Black United Methodist clergy who are also longtime civil-rights advocates say there are parallels between the struggles of blacks in the 1960s and those of gays and lesbians working for full inclusion in the church today.
At an April 27 rally held outside the Fort Worth Convention Center where the denomination's 2008 General Conference is meeting through May 2, retired United Methodist clergy the Rev. James Lawson and the Rev. Gil Caldwell spoke of the connection between racism and "heterosexism."
The rally was organized by the national, pro-gay advocacy organization Soulforce to take place on the 40th anniversary of The United Methodist Church’s dissolution of its Central Jurisdiction, which was defined not by geography, but race – effectively segregating black clergy and congregations.
Caldwell, former chairperson of Black Methodists for Church Renewal and former co-convener of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, recalled how his Methodist pastor father came home “with a sense of despair” from the 1939 General Conference that established the Central Jurisdiction. He remembers his father telling him, “We are exchanging slavery for segregation.”
“How do we get at the fact that we have not walked our talk?” Caldwell asked. “What was the operative theology that allowed these apparent contradictions?”
History of frustration
Even as the denomination worked toward eliminating the Central Jurisdiction, attitudes were slow to change, Caldwell said. In 1964, United Methodist bishops – black and white together – were turned away at the door of a United Methodist church in Mississippi, he said. That church argued it was “not un-Christian” for them to remain an all-white congregation.
He sees a similarity today in attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, he said. “There is a great need for us to link the ‘isms’: anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and now heterosexism. They come from the same kind of place.”
Lawson, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the architects of the civil rights movement, said that even though the church dissolved denominational structures of segregation in 1968, that action didn't automatically change the attitudes of some United Methodists "who proclaimed the Bible promotes racial segregation. It did not stop them from marginalizing some people in the church."
That attitude was present even among United Methodist leadership, said Lawson. "There were some bishops and I could name them for you who did not speak up boldly then for change and who are not standing up now against the poison of marginalizing some people within the church," he said.
Black United Methodists who worked for change within the denomination, Lawson said, experienced a history of frustration. He recalled when delegates at the 1964 General Conference in Pittsburgh rejected "a blueprint for change" that had been developed by members of the Central Jurisdiction.
"I wept in that conference," he said. "The proposals that the Central Jurisdiction brought in were summarily dismissed and turned down by the General Conference."
Children of the church
By the 1968 General Conference, however, black clergy had become better organized. In the opening worship service, many black Methodists walked out before Communion was served, he said. "That sent a shock wave across General Conference sort of our warning shot that things had to change."
Lawson said he stayed up late to write the proposal to establish the Commission on Religion and Race. "We were met with a fair amount of animosity, though we were children of The United Methodist Church, and had been raised in the church. They thought we were among the most disloyal people possible."
And that kind of "spiritual poison" is what comes to mind now when he hears about discrimination against gays and lesbian United Methodists, a sense that "there are some people who are not worthy of the grace of God," he said.
Caldwell called for black clergy and laity to stand alongside gay and lesbian Christians, saying, "None of us are free until all of us are free.
"I wonder if those of us who have been wounded by being placed outside the gate have an even greater mandate to be healers of our sick society."
*Russell is managing editor of the United Methodist Reporter.
News media contact: Tim Tanton or Kathy Noble, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405(817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470(615) 742-5470.