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Black caucus draws closer to African partners (UM News)

May 11, 2023

The United Methodist Church’s Black membership caucus removed the word “National” from its name in 2015, hoping to become a more global organization. During its 56th General Meeting in mid-April, Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) took strides in that direction, emphasizing its relationship with Africa University and then sending representatives to the first gathering of the new United Methodist Africa Forum in South Africa.

Convening April 12-15 in Pittsburgh, BMCR attendees gathered in person for the first time since 2020, after two years of virtual meetings due to COVID-19. About 200 members heard a keynote address by the Rev. Peter Mageto, vice chancellor of United Methodist-related Africa University in Zimbabwe, as part of a session titled “Continuing Our Relationship with the Africa Diaspora.” 

Mageto, who took leadership of the university as it celebrated its 30th anniversary last October, lauded its growth from the first 40 students to now nearly 3,000, and he shared his vision for future growth in enrollment, academic programs and partnerships. He called on BMCR to help identify new partners and joint research and study opportunities, which he hopes to report on at the caucus’ 2024 General Meeting.

“The future is here, and we are the future if we can take hold of it,” Mageto said, noting the African continent’s large, growing population of young people (45% of 1.3 billion people) who need more educational and leadership opportunities. 

He recalled Jeremiah 29, a key scriptural focus used throughout the meeting. He and others reminded the body that while God spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah during their painful exile, God’s focus was not on their present circumstances but on God’s vision for their future.  

Mageto told of a student from Uganda who waited a year to attend the university, even though he received a full scholarship because he could not afford transportation to travel across the continent to the campus. 

Spurred by the Rev. Candace Lewis, president and dean of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta and the meeting’s Bible study leader, BMCR members donated and pledged $2,600 in that one session to help fund travel vouchers for future university students. 

In total, members raised and donated more than $30,000 during the meeting for the caucus, Africa University, the United Methodist Black College Fund and other causes.

Six days after the meeting, the Rev. Antoine Love, BMCR chairperson, traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, with the Rev. Theron Johnson, a board member, to attend the United Methodist Africa Forum meeting along with leaders of other United Methodist racial-ethnic caucuses and general agencies. 

There, African church leaders expressed support for their bishops, for proposals to restructure equitably the global church into regions, and for maintaining denominational unity despite threats of schism over theological differences regarding human sexuality and ministry. 

Long, intense forum discussions about human sexuality and church law resulted in a predominant view that the majority of Africans firmly believe in the denomination’s current position that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Yet, that inaugural assembly opposed disaffiliation from the denomination and supported church unity notwithstanding differences.

“It was a privilege and a gift to be a conversation partner in this forum with our African siblings,” said Love, upon his return to the U.S. He cited the potential “global-ness” of BMCR, as it participates in “building relationships and connections for greater Kin-dom work.”

“Witnessing their wresting with their own self-determination in an atmosphere that honored different perspectives and understandings was powerful,” he said. “I was impressed by their commitment to remain within The United Methodist Church in the midst of dynamic tension, not only on the continent but also beyond.”

Love’s words might also describe BMCR’s own tension, as it too wrestles with self-determination and disaffiliation amid different perspectives and understandings of the denomination’s debate over homosexuality, marriage and ordained ministry. 

In a “Disaffiliation and the Future of the Black Church” discussion, panelists shared information and insights about how Black churches in their areas are learning about and responding to invitations to leave The United Methodist Church with their properties for reasons of conscience. 

Throughout the meeting, various speakers rejected disaffiliation, as some urged caucus members to seek justice and equality for all minority groups, including LGBTQ members, in affinity with Black members’ own historic and ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

Gammon’s Lewis voiced that sentiment in her two-day Bible study, where she also shared a final report from the survey research study titled “Black United Methodist Perspectives on the Future of The United Methodist Church.” The study researched Black members’ awareness and attitudes about disaffiliation, human sexuality concerns, racism and racial inclusiveness, and other issues.

In another panel discussion, members heard eight “Ebony Bishops” offer their viewpoints on the gift and power of worship in Black churches, the need for more Black congregations to organize people and resources in new ways for more effective community outreach, and other topics. 

The bishops who attend BMCR General Meetings always play key roles, including addressing members’ concerns and leading worship and Holy Communion on the first evening. Bishop Julius Trimble, who leads the Indiana Conference, preached about “Love and Justice” at this year’s service. Also in attendance were Bishops Frank Beard, Cedrick Bridgeforth, LaTrelle Miller Easterling, Jonathan Holston, Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, Sharma Lewis, Tracy Smith Malone and John Schol.

Schol of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Greater New Jersey conferences is a Life Member of BMCR who attends the meetings annually. He spoke about major efforts in his two conferences to “end the sin of racism” through cabinet diversity, training events and resources, more cross-racial pastoral appointments, special grants and equity provisions to relieve financial burdens on Black churches. 

The BMCR gathering — about two-thirds the size of pre-pandemic meetings — also heard news and reports from United Methodist general agencies, seminaries and meeting sponsors. A women’s ensemble of the Dillard University Choir in New Orleans performed, and university president Rochelle Ford spoke at the traditional Black College Fund luncheon.

The Rev. Ronald Bell, director of Healing and Resilience at United Methodist Discipleship Ministries and The Upper Room, spoke to attendees about mental health challenges and solutions for pastors and church leaders. 

The Rev. Neal Christie, Baltimore-Washington Conference, engaged members in discussion about proposed General Conference legislation for restructuring the global but U.S.-dominant denomination into more equitable regional conferences. One piece of legislation, the Christmas Covenant, comes from central conference leaders in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, but it is gaining support from U.S. groups. 

“More than ever, BMCR must step up and own its place in every moment, at every table,” said Love, who was reelected BMCR chairperson, along with vice chairperson Deborah Bass and other officers. “We must establish stronger ties with our African siblings so that all Black United Methodists are united to advocate for the unique needs of Blacks in The United Methodist Church. 

“The deliberate building of relationships that continued at this meeting,” he added, “helps affirm that we are all part of God’s beloved community and that working together makes us stronger in our work and witness.”