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Leaders, scholars confront racism in the church (UM News)

August 30, 2023

It’s the first sermon by a new pastor at the church. She is not Caucasian.

“What did you think of our new pastor?” one congregation member asks another. 

The reply: “Well, actually, I don’t know what I think, because I couldn’t understand a single word she said.” When it’s pointed out that the words of the sermon were projected onto a screen, the retort is sharp: “I didn’t come to church to read manuscripts! I came to hear a sermon!”

The conversation — in this case about an Asian pastor — continues to go downhill from there. But this time, the conflict isn’t real. It is an exercise held during the June 9-12 Wisconsin Annual Conference using theater to get a discussion going about racial attitudes in The United Methodist Church.

In an interview with United Methodist News, two Wisconsin pastors modeled how tough it can be to find common ground when it comes to race. Both are part of that state’s Anti-Racism Task Force.

“Well, from my perspective, we’re struggling,” says the Rev. Lamarr Gibson, a Black retired pastor.

“We don’t have a coherent and unified approach to addressing racism. … Although we have institutional leaders saying that they want change, they engage in a lot of behaviors to keep the status quo.”

The Rev. Jill Nowlen, a provisional deacon and white pastor of Wild Rose United Methodist Church in Wild Rose, Wisconsin, acknowledges racism, but also notes some positives in the conference’s racial justice work.

“I believe that our bishop (Hee-Soo Jung), who happens to be from South Korea, is very enlightened and passionate about this topic,” Nowlen said. “His mantra is we will have racial justice and radical inclusion,” adding that about 50% of the United Methodist clergy in Wisconsin are persons of color.

“Because of that, there is some pushback there,” she said. “I don’t think we’re any more racist than anybody else because I believe, top-down, our bishop is working on it.”

On the national level, the Rev. H. Ward Greer, a retired elder in Wilmington, Delaware, published a commentary Aug. 11 with United Methodist News. He wrote that “most United Methodists have lived with the illusion that their denomination is not only racially diverse, but treats everyone equally. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote. “Black United Methodists and other people of color continue to be marginalized.”

So, the search continues for approaches to eradicating racism in the church. Three new books by United Methodists seek to give a sense of the history behind the checkered past of The United Methodist Church regarding the issue.

Unmasking Racism: Coloring With Love in the Church, Community and Academy,” has four authors. One of them is the Rev. Michele E. Watkins, assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego and a provisional elder of the Northern Illinois Conference.

In her essay “Unmasking Racism as Legion: Christian Discipleship Against Demonarchy and Structural Evil,” she remarks on the plight of female clergy Methodists of color.

“Black Women are expected to be surrogates and suffering servants for the redemption and survival of their faith communities,” she writes. Black women and other women of color are “disproportionally appoint(ed) to cross-racial and multi-congregational charges.”

In these settings, she writes, Black women are “relegated as the ‘Mammies’ of their parishes, with a strong belief that they are not to assert any administrative authority but to serve at the pleasure of the white constituency to their detriment.”

The Rev. Giovanni Arroyo, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, said most conferences are on the “development stage” in fighting racism, either through intentional hiring of staff or forming task forces of anti-racism, “or even reimagining what it means for the church to be focused in decolonizing in some areas.”

John Elford, a retired pastor in Austin, Texas, wrote “Our Hearts Were Strangely Lukewarm,” a short history of Methodism and racism. The book opens with denomination originator John Wesley as a stout opponent of slavery.

“If you look at why John Wesley objected to slavery, if you look at his idea of salvation, redemption and grace offered to all, you just can’t tolerate any kind of unequal treatment,” Elford said. “How did we get off to this auspicious start and then just fail at almost every opportunity to push back against whatever form racism was taking at that point?”

Over the decades, the denomination split over slavery and segregated Black churches into a separate Central Jurisdiction. Although Black Methodists such as the Rev. James Lawson were integral to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, most white Methodists weren’t much help, Elford said.

“White Methodists were among the (civil rights) workers, but, by and large, the bulk of white Methodists, both laity and many clergy, were either silent or formed a persistent and ever-evolving resistance,” he writes.  

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was prompted by a letter from eight Christian clergymen, including two Methodist bishops. That letter, Elford writes, shows how out of touch those leaders were by urging King and his supporters to continue working through the courts and negotiations with local leaders.

“How had they missed the news that the reason for direct nonviolent action was precisely because these avenues had failed? And how in the world could they even mention the ‘hatred and violence’ that direct action might provoke without naming the tsunami of violence devastating the Black community?”

The lack of action by the denomination to change the Cross and Flame United Methodist logo is also mystifying, Elford said. It is “a classic example of how we really don’t listen to our Black Methodist siblings and how they feel about things.

“We just can’t seem to put ourselves in their shoes and see this through their eyes and say, ‘Maybe this will be a good time in 2024 to come up with a new logo … that’s not offensive to a large portion of our members.’”

Christopher P. Momany is the author of “Compelling Lives,” which profiles five abolitionists who made a difference — Black activist Sojourner Truth, Bishop Gilbert Haven, the Rev. Luther Lee, Laura Haviland and Henry Bibb.

“I think we’ve got a fighting chance to get it right,” Momany said. One approach he suggests would be to get back to basic Wesleyan Methodist theology because “it’s just not possible to be Methodist and racist.”

In “Unmasking Racism,” retired Bishop Ernest Lyght suggests four steps to wipe out racism: prayer, meditation, discernment and action. The last item is vital, and the first three are a prerequisite to action.

“One who proclaims to be antiracist must be willing to confront racism in their own family, neighborhood, congregation and workplace,” Lyght writes. “The urgency of the antiracism struggle necessitates confronting and combating racism in one’s own personal space, wherever that might be.”

Arroyo names power and money as the key issues.

“How is our budgeting system in our conferences and our church?” he asked. “Who sits around the tables? Who are making decisions? Has that changed?”

Elford said that some progress has been made on that issue.

“In some ways, power has already shifted in The Methodist Church, to its credit,” he said. “The Methodist Church has Black leadership all over the place.”

Elford sees a need for anti-racism to become a central priority in the church, with further training on understanding and confronting the issue.

“I think it’s just a given that unless white people partner with people of color (in) eliminating racism, there’s no chance that racism is going to be eliminated,” he said.

Arroyo suggests keeping track of what percentage of budgets are invested in mission and ministries that impact communities of color or marginalized communities.

He used the upcoming General Conference (April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina) as an example. He wonders how many committees will be chaired by Black indigenous people of color, or whether there will be a shift of who is leading the denomination’s top legislative meeting.

“There might be some people, in this case white men, who may recognize how they could shift that privilege and give access to those seats that they have to others,” Arroyo said. “But I think we need to be willing to have the conversation with each other and always hold each other accountable, so that we do not default to our historical way.”