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.

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.

Black Theologian Day 2017

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.