To the casual onlooker, Sunday’s 10 a.m. worship service at predominately black St. Mark United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge might have seemed like nothing out of the ordinary.
However, the Rev. Derrick Hills delivered his impassioned sermon — utilizing the Good Samaritan as a foil for how someone can now help those who are often overlooked by society — to a few guests who normally spend their Sundays at St. John’s United Methodist Church, which is made up of mostly white people.
Spearheaded by newly minted Baton Rouge District United Methodist Church superintendent, the Rev. Ken Irby, the initiative invited some members of St. John’s to attend the St. Mark worship service as a way to show solidarity in light of recent events in Baton Rouge. Plans are in place for some members of the St. Mark congregation to attend future St. John’s worship services.
“It is certainly an effort to promote unity and solidarity,” said the Rev. Jay Hogewood, who is entering his third year as St. John’s pastor. “The key word for me is ‘united.’ As a predominately white Methodist church, our perspectives as white folks often overshadow other perspectives. We want to show we’re connected to their lives and their congregation.”
“This sends a message to the wider community that the church is one, and the church knows no color and no ethnic boundaries,” added Hills in an interview preceding the worship service.
Hills urged his congregation and guests to be doers, and not just listeners, of God’s word. He noted he plans to serve water and light refreshments to protesters Monday.
“Victims of injustice, abuse, hatred and violence are crying out from the streets of our communities and our nation,” he said, often receiving encouragements of “c’mon”, “yes” and “amen” from the crowd. “How can any one of us sit and sleep in the comforts of our homes knowing that the blood of those now voiceless souls are crying out that justice be served on their behalf? … Yes, we can pray, but our prayers must be adorned with works of mercy.”
Hills acknowledged in his sermon that recent events — the shooting death of Alton Sterling by a police officer in Baton Rouge, the killings of five police officers in Dallas by an ex-military man and the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer in a suburban Minnesota town — have weighed heavily on his heart.
“I have not been comfortable in Zion because I heard the blood of not only my brother in Baton Rouge, but the blood of my brothers and sisters in Dallas and that of my brother in St. Paul,” admitted Hills, who is entering his ninth year as pastor of St. Mark. “I want to awaken your conscience. Mine has been awakened.”
Hills awakened Bobbi Marino’s conscience, who was visiting from St. John’s.
“I thought the service was powerful,” she said. “It shows the need we all have to be together.”
Coming together is not a new concept for Hills.
“On a regular basis, he preaches unity and justice,” said Dorothy Collins, who is a member of the St. Mark congregation. “That’s a standard kind of thing for him.”
Hogewood said before his sermon Sunday that fighting for justice is something everyone must do.
“We need to advocate for each other for justice,” he said. “Without it, there will be no peace.”