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Building Beloved Community: GCORR Secretaries Talk Decades of Reckoning and Reconciliation (Religion & Race)

April 18, 2023

Fifty-five years ago, on April 23, 1968, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical Brethren Church merged, creating a new denomination: The United Methodist Church (UMC).

One of the first big jobs for the UMC to tackle was the desegregation of its own house. Institutional segregation had been the norm across many annual conferences. At the 1968 General Conference, delegates voted to create the Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) to oversee the integration process.

Bishop Woodie White (1968-1984): On Seeing the Fruits of Your Labor

Woodie White, a young minister from Detroit with experience in cross-cultural ministry, was tapped to oversee the commission’s work, which was intended to last for just the next four years. At the 1972 General Conference, however, delegates voted to make this commission a general agency of the UMC while expanding its mission. The General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) was tasked with monitoring the denomination’s efforts toward becoming more racially and ethnically inclusive across all of its structures.

With no office and no staff, White “started from scratch” in setting up GCORR in office space provided at the UMC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. One of his first decisions was to hire an ethnically diverse staff.

“If GCORR was to lead the Church into becoming a more ethnically diverse denomination, then my idea was that the agency itself would have to be an ethnically diverse agency,” he explained.

White celebrates being able to witness the fruits of his labor while acknowledging that the denomination is still not the Church “it should be or wants to be.”

“We have become a more racially and diverse church, but that does not mean that all racism or prejudice is gone,” he said. “Racism has many foci … it’s attitudinal, behavioral, and institutional. You can have an organization which is diverse … and still have behavioral racism in it. We still have to fight and address attitudinal racism—sometimes conscious, often unconscious.”

Barbara Ricks Thompson (1985-1998): On Celebrating the Gifts That Cross-Racial, Cross-Cultural Opportunities Bring

The expertise that Barbara Ricks Thompson honed while leading the Equal Opportunity/Employment Office for the United States’ Internal Revenue Service provided a solid foundation on which to build during her time as GCORR’s General Secretary. Ricks Thompson worked to break down silos and eliminate barriers to the full participation of the Ethnic Concerns Committees at all levels of the Church.

“You’ve got to break out of your silo and see the broad, whole horizon, not just the tower on the hill,” she said. “I tried to do that in working with committees and across general agencies.”

Helping annual conferences and local churches understand the gifts that people from different ethnic groups bring to cross-racial, cross-cultural (CRCC) appointments was also a big focus of her time at the agency, work that remains unfinished, she acknowledged.

“People (from other ethnic groups) don’t come to destroy; they come to build,” she said.  

Ricks Thompson celebrates the evolution of GCORR’s work from her tenure to present day—how the focus has become more global and less U.S.-centric, and how the agency continues to resource conferences, jurisdictions, local churches, and individual members with sophisticated, but relatable resources that are “up to date and on the mark.”

“I pray for a time when we don’t need these commissions, but we are not there yet. I hope that time will come in a not-too-distant future.”

Rev. Chester Jones (1998-2007)   

(Editor’s note: Despite repeated attempts, we were unable to reach/interview Rev. Jones for this article. The following information celebrates the expertise that Rev. Jones brought to GCORR as well as the resources he helped create during his tenure as General Secretary.)

Prior to his appointment as GCORR General Secretary, Jones served as pastor of the then-predominantly white Hunter UMC in Little Rock, Ark.,—the conference’s first cross-racial appointment for a senior pastor.

Jones channeled his personal and professional expertise into articles, booklets, and other resources on key topics such as CRCC appointments and the ministry of racial reconciliation.

Erin Hawkins (2007-2020): On Focusing More Energy on the Denomination’s Witness in the World

Individuals committed to dismantling systemic injustices are often attracted to careers in public policy, which was the case for Erin Hawkins, who worked for a member of the U.S. Congress before becoming GCORR’s next General Secretary. Hawkins, however, soon realized that elected officials devoted disproportionate energy to getting re-elected and catering to special interest groups instead of focusing on the concerns of the people they were elected to serve.

Leading GCORR helped reconnect Hawkins to her UMC faith as she directed the agency to develop programs and services to better equip local churches and conferences in the important ministry and mission of racial reconciliation.

“Our approach to the work was: Here are practical things you can do, resources that you can use while continuing to call out systemic racism,” she explained.

Hawkins reflected on positive changes that she witnessed during her tenure—as well as since: “The face of the church is much different than it was fifty-five years ago, and that brings benefits … different lived experiences and cultures are now more represented around the table.”

She also celebrates the increasingly global focus of GCORR’s work, which is “really helpful in changing the church’s perception of itself.”

Now in her role as director of connectional ministry for the California-Pacific UMC Conference, Hawkins feels strongly that the Church should “focus more energy on the denomination’s witness in the world vs. internal disagreements and struggles.”  

“We spend so much time and money trying to change language in the Book of Discipline. Meanwhile, our work transforms fewer and fewer lives in real-time. Can we redirect our time, attention, and resources where difference is actually being made—on the ground, in local communities, with families? People want to be a part of a community, have their spirit fed, and attend places of worship where they can live out their values and faith.”

Rev. Dr. Giovanni Arroyo (2021-present): On Amplifying the Voices of Marginalized People  

As the first Latinx General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Giovanni Arroyo is focused on building on and expanding the work of the agency more deeply into equity, a challenging place for the Church, Arroyo acknowledges, but one he views as filled with opportunity.

“How do we think about who sits at the table?” he asked. “Who has access? What resources are needed? What does equity look like as disciples of Jesus Christ? What does that mean?”

Arroyo expressed his frustration with those who would conflate ‘equality’ with ‘equity.’

“We don’t all start at the same access point, with the same resources,” he explained. “So, what does that mean for the Church to really look at leadership, how we look at our structure so that it does not replicate a more historically white normative?”

Approaching GCORR’s work from an “intersectional framework through the lens of what we call trauma-informed approaches” is Arroyo’s focus as the agency’s current leader, given that “we have been living in a time of racism where people experience more and more microaggressions in their everyday lives. It’s happening in our churches without people being conscious of it.”

Arroyo wants to resource in ways that help UMC leaders and members build skills and move forward, without harming People of Color.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “My prayer is to use my platform to amplify, create spaces for voices to be heard, for the church to become intersectional. I want to create the heart/mindset where we are all committed to cultural bridge-building and finding just and equitable ways of building Beloved Community.”

“If we are truly going to embrace the fullness of God’s creation in our churches, the challenge is for some people to let go of power and allow others to lead,” he added. “The most challenging parts of this work … how do we navigate the resistance, the denial, the systemic racism that is real in our church?”

A “fun challenge” that Arroyo is undertaking, one that gives him hope, is GCORR’s work impacting Central Conferences. The agency is trying to reduce the UMC’s longstanding U.S.-centric lens, and better contextualize its work in the Central Conferences.

“I’m committed to providing the global Church with the resources, consulting, and training to meet people where they are so that they can move toward becoming more inclusive, more loving.”

“I’m building an agency that can truly become a microcosm of what the church could be.”

GCORR is celebrating 55 years in ministry this year.