African Americans were part of the church when Methodism began, but often have been denied full participation because of racism.
That reality was acknowledged April 30 by delegates to the United Methodist General Conference who, in a Service of Appreciation, honored and celebrated African-Americans who remained as members of the denomination and its predecessor bodies. Today, there are 423,456 African-American U.S. members, including 14 bishops.
The service celebrated God’s presence in the life of the church, recognized wounds and encouraged healing. Delegates confessed to the sin of racism in the denomination.
"It is important to be clear that I would not be here if they had not stayed," said the Rev. Vincent Harris, a third-generation Methodist and president of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. "I believe in the church, I believe in what Jesus brought to us in the Gospel, and I believe that by staying, we not only make the church better, but we build a foundation for our future."
In her sermon, Bishop Charlene Kammerer of the denomination’s Charlotte (N.C.) Area thanked the generations of black Methodists who stayed in an institution that excluded them. "For all those faithful, courageous black Methodists who stayed in an inhospitable place and abusive church, we say ‘Thank you, God,’" she said.
"Those of us in the white majority confess that we have sinned against you and against God who made us all one family," she said. "We have excluded you from our sanctuaries, schools, colleges, our public domains, our neighborhoods, our homes and, worst of all, our hearts. For that, we are truly sorry."
After the morning worship and business session, delegates spent the afternoon and evening attending one of 11 legislative committee sessions. The committees are processing legislation aimed at either The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of law and social principles, or The Book of Resolutions, which focuses on global and societal social-justice issues. Some legislation may be processed during the May 1 morning session, but, most of that day will be spent in committee meeting. On Monday, May 3, the assembly will begin voting on proposals as they are approved or amended in the legislative committees.
United Methodist Women invited General Conference participants to help mark the organization’s 135th anniversary at an afternoon reception at the Westin Hotel. Started by a handful of women in Boston who paid dues of 2 cents a week, the group began home missionary societies to meet the needs of newly freed slaves and poor women and children.
Over the years, the organization and its administrative arm, the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, have built schools, hospitals, orphanages and community centers; started anti-lynching leagues; built the Church Center for the United Nations; funded programs and projects for women and children in more than 100 countries and educated themselves about the church and the world through schools of mission and national seminars.
During an afternoon press conference, three church leaders supported efforts to get General Conference to provide $4 million to address the HIV/AIDs pandemic. It is time for the church "to put its money where its mouth is," said the Rev. Donald Messer, author of Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS crisis. Bishop Felton E. May of the Washington Area and Linda Bales, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society also spoke at the press briefing. There are 42 million people globally living with HIV/AIDS, and 29.5 million of those reside in sub-Saharan Africa, panelists said.
Six bishops were honored during a luncheon hosted by the Commission on United Methodist Men. Bishop William W. Hutchinson of the Louisiana Area, Bishop Woodie W. White of the Indiana Area, Bishop Ann Sherer of the Missouri Area, Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton of the Ohio East Area, Bishop Alfred L. Norris of the Houston Area, and Bishop May were named fellows in the John Wesley Society, an award program that helps fund a foundation supporting scouting and other outreach ministries.
Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer.