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Church and Society calls for justice in Jena

Marchers rally Sept. 20 in Washington to show support for six African-American students following a series of racially charged incidents at Jena (La.) High School.
A UMNS photo by John Coleman.

By United Methodist News Service*
Sept. 24, 2007

"Justice can lead to healing in Jena, Louisiana, but only if the intention is reconciliation," said United Methodist leaders with the church's social action agency in response to demonstrations sparked by six black students facing criminal prosecution in the beating of a white student.

"Police intimidation, harsh prison sentences for youth, and different standards based on race will not lead to reconciliation," read a Sept. 21 statement from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, based in Washington.

"Justice and reconciliation can only be realized through an honest admission of the racism that exists in Jena and throughout the United States and the courage to bring about necessary changes to eradicate injustice which gives rise to violence."

The board's statement joins with those of other organizations — such as the Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — in urging Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to ensure that the office of the State Attorney General and the Board of Education appropriately address the racially charged atmosphere that led to the racial violence between African-American and white youth in Jena.

"The situation in Jena brings to light the pervasive institutional and personal racism that continues to plague U.S. society," the statement said. "The violence and racism that exists in Jena, Louisiana is rife throughout the U.S. and especially in the criminal justice system."

On Sept. 21, bail was denied for Mychal Bell, the only one of the teens jailed in the beating of the white classmate. He was convicted of aggravated battery, which could have led to a 15-year sentence. However, an appeals court overturned that conviction Sept. 15, saying he could not be tried as an adult because he was 16 at the time of the beating.

Citing statistics that show prisons are going up faster than schools in the United States and that one in every 21 African-American men is imprisoned, the Church and Society statement added, "With the increasing trend of incarceration, it can be expected that as many as one-third of African-American men will be incarcerated at least once in their lifetime."

The board called on school officials to investigate "the intensification of racially charged events that led to this most recent violence."

"Justice and reconciliation can only be realized through an honest admission of the racism that exists in Jena and throughout the United States and the courage to bring about necessary changes to eradicate injustice which gives rise to violence."

On Sept. 20, tens of thousands of people from across the United States marched in Jena in protest of alleged double standards of justice for blacks and whites. A 24-year-old African-American woman who graduated from Jena High said she "was relieved to see such a groundswell of support from the entire nation."

The Rev. Charles Hill, who serves as the chairperson for Black Methodists for Church Renewal in the Louisiana Conference, visited members of Jena's black community to hear their concerns. "With Bishop Hutchinson and other church leaders, we plan to help this community heal," he said.

Hill has been present in court throughout a number of the proceedings pertaining to this case.

"I think it says a lot that the United Methodist Church in Jena stayed open when just about everything else was closed. This series of events have truly been a learning experience for all of us," he added.

The Rev. Martha Orphe, director of the Louisiana Mission Zone, said that everyone in America can stand together if they work together. "This is about peace and justice for all.  It is sad to think that we are living in this time and age and are still having to deal with these types of injustices," she said. "We need to work through this and through God, we can work this out."

Bishop William W. Hutchinson, episcopal leader for the Louisiana area, said, "We have all been in prayer for the people of Jena and are grateful for the peaceful nature of the march on Thursday. We are all committed to bringing God's call to justice to a reality and seek the prayers of our sisters and brothers in Christ as we work for a peace-filled and just resolution."

*Betty Backstrom, communications director for the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference, contributed to this report.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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