Day of Learning Confronts Fears in the Church
By Rick Wolcott*
“The purpose of Black Theologian Day is to be a day of learning and engagement of theological and practical insights regarding issues and challenges that are facing the church and society from a black theological perspective and experience. A perspective and experience that is often minimized and neglected in a dominant culture,” Bishop Tracy S. Malone told those gathered for the event at Aldersgate UMC in Warrensville Heights. “Today’s learnings, insights and perspectives will resource and equip all pastors and churches across the conference and strengthen our witness in the world, because we know that perspective matters.”
The late Bishop James S. Thomas conceived of Black Theologian Day during the first of his three quadrennia as resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference, with the inaugural annual event held in 1978.
“I think it’s important because our understanding is deepened by the perspective of people who experience the world in different ways. I’m here to learn more because it’s not my perspective,” said the Rev. Paige Boyer of Lake Shore UMC in Avon Lake and Cove UMC in Lakewood.
“Today is not just for black people, it’s for the entire Church. It helps the Church understand what black folk preach about, what we care about, what issues we dialogue with God about on a day-to-day basis. I think unless the greater Church knows that, we’re not able to engage each other in serious, productive dialogue,” said the Rev. Dogba Bass of Aldersgate UMC.
“Black Theologian Day is important because it celebrates a part of the diversity of the church and connects us with each other and brings people together around conversation that might sometime be uncomfortable around race, and ethnicity, and culture, and differences,” said the Rev. Kathy Dickriede, conference United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) coordinator.
The theme for Black Theologian Day 2017 was Overcoming Fear.
“We are in a fear-filled age. We’ve got threats of nuclear war, overpopulation, food shortage, global warming, police brutality, the strong and growing visibility of white nationalism and supremacy, and the erosion of healthcare for all,” said keynote speaker Erin Hawkins, general secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR).
“We serve churches that are filled with fear: fear of their neighbors, fear of doing a new thing, fear of being closed, fear of the future, fear of letting young people in, fear of letting homeless people in, fear of anyone who’s not like me – filled with fear. Denominationally we are in a time of fear. We are afraid of schism and what that might mean. We are afraid of how ethnic churches might fare if there is a schism in the Church. We’re afraid of the shrinking presence of our church in communities where we could be doing lots of good. We’re afraid,” Hawkins concluded.
She explained that GCORR works to confront fear through intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversations. Her morning address focused on the theological foundation for overcoming fear and in the afternoon, she presented practical applications leaders can implement for overcoming fear.
“Thanks be to God for fear rhetoric that makes that which was out of sight in plain sight,” she stated. “When we allow the fear to be so immense that it stops us, that it keeps us from moving and stepping out, when we become paralyzed by fear, we lose the blessing in it. But if we can see the fear as opportunity, then we have taken the first step toward overcoming it.”
Throughout the day, Hawkins referenced the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans and the passage from chapter 8 verse 23 in which he wrote, “As with all creation, we, too, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption and redemption of our bodies.”
She explained that groaning is the deep, inward response to suffering, and that groaning is a universal language.
“Groaning in the Spirit is a well-known feature in the Black Church experience. When the suffering felt too heavy to bear and the words to a prayer got stuck in our throats, we know that we could simply moan. We could groan in the Spirit a prayer that was devoid of words but filled with every necessary physical, spiritual, immense and emotional detail that was required to usher us into the presence of the One who could take the groaning away.”
Hawkins cited the correlation between the communal groaning of recent protests taking place across the country and findings from the Center for Leadership at Wesley Seminary. The study found that the longer a United Methodist congregation is in it’s community, the less it knows about its neighbors; and that at every level of the Church United Methodists are more skilled at reaching people who are like them than they are at reaching anybody else.
“We have significant room to grow as the Church. The disconnection between too many of our congregations and their surrounding communities means that we are not acting in response to the groaning that is all around us,” Hawkins said. “If the groaning, if the Spirit is not moving us to change our hearts and to do something different, then we are just complaining. It is our role to take the hands of those who are around us and to join them in the world where a difference can be made.”
“I live in a community where everyone is the same so they think we have no multicultural problems,” said the Rev. Vern Shepherd of Lakeside UMC. “I came to Black Theologian Day so I can bring awareness to our community that just because we all look the same doesn’t mean we have to stay that way.”
“I think it’s important in all places and at all times to have an opportunity to ensure our theology, our understanding of church, our understanding of faith is growing, and that it is inclusive of various opinions, various places, various ethnic groups, genres and races,” said the Rev. Gregory Kendrick, Jr., Church of the Saviour associate pastor. “So this day helps us to ensure that we are living into a gospel that is fully inclusive and fully involved of all persons.”
“We often talk about the importance of distinctive Wesleyan emphases and theology but I think it’s also important to lift up distinctively black Wesleyan emphases and theology,” said Church of the Saviour Senior Pastor the Rev. Andy Call. “As much as this day is important for encouraging black clergy and development of black leadership in the Church, it’s really important for all of us to recognize, to have a broader perspective, and to hear and be mindful of the perspectives of others. So I’m grateful to be here because this isn’t an event for just black clergy it’s an event for everybody so we can start to look more like the kingdom of God.”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.