Ninety years ago a tragedy took place in Birmingham; the murder of Father James Edwin Coyle by a Methodist preacher. The Catholic priest had married the preacher's daughter to a Puerto Rican man. The crime was about race, religion, and hatred. The trial that ensued was about ignoring justice, the Ku Klux Klan, and scandal. The Methodist Church was about silence.
Father James E. Coyle
The United Methodist Church has finally made things right.
At Highlands United Methodist Church last night Bishop William Willimon delivered a message of repentance for a crime committed so long ago. In prayer, he offered:
"We ask forgiveness for the indifference of our beloved Methodist Church in the unjust death of Father James Coyle, a servant of God among us, whose ministry was tragically ended. Heal us, we pray, of dissension and hatred for brothers and sisters of other faiths. Reconcile us to those whom we have wronged or who have wronged us. Embolden us to witness to the love of Jesus Christ by loving others as he loved us."The Methodist clergyman, E. R. Stephenson, had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK at the time was very anti-Catholic, and in Birmingham there existed a secret anti-catholic political society called the True Americans. Father Coyle defended the Catholic Church and promoted racial harmony amid public persecution of the Church.
Father Coyle had married Stephenson's daughter to a Puerto Rican man, Pedro Gussman. Stephenson's acquittal was a nationwide scandal; a black eye for the city of Birmingham, which has seen so many black eyes.
There is no record of the Methodist Church or any other group ever disciplining Stephenson for this crime.
Now that has been corrected. Through this service the grace and forgiveness of God has been unveiled in a most profound way.
The service included the Rev. Alex Steinmiller, C.P., president of Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School, who said (and I'm paraphrasing), "There is no statute of limitations on forgiveness and reconciliation."
James Pinto, the director of The Father James E. Coyle Memorial Project, spoke as well. He had earlier in the day spoken to a 100 year old woman who had been a parishioner of Father Coyle and who remembered being ministered to by the priest. This provided a connection to the event, and to a time very different from our own in so many ways, but not unlike ours in others.
Mr. Pinto also read some letters from Catholic officials. One of these mentioned that all of the "disenfranchised" now stand in "solidarity with Father Coyle."
During this Lenten season let the Church (Catholic, Methodists and others) consider the disenfranchisment of the LGBT community. We stand in solidarity with Father Coyle, and with a Jesus who brought his love and extends grace to all.
I look forward to the day when the church extends an apology to the LGBT community and seeks reconciliation with those who it has estranged from its ranks. As was said, there is no statute of limitations for reconciliation. If ninety years of silence can be erased, two thousand years of wrongdoing can be also.
In the meantime, read John Shore's Open Letter From Christians to Gay People.