By Brett Hetherington*
North Olmsted United Methodist Church (North Coast District) is one of many congregations and faith communities across the East Ohio Conference answering the calls of Bishop Tracy S. Malone, the Cabinet and the Extended Cabinet to join with our brothers and sisters across The United Methodist Church in taking a Stand Against Racism. The Rev. Hoyte Wilhelm shared that the North Olmsted congregation is an open and welcoming body that has a commitment to actively advance initiatives and ministries that address racial and social injustices in the church, the world and in society.
“That serves as the reason we are addressing issues of racial injustice and social injustice, in our society. We want to create a place of entrance and openness and dialogue and action ministry,” he said.
“We were all very disturbed by what happened to George Floyd, it was the final straw. We didn’t know what we could do about it, but we were all affected by it,” said Bev Hixon, a lay member of the congregation.
“With his [Floyd’s] murder it became a matter of ‘what can we do to offer increasing dialogue, discussion and intentional ways of doing ministry to address racial injustice, violence and exclusion in our society?’” Wilhelm said.
The intentional educational opportunities to address racism and racial injustice increased during the summer of 2020 with Sunday school lessons, parking lot forums, small group discussions, and a commitment to studying resources that would challenge the members of the predominantly white congregation to examine their own status, privilege and biases.
“I found some resources on the district website, and they mentioned that the UMW (United Methodist Women) were very helpful” said Janis Jarvis. “Knowing I couldn’t have a big group meet together I asked our church UMW about meeting to study and many of them agreed.”
The group started by gathering socially distanced in the church parking lot and reading books chapter by chapter then discussing their observations along with ways to internalize what they had learned. As the weather turned cold the group migrated to a room inside and ultimately to online meetings.
“Our Sunday school class showed the Color of Compromise study and we were impressed by how it helped us understand,” Jarvis said.
“In the Color of Compromise, Jamar Tisby examines – among other things – the early Church and decisions by its leaders to be silent about slavery and how the Church is complicit in helping to create a caste system here in the United States,” Wilhelm said.
After the Sunday school series had finished, Jarvis felt compelled to share the teachings with others in the church who had not been a part of the class. That has led to new rounds of Zoom-based teaching where any who are interested are invited to attend and learn. “We started as just the UMW and we have grown beyond that,” shared Jarvis.
“I told Janis a little bit ago that we have a little snowball going – not big – but it is going,” said Hixon.
Up next are plans to speak out more in the community about being anti-racist, placing a large banner outside the church building declaring that the congregation stands against racism, and searching out other United Methodist churches to partner with in this mission. There is also a desire to network with Black churches and work together as partners in building the Kingdom.
“One of the challenges is that we live in predominantly white suburbs,” shared Hixon. “We have thought about how we can reach out to Black churches, but we are in the early stages. The biggest challenge is getting the word out there and getting people to examine their feelings and learn. It has to start with the individual.”
Jarvis echoes those thoughts with her own. “Everyone has to start with themselves. We are all coming from a different place. Some don’t have Black people around and don’t see a need to think about this. Some have Black relatives so they do not see how they could be racist.”
“I sense that a lot of our brothers and sisters are just nervous and anxious to tackle those issues. I think when we dare to make ourselves uncomfortable, we find that there’s strength from God and Christ to do that. It involves vulnerability. It involves risk,” said an encouraged Wilhelm.
He is amazed at the volume of conversations he has been able to have with people who have participated in these ongoing discussions and are being open and vulnerable about racial injustice. People are sharing their stories and are encouraged to learn that they are not alone in their struggles with their own implicit biases and even their own racist tendencies. He sees this shift of perspective in the Church today as being something that truly aligns with the Gospel.
“When we really admit to the things we are conditioned to or have buried in the history books that have been revealed as the truth around racism in this country, that we really begin to better ourselves and be more loving and caring towards everyone and really live into the Jesus message to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to look at the Gospel message rather than be motivated by political motivations in how we treat one another,” he said.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.