Awaken. Confront. Transform.

By Will Jones*

Awaken. Confront. Transform.  These words suggest how we, as United Methodists, must respond to racism in our midst.

April 4, 2018, was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In remembrance of that tragic day, civic leaders, and clergy and laity from countless faith communities gathered in Washington, D.C., to honor King’s legacy and recommit to continuing the work he began.  Hosted by the National Council of Churches, the Rally to End Racism called on Christians and people of faith everywhere to commit to ending racism in our churches, in our communities and in our nation.  The event began with morning prayer and a silent walk from the Rev. Dr. King Memorial to the National Mall, front porch of our nation’s capital. The remainder of the day’s activities took place just a short distance from the newly-completed Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture, a powerful reminder of the sinful racial history of our country and of the Church.

Bishop Ough speaking on stage, gathers below
Bishop Ough speaking

Prominent speakers addressed the need to awaken to the reality of systemic racism, to confront the truth about its causes and effects, and to transform our hearts, our actions and our communities. Co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield acknowledged that their success would not have been possible had they not been afforded opportunities often denied to people of color.  DeRay Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist, reminded the crowd that they must #staywoke to the challenges that still face black and other minority communities.

Confronting racism begins with acknowledging the past. “We must not ask how to bring about unity and reconciliation,” said the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation.

“Our own history makes clear that that’s not the question our brothers and sisters of color have been asking,” Harvey said, referencing a number of incidents since 1960 in which white churches failed to fight for equality.  “They’ve not been asking for more togetherness. They’ve been organizing and insisting on justice.”

Part of the issue we face today as Christians is that we have become complacent to how racism and injustice still exists today. In a way, it’s more insidious and hidden, which forces us to more closely examine ourselves and our churches if we are to confront and commit to resisting racism. Issues like mass incarceration and unfair housing practices remain deeply rooted in our society and are more likely to affect people of color.

East Ohioans listen to speakers.
East Ohioans listen to speakers.

“In a sense, the solutions are easier than we want to admit,” said Joy Parker, coordinator of New Ministry Development in the North Coast District, who attended the rally.  “Many people are willing to have conversation about racism from a safe distance, but we get uncomfortable in a hurry when that conversation shifts toward action that demands real sacrifices of money and other resources.”

Following the Rally to End Racism, participants from East Ohio had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Giovanni Arroyo, team leader for Program Ministries at the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). From is offices in Washington, D.C., GCORR consistently engages in work that enables vital conversation, drives institutional equity, and builds intercultural competency within The United Methodist Church. Among its upcoming events is Facing the Future, a training opportunity for clergy in cross-cultural appointments.  Arroyo offered encouraging examples of best practices that have enabled church growth and inspired healthy cross-cultural ministry in contexts throughout the United States.

In East Ohio, we must recognize that we have not consistently risen to the calling of Jesus Christ in terms of standing with our brothers and sisters of color. As painful as it can be, we do have both an opportunity and, perhaps, moral obligation to recognize the complicity of the Church in maintaining systems that privilege a few without regard for the “other,” most often people of color and people of lower socio-economic means. Our response to this is clear.

Commissions and caucus groups in the East Ohio Conference are joining together to present Resisting Racism, an enriching and challenging event for lay and clergy who seek to find ways to implement the totality of Jesus’ message and ministry. On Saturday, April 28, we will gather at Family of Faith United Methodist Church [800 East Market Street, Akron] to hear from the Rev. Michelle Ledder, director of Program Ministries for GCORR.

Building on our nation’s greater and more public awareness of racism and white privilege, this workshop will provide opportunities for participants to deepen their own knowledge (mindset), motivation (heart set), and capabilities (skillset) for resisting racism. It will also include specific strategies for taking knowledge back to a local context.

E-mail Kelley Gifford (kgifford@eocumc.com) with any questions.  The registration fee of $15 includes hospitality, lunch and materials.  Registration deadline is April 24.  Learn more and register.

*Will Jones is director of Multicultural Vitality for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Embracing Diversity to Reach New People for Christ

By Rick Wolcott*

Jai mashi is a Nepali phrase that means “victory in Christ.

On Sunday, February 4, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese Christian congregation of Refugee International Fellowship and the congregation of Grandview United Methodist Church (Canal District) celebrated their victory in Christ together during a joint worship service.

Worshippers in the Sanctuary

Pastor Santa Gajmere and the Refugee International Fellowship congregation began worshipping in the Grandview UMC sanctuary in 2016 thanks to the connection of The United Methodist Church.

“We used to worship at Grace United Methodist Church in Newport News, Virginia but it was expensive living there.  When we were looking to move, Pastor Hank (Teague) sent a letter to the United Methodist churches in Akron and Pastor Paula (Koch) was the first to answer,” he said.

“When I received the email, it was at a time when the congregation was looking for a way to reach our community.  I realized this was a way to be present for others,” Koch said from her current church, Millersburg UMC, where she was appointed in 2017.

“One of my favorite memories was the first World Wide Communion Sunday after the ministry began using Grandview’s facility. I preached and Pastor Santa translated my message. It was a great opportunity to share the Sacrament together and worship together. It truly brought home to us that we are the Body of Christ no matter what language we speak or what country we call home.

Canal District Superintendent the Rev. Ed Petersen says that North Akron is quickly becoming a large international community.

“Akron North High School reports 26 distinct cultures and 13 languages represented in the school, and Akron now has the largest population of Bhutanese/Nepali people outside of Nepal.”

“Surveys show us that there are 18,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in Akron and the surrounding communities, but less than 1,000 of them are in Christ,” said Gajmere.  “So we are continuously praying for the other more than 17,000 and we need the help of the churches in the area to reach out and introduce them to Christ.”

He explained that the large Bhutanese population, coupled with better employment opportunities and a lower cost of living were reasons the 12 families of the Refugee International Fellowship moved from Virginia to Akron two years ago.  Since arriving in its new home, the congregation has grown to 100 worshippers, comprised of 19 families.

Roseann Andrus, a member of Grandview UMC, says, “I’m really excited to have Pastor Santa and his congregation here.  I really am.  They are trying so hard to assimilate and the more we can help them the better off everybody is.”

“I have found the people here to be very friendly and they all have a heart to help,” Gajmere said.  “There are so many seen, and unseen, people in this church who are helping us, and making us feel at home here.”

When the Rev. David Hull-Frye was appointed to Grandview UMC in July 2017, succeeding Koch, he was glad to learn that his new congregation had welcomed their Bhutanese brothers and sisters in Christ.

“In 2001, I worked with a refugee population from Sudan, with the Lost Boys, so I had experience with that, and I’ve always enjoyed working with different cultures.  It was exciting to come here and be part of this,” he said.

“Here in this community we don’t expect it to be racially diverse, but it is.  That’s the dynamic of who we are now.  So for this congregation to embrace that is encouraging to me and I think it’s living out our Gospel message.”

The two pastors meet once a month to brainstorm ideas to bring the congregations together, since Grandview UMC worships in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings and Refugee International Fellowship worships there in the afternoon.

“We decided that once a quarter we are going to come together in worship, share our cultures and emphasize the similarities in our faith.  We’re all worshipping the same God, though it might be in different languages,” Hull-Frye said.

Voices of both languages sang together as one during the February 4 service.  The Refugee International Fellowship choir led the singing of Mahan Iswor Bicharchhu Kaam Tapaiko in Nepali, while the Grandview UMC choir led the singing of How Great Thou Art in English.

Other ideas borne from the pastors’ brainstorming sessions will come to fruition this spring.  A new church pictorial directory will be published that features photos of both congregations in the same book; and Gajmere will begin writing a section of the Grandview UMC Sunday bulletin in which he will offer Nepali words and phrases, along with their English translations, to facilitate breaking down the language barrier between the two congregations.

“Grandview’s commitment to build a relationship with ALL people in their community has led to this amazing partnership between worshipping communities.  Rev Hull-Frye’s leadership is moving towards East Ohio’s vision in reaching new people,” said Will Jones, the East Ohio Conference director of Multicultural Vitality.He, Hull-Frye, Peterson, and EOC Director of Congregational Vitality the Rev. Kelly Brown continue to be in conversation with Gajmere to discern ways to join in ministry with the Bhutanese Christian community, and also be in ministry to them and the larger Bhutanese refugee community.

“We equate it to a new marriage, where you have to take time to get to know each other, and understand each other’s needs.  We each have a culture we have to learn, and all sides bring something to this,” Hull-Frye said.  “It’s a joy to work with both congregations and see the dynamic of how that comes together.  Its not always easy to welcome those that we perceive to be different, but deep down we’re all the same and we all want to experience God’s love.”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

The Dream Will Not Die on Our Watch

Gathering watching performace

By Rick Wolcott*

Clergy and laity gathered at Aldersgate United Methodist Church (North Coast District) on Monday, January 15 to remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“It’s appropriate that we recognize Dr. King today because the things that he fought for and died for are under attack.  The dream that he had, that all of God’s children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character, that dream is under attack,” said the Rev. Dogba Bass of Aldersgate UMC.  “Will we be men and women of courage like Dr. King?  In our day and in our time we can’t recreate his day, but this is our day, this is our time.  What will history say about us?  We cannot afford to let the dream die.  That is why we have called you here today.”

Powerful prayer, passionate singing, emotional liturgical dances, and heartfelt words filled the sanctuary.  None more poignant than those shared by Tracy Bass and third-grader Alexandra Grant, who recited the “I have a dream” speech that King gave August 28, 1963 as part of the March on Washington.

“That one experience shaped my thinking,” said Lena Nance of the impact participating in the March had on launching her life-long journey to learn more about her heritage.

“It may surprise you as a middle-aged white person for me to confess to you that the civil rights movement has made my life immensely better, enormously better.  I think now about the teachers and the colleagues and the friends that I wouldn’t have been allowed to have,” North Coast District Superintendent the Rev. Dr. Steve Bailey said in his remarks.

“As someone who has lived through the civil rights era I am so grateful that courageous people black, and white, and Hispanic, and Asian and many other ethnicities said that we will not be divided by evil or mistrust.  We will not look at each other as competitors or enemies, but as brothers and sisters,” he continued.  “And that’s a mission that could be launched out of a political movement, but Dr. King launched that out of his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that racism is not an attitude that’s a political opinion, racism is an evil to be deplored and if the church isn’t standing up against racism we have compromised our mission entirely.”

Rev. Dogba Bass and Bishop Tracy S. Malone

“I am convinced that if we want to pay tribute to Dr. King for having a dream, if we want to galvanize the nation to continue to strive toward ongoing freedom and equality, we can keep having these wonderful celebrations – and they are good,” said Bishop Tracy S. Malone.  “But if we want to keep the dream alive and commit to the work and the vision of King we have to face our current realities of our times and admit that we have a societal problem, and we’re part of the societal problem because we have become silent.”

In her keynote address, the bishop implored those gathered to take action.

“It is time for the Church to rise up and be her best self.  We are the moral conscience for society but we must take our rightful place.  It’s time to shift from just dreaming and remembering, and commemorating.  Let us organize. Let us mobilize.  This transcends race, and gender, and class, but anyone who cares about the cause of justice, the cause of equality, the cause of peace, it is time.  Repeat after me, ‘I will not let the dream die on my watch.’”

“When God calls you, God can call you from anywhere,” Bailey said.  “You don’t have to start from a big movement, you simply have to start.  You have to speak.  You have to move forward, and you have to invite people to join you.”

Click on the video to see Bishop Malone’s keynote address in its entirety.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.