By Rick Wolcott*
Dozens of clergy and laity came together at Aldersgate United Methodist Church (North Coast District) on May 11 for Black Theologian Day. It was a day for education, for fellowship, and for discerning the movement of God’s Spirit.
“Can you imagine a church that is truly representative of all the people who live in the community?” Dr. Martha Banks asked the audience during her morning devotion.
“Can you imagine the diverse worship styles and the kinds of outreach the members could experience? I’m not talking about a melting pot where everything gets blended into a creamy soup with one flavor. No, I’m talking about a rich stew, a stew that benefits from the contributions of all, all of the ingredients.”
Her thought-provoking questions challenged participants to look forward, not back.
“Let us think hard about what it means to really hold onto the past as if it were in some way sacred. We have been warned not to worship idols. But isn’t our focus on the past truly idol worship?”
Examining where we are and where we need to go was a good lead-in to the day’s keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, visiting associate professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO).
She started her morning presentation with “the question that is really, really bugging me and that is, what does it mean to be free?”
In explaining the need for every human to feel free, the ordained minister, educator, peace activist, author and editor said that we often times don’t realize the role we all play in taking that freedom away.
“The way we describe people is designed to put fences around people and contain their freedom,” she said.
Bridgeman shared first-hand accounts of visits she has made at the request of friends in recent months to both Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD. Those cities have been rocked by violent and destructive protests that erupted after black males were shot and killed by white police officers.
Bridgeman spent time speaking with women in Ferguson who were on the front lines during the protests. She prefaced some of their stories by telling the audience, “I do know that often times we are fundamentally not caring about other people because we can’t see them as people like us.”
She also spoke about the shooting death of 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was waving a toy gun in a Cleveland park Nov. 22, 2014. Video from that day shows Martin being shot by a responding police officer two seconds after the cruiser in which he was a passenger arrived in the park.
“Why was every United Methodist Church in the East Ohio Conference not standing in that park two days later saying, ‘God cannot be pleased,’? It’s because we like law and order more than we like justice and righteousness.”
Bridgeman said she is often asked by people what she would have them do to change that. Her answer is to go out into the community and talk with people.
“Go listen to the street theologians and let them tell you what is really troubling them,” she said. “My hunch is we are talking to ourselves in these caverns that we live in. That we are in these echo chambers saying back to each other what we want to hear, so that we don’t even know that we are in bondage.”
She went on to ask those gathered, “How do we learn from these traditions that are so unlike us and so very much like us?”
Bridgeman paused to let the audience ponder that question and then closed by offering this thought: “I believe that the Christian endeavor is not to go to heaven but to learn how to be fully human on Earth, otherwise the incarnation means nothing.”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.