United Methodist leaders Wednesday portrayed American society as trapped in an interracial quagmire of mutual distrust, and they adopted plans, including fasting and social service work, to help overcome it.
The church's governing General Conference scrapped its planned agenda in favor of a three-hour special session on the riots prompted by the not guilty verdicts returned against four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.
"It's not only a disease in the black community but a disease in America," the Rev. James M. Lawson of Los Angeles told representatives of the 9-million-member denomination.
The Holman United Methodist Church pastor said the upheaval showed that the underlying problem involves all races.
"The great pain cuts across all categories," he said. "It's teaching millions that life must be worthless."
Delegates, on the second day of their 11-day legislative meeting, rushed through a series of measures aimed at tackling the problem, including planned "shalom zones" that will enlist people of all races to rebuild businesses and provide social services. The first will be in Los Angeles.
The 998 church representatives also set up a task force to prepare a message to the nation and scheduled 24 hours of repentance and fasting for themselves this week and a weekend of prayer and fasting during Pentecost, June 6-7.
A procession of blacks, Latinos, Korean-Americans, whites and American Indians took the rostrum to testify about economic and other trials they have faced. About 400,000 United Methodists are ethnic minorities.
The Rev. Brandon L. Cho of Long Beach, a Korean-American, described the Los Angeles fury as "in a literal sense, hell." Some Korean-American businesses were singled out for looting and arson, apparently because of tension between African-Americans and Korean-Americans.
"No more going through the fires of hell," he said. "Enough is enough."
The Rev. Willard Stevens of Phoenix, who with Lawson led the special session, compared the "powerlessness and desperation" revealed by the Los Angeles tumult with oppression under the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
"We have become an oppressed people," he said, citing marks of fear proliferating across the land--the security checks, barred windows, double locks, car alarms and bulletproof glass in banks, post offices and cabs.
Bishop Emilio de Carvalho of Angola, preaching at the opening communion service, reminded delegates that even the church is plagued with "racial attitudes and clashes of cultures."
In a recently published poll of leaders of the United Methodist Church, racism was identified as the top issue facing U.S. society during the next decade.