Black caucus commits to increase advocacy

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Expect to hear more in the next three years from The United Methodist Church’s black caucus on issues that affect the denomination and wider U.S. society.

Black Methodists for Church Renewal  at its 47th annual meeting  March 28-29 approved a new strategic plan for 2014-17 with a renewed emphasis on advocacy. 

What the church Teaches

The denomination’s Social Principles outlines church teachings on a number of “human issues in the contemporary world.” The 2012 Book of Resolutions expands on those principles.

  • On criminal justice: “We support governmental measures designed to reduce and eliminate crime that are consistent with respect for the basic freedom of persons. We reject all misuse of these mechanisms, including their use for the purpose of revenge or for persecuting or intimidating those whose race, appearance, lifestyle, economic condition, or beliefs differ from those in authority.” 
  • On voting: “The form and the leaders of all governments should be determined by exercise of the right to vote guaranteed to all adult citizens.” 
  • On gun violence: Local congregations are called to develop advocacy groups to campaign for “the eventual reduction of the availability of guns in society with a particular emphasis upon handguns, handgun ammunition, assault weapons, automatic weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and guns that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal detection devices.”
  • On immigration reform: The U.S. Congress is urged “to pass comprehensive immigration reform that makes family unity, students being able to get an education at an affordable rate, fair and just treatment of laborers, and a reasonable path towards citizenship a priority.” 

“We need to pay closer attention to issues where we need to be advocates within the church and within our communities,” the Rev. Cedrick Bridgeforth, BMCR chair, told the 250 participants in the St. Louis meeting. Bridgeforth is a district superintendent in the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference.

“We have slipped up in that we have focused our advocacy — when we have decided to do it — on what is happening within the church. And in the midst of that we have become irrelevant beyond the church… When we do advocacy work outside of the four walls then it gives meaning to what’s happening within the four walls,” he said to a chorus of “Amens.”

The caucus counts among its target constituency the roughly 450,000 U.S. United Methodists of African descent, including recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. The group’s advocacy in the past helped establish the Black College Fund to support historically black United Methodist-related schools; contributed to urban mission development and helped found Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe

Possible issues to tackle

The group did not specifically identify new issues to tackle. However, members in conversations and workshops repeatedly raised certain common concerns they believed the caucus could help address from a Christian perspective.

These concerns included:

  • Mass incarceration: According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, based at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, the United States has the highest prison population rate in the world and is neck-and-neck with China in the number of its people behind bars. In 2013, about 2.24 million people in the United States — meaning 716 per 100,000 people —were in a penal institution. 
  • Violence: A number of members spoke with alarm about gun violence within the black community. They cited the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two unarmed black teens killed in separate incidents. 
  •  Voter rights: Eight states since the start of 2013 have passed “restrictive voting” legislation, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University of School of Law. Laws include stricter photo identification, elimination of election-day registration, and a reduction of the number of days for early voting. 
  •  Immigration reform: Group members, some of whom are immigrants themselves, also expressed an interest in supporting comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.  

“If the sum total of our advocacy work is about ensuring that our little church stays on our little corner no matter what the bishop or superintendent says about it, we have failed,” Bridgeforth said.

He added that churches need be interested in addressing the needs of the communities where they are located, “or they need to be somewhere else.”

He also cautioned group members not to ask denominational leaders to solve problems they aren’t willing to help address themselves.

As part of the group’s advocacy work, the strategic plan calls for the creation of BMCR advocacy councils in each of the five U.S. jurisdictions “to identify and respond to advocacy needs.” The group also plans to develop policy papers to provide education on the issues members are tackling.

Bridgeforth noted that United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race helped provide funding for the group to develop its strategic plan. For that reason, he said, the commission will serve as a monitoring agency “to make sure we accomplish what we say we will accomplish.”

“If we do not perform according to the measurable goals we have submitted, we do not receive the funding,” he said.

Favorable reactions

Among those excited about the focus on advocacy was the Rev. Frances Cudjoe Waters, pastor of youth and children at Hamilton Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. She also blogs on faith and culture at The Root.

She said she hopes the group will help address the problems of mass incarceration, especially helping former inmates successfully integrate into society. One thing her church can do to help, she said, is reach out to juvenile-detention facilities in the Dallas metroplex.

“Justice and theology go together,” she said. She cited Micah 6:8, which says the Lord requires believers “to do justice, embrace faithful love and walk humbly with your God.”

“Justice isn’t just something we do if we have time. It’s an integral part of the gospel.”

The Rev. Donald K. Reed Sr., pastor of Warren Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, echoed her sentiment. “For too long,” he said, “the voice of the church has been silent on too many relevant issues.”

Reed is particularly concerned about a bill passed in the Georgia state House and Senate to allow guns in bars, airports and houses of worship. Guns, he said, have no place in a church sanctuary. He also mentioned immigration reform and voting rights as issues United Methodists need to address.

“BMCR is the perfect institution to speak to such issues,” he said. “This is too great of a country, and we are too blessed as a church to be silent while the rights of our citizens, and even the rights of our members in many instances, are being infringed upon because of what I call fear of others. …The Bible says we are not to live by fear but walk by faith. ”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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