I saw my first burning cross in 1979 when I was 10 years old. It was night. My family and I were on our way to Shreveport, Louisiana, from the parsonage of Miles Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Marshall, Texas, where my dad was pastor.
We were comfortably talking and riding along when to our right, my mother pointed out a large burning cross just off the freeway. My mother told my brother, sister and me that the burning cross was a powerful image devised to evoke fear in black people.
Though I was just a child, I knew something about the civil rights struggle. I knew my mother marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Senatobia, Mississippi, and that both my parents and many family members were listed in the records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission for their work during the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet in this deafeningly quiet moment, that simple, terrifying and horrific image of the burning cross made the struggle personal for me. I have never forgotten it.
It was years later, after I left the CME Church and joined the United Methodist Church with my wife in January 1992, that I saw The United Methodist Church Cross and Flame insignia and thought to myself, “That is interesting.”
I had been drawn to The United Methodist Church by one of its most outstanding pastors, the Rev. Zan Wesley Holmes Jr., whom I met at CME Youth Leadership Training School. I was in my early teens, and I was captivated by his charm, charisma, grasp of Scripture and powerful preaching.
But when I saw the United Methodist Cross and Flame, I didn’t think of John Wesley’s heart being strangely warmed, I didn’t think of the flaming tongues of fire resting on the Apostles in Acts 2. I didn’t think of how each tongue of the flame represents the former denominations that came together to form The United Methodist Church — The Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church.
My mind went back to that burning cross I saw on the side of the freeway — a symbol my mother told me was devised to cause fear in black people.
I loved my new church and denomination. The insignia didn’t stop me from following God’s call into ordained ministry as a United Methodist.
Over the years, I have even had the occasion to joke with other African Americans about the Cross and Flame. But those jokes have never been funny. They have been more of a wink and a nod to the rationalization that the narrative of the Cross and Flame is powerful and impactful, no matter how any African American clergy or layperson may feel about it.
I still love and have faithfully served The United Methodist Church for many years despite my feelings about the Cross and Flame. That will not change. But I have been taught that at certain times it is important to be “on the record” and “in the minutes” of the meeting of life. I feel it is time to openly talk about things many African Americans have been cautioned to be quiet about and simply accept.
As I rose early on this year’s Juneteenth (June 19, 2020) Friday morning, I wrote an explanatory Facebook post about the origin of Juneteenth itself and the freedom that we celebrate in Texas. The slaves had been freed since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed January 1, 1863. But they found out about their freedom almost two and a half years later.
I then reflected on words I have shared in sermons and have preached on Juneteenth in the past, Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” I again thanked God for the freedom I personally experience which cost a price that I simply cannot fathom.
My next Juneteenth celebration was to re-watch Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” a powerful documentary about racial inequality. I came upon a fact I hadn’t noticed before. It was a testament to the cinematic power of the first blockbuster film in our country’s history, D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
Before this movie, which was based on the 1905 novel “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” was released on February 8, 1915, it was not the regular practice of the Ku Klux Klan to burn crosses. The image of the burning cross was a powerful cinematic image Griffith created. The image was so powerful that the Klan began to use it.
The first instance of a cross being burned in the U.S. was on Nov. 25, 1915, 10 months after “Birth of a Nation” debuted. A group led by William J. Simmons burned a cross on top of Stone Mountain, Georgia, inaugurating a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Though I watched the rest of “13th,” I really didn’t see it. My mind stopped at the part about the burning cross.
My next Juneteenth celebration became sitting down and writing the article you are reading.
I have had three words running through my mind as I’ve been writing —
"Qui tacet consentit," which means, “Silence is consent.” Since 1968, Black Methodists for Church Renewal has raised its voice about the plight of African Americans within our denomination. It is in that vein of principled dissent — and that refusal to consent through silence — that I unapologetically state that it’s time for a new insignia for the United Methodist Church.
If we care about the mission field and our members as much as we say we do, there can be no other answer than, “Yes, it is time.” No longer should we be represented by an image that was devised to evoke fear in the minds of so many.
We have a new anti-racism campaign led by our Council of Bishops, United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race and others. I can’t think of a more powerful first step for that effort than rebranding our denomination.
I respect and honor the creative process that Edward J. Mikula and Edwin H. Maynard went through when they designed the insignia that would debut in 1968. I honor the cross and the two tongues of flame, that each represent the two denominations that came together. I honor the Acts 2 Pentecostal Flame that also gives representation to Wesley’s heart being strangely warmed.
It’s when you take all of these elements and put them together that you run into practical trouble. The outcome is a burning cross. In researching this essay, I was shocked to find a 1993 article in the Chicago Tribune detailing how the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas City, Missouri, had actually used a likeness of our denomination’s logo in printed material.
The United Methodist Church has been and remains a world leader in so many ways. My question is, ”Can the United Methodist Church again be a leader in this unique time and choose a new insignia that doesn’t send an unintended message of racism and fear while it is at the same time legitimately extending the hand of Christ to the world?
My final Juneteenth celebration was to write legislation for General Conference 2021 that seeks the formation of a team to create a new insignia for our denomination — one that will expand our reach so that more African Americans and other people of color can see The United Methodist Church as the welcoming place it aims to be. I look forward to submitting and speaking in support of this legislation at the 2020 North Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
I cannot go back and take from my mind the burning cross I saw that night so many years ago on the side of the freeway. But I can invite people to join me in calling for a new day in the way we represent and brand our denomination.
It is time for open and serious discussion and a clear and liberating decision about the banner under which all United Methodists stand. It is time to move on from the Cross and Flame.
Cowley is pastor of Fellowship United Methodist Church in Trophy Club, Texas, near Dallas.
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