response: March/April 2020 Issue

Say Her Name

Central Texas United Methodist Women respond to the police killing of Atatiana Jefferson.

Say Her Name
L. to r.: Monretta Walker, Barbara Greenem, Cynthia Rives, Darlene Alfred and Lynne Grandstaff at a vigil for Atatiana Jefferson

In the moments before she was killed, Atatiana Jefferson was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew at her home in Fort Worth, Texas, where she lived with and cared for her family while studying to prepare for medical school. That evening, a neighbor saw that her house door was left open and placed a non-emergency call for a routine welfare check. On October 12, 2019, the responding police officer arrived at Jefferson’s home, never announcing his presence. When Jefferson rose to investigate the seeming prowler, the officer shot her to death through her own window.

Jefferson’s death struck a deep chord. Another Black woman shot and killed by police, for no reason, in her own home. Heartbreaking. Senseless. Tragic. Outrageous. Terrifying. All these words and more reverberated in the hearts of the United Methodist Women members in Jefferson’s home state of Texas.

Support and action

When the news of Jefferson’s killing reached Susan Torpy, social action coordinator for Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women, she reached out to her sisters in Christ to see how they might respond to what she felt was a tragic and senseless death.

“The Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women want to speak out, and we are ready to stand up for racial justice,” Torpy told me just two days later. The situation demanded an immediate response, and the Central Texas Conference was ready to honor and remember Jefferson, to offer prayer and support for her grieving family, and to publicly challenge the institutional racism that led to her death. They were ready to Say Her Name.

Women across the conference stepped up to leadership, making connections and organizing a response. Cynthia Rives, national board member, and Darlene Alfred, part of the national program advisory group, published a joint Op-Ed. Jackie Carter, social action coordinator for the East District of the Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women, communicated with the family throughout their grief process to ensure that United Methodist Women presented a resolution for Jefferson’s funeral. and she swiftly organized a candlelight vigil for a wounded community.

Organizing a vigil on less than a week’s notice was new for Carter, but she felt clear that this was what God was calling to her to do, part of the kin-dom building work that she was given.

“I have always known that I have a call for service on my life,” Carter said, reflecting back on the experience. “God has gifted me to be a servant to God’s people.”

It was not without challenges. Jefferson’s death was heartbreaking for Carter. As tensions rose, she leaned heavily on God. She worked early in the morning and late at night, even taking a day off work to make the phone calls, texts and e-mails needed to call together a coalition of community groups for a quick turnaround.

Spiritual urgency

On Sunday, October 27, just 15 days after Jefferson’s death, United Methodist Women members, church members and community members gathered at Harvest United Methodist Church for the Candlelight #WhatsNext? Vigil in Fort Worth.

Alfred spoke powerfully at the Vigil.

“We’re here because a young African American female was tragically shot and killed in her own home, the one place—the one place—she should have felt most safe. And hearing of her death, it was apparent to me and many other United Methodist Women members in and around Texas that it was time for us to put our faith into action,” she said.

Alfred rallied the gathered community around the deep spiritual urgency of the work: “As people of faith, as people of color, and as women we are in the midst of a battle. And the Bible reminds us that we wrestle not against flesh and blood; we fight against a mindset, we fight against a state of superiority, a fear that is costing many of us, in various shades of brown, our freedom and our lives.”

She urged the gathered community to resist the criminalization of communities of color and to deepen the work of sisterhood.

“We are here because the mission of the United Methodist Women is increasingly imperative for Black women. Our organization must see and center Black women. The notion of sisterhood must extend to Black women and all women of color until all of our homes and our sanctuaries are safe again.”

The vigil included reflections from Jefferson’s uncle, Lapaca Jefferson, as well as from local clergy and a panel of community leaders, including a city councilman, Rives, several community organizers and nonprofit leaders and a local journalist. Bishop Mike Lowry, episcopal leader of the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church, joined the vigil as well. Near the vigil’s conclusion, Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women led a liturgy for intercessory prophets.

“No two of us make our journey into community or public service in the same way,” said Lynne Grandstaff, president of Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women. “Whether you can’t wait to get to work or you’re not sure you can stick it out, we’ve all said yes to this work because we want change.”

The Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women said yes to this work with their whole selves.

Now, the vigil is behind them, and the news cycle has moved on, but the ongoing work of racial justice remains. As Torpy said, “We must keep remembering.”

Let us all join with our sisters in Texas, committing to Say Her Name, to honor Jefferson’s memory, and to work for the justice that she deserves and God demands.

Emily Jones is executive for racial justice for United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 3/5/2020 12:00:00 AM
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