle Meade church. McGlothlin, Smith and two other United Methodist ministers, the Rev. Jim Hughes and the Rev. Stephen Handy, led everyone through the liturgy, praying for victims of brutality and moving their bodies. 

Together, they touched their necks as they remembered Eric Garner; they touched their backs for Freddie Gray; they held out their hands for Tamir Rice; they lay on the ground for Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor; they looked at their shoes for Ahmaud Arbery; and they took a knee for Floyd. 

Then they prayed to God for strength to do more. 

“We raise our voices and we say together: ‘We will speak up against racism.’ We will speak up against racism. We will act against racism. We will seek God’s justice and peace,” the liturgy reads. 

McGlothlin said she hopes the prayers are a jumping-off point for people, “a moment that can create a movement.” 

At the Belle Meade church, plans are underway for continued work on dismantling racism, including a community reading project, McGlothlin said. 

Smith urges people to examine their own implicit biases and build a relationship with someone from a different walk of life who can offer an honest perspective and point out blind spots. 

“This is an opportunity to hit the reset button; it’s an opportunity to move forward and help create the beloved community,” Smith said. “That moves from just being merely words, but actions as well so that we can create a better space for ourselves and for our children and our children’s children.”