By Rick Wolcott*
“The Conference is committed to broadening our understandings so that we can better learn from one another,” said Director of Multicultural Vitality Will Jones of this year’s Black Theologian Day, a learning event held annually in East Ohio since 1978. “This is an opportunity for us to see from a different perspective and to hear from a theologian of that perspective.”
Clergy and laity came to Garfield Memorial Church (North Coast District) in Pepper Pike to pray, fellowship, and worship together, and to hear from and converse with guest theologian, Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of the faculty, and associate professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The theme for Perspectives: Black Theologian Day 2019 was Committing to God’s Call, which was grounded in Esther 4:12-15. Francis spoke to the theme using personal experiences and information she learned from interviewing others for her book Ferguson & Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community.
Bishop Tracy S. Malone reminded those gathered during the opening worship service that the East Ohio Conference sponsors Perspective learning events because perspective matters.
“We know that perspective informs our attitudes, our behaviors, the ways we see each another, the way we experience each other. We know that perspective informs how we see and even seize opportunities to make a difference for Christ in this world,” she said. “We know that the Church of Jesus Christ is uniquely positioned to be God’s agents of healing, God’s agents of hope, and God’s agents of transformation but how we go about leading, and how we go about experiencing the love of Christ and sharing the love of Christ, that makes a difference in how the Church shows up in the world – how we show up in the world.”
Francis began her keynote address by calling attention to the life and the works of the Rev. Dr. Cain Hope Felder, who passed away a few days prior to the Black Theologian Day event. Ordained in The United Methodist Church, Felder was a long-time professor of New Testament at the Howard Divinity School after previously working at Princeton Theological Seminary and serving as the first executive director for BMCR (Black Methodists for Church Renewal).
After lighting a candle and observing a time of silence to remember Felder, Francis asked those gathered to answer this question, “What time is it?”
“It’s a time of ascending white supremacy,” was the first answer offered up, followed by, “It’s a time of globalization.”
Another participant shared, “It’s a time of climate change,” before someone else stated, “It’s a time where contemporary Christianity we may be our own worst enemies as the secular society sends a message of more compassion, and love, and inclusion than we can collectively do.”
The final answers shared by clergy and laity to Francis’ question, “What time is it? were, “It’s a time of brokenness,” and, “It’s a time of political polarization.”
She stated that answering this question is a necessary first step because if we are going to think about God calling us “for such a time as this,” we need to think deeply about what is happening in this time and consider both why it’s important and what God is calling us to do in the midst of it.
Francis’ husband was the pastor of a church in St. Louis, Missouri on August 9, 2014 when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, was shot and killed by a 28-year-old white police officer in a residential neighborhood of Ferguson. She wrote Ferguson & Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community to share with the world stories that she gathered from speaking with clergy and young people engaged in the movement to end racism and white supremacy.
“Many people around the world saw all the tanks and tear gas but many did not hear the kind of stories that are illustrated in Ferguson & Faith that clergy, that represented various denominations that were black clergy and white clergy and young and old and gay and straight, and just a wide range of people coming together taking a stand to say, ‘we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
She shared that before we can begin dismantling racism and white supremacy in the world, we need to awaken all of our senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell – to all of the ways in which they exist, function and perpetuate themselves.
“We have to be willing to listen to the stories and be willing to hear with an ear of empathy and care and compassion. If there’s any body of people that ought to be leading the way and showing empathy it ought to be disciples of Christ!” she proclaimed.
Francis acknowledged that while many people say that we should leave politics out of the church, she believes “that’s a disingenuous statement because first of all the church is a part of the body politic.”
Knowing the sensitivity and the difficulty that people have engaging in conversations that make them uncomfortable, Malone shared with clergy that they should exercise both wisdom and discernment in addressing such issues.
“We have to be prophetic in the preaching, but we also have to create space for the conversations to happen where you can go deeper.”
Many in attendance nodded in agreement when Francis stated that, “we don’t live in feel good, fuzzy, comfortable times.” Then, after citing several examples of hostility in the world, including President Trump belittling people during rallies and on Twitter, she issued a challenge that we should each stand up for ourselves and others by speaking the truth that that it is not the way things have to be.
“We neglect our prophetic call of Jesus Christ; we neglect the call to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God; we neglect the call to do onto others as you would have them do unto us when we sit by and watch all of this and say or do nothing as if it is all ok,” she said. “If we’re going to do this work, we have to be willing to taste the bitter dregs of discomfort and call others to join us for the sake of renewing our world – and saving our souls.”
Francis concluded the morning session of Black Theologian Day with this observation for participants to ponder and discuss during lunch:
“What have we learned from the life of Jesus? Jesus was more than the sweet baby born in the manger. Jesus actually did have something to say against the modern-day oppression and rule and discrimination. So, if we are committed to following that way, what does that look like in our congregations?”
That is a question we should each consider, both for ourselves and for our churches.
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.