United Methodists celebrated the African-American witness and presence within the United Methodist Church on April 30 and recognized “those who stayed” in spite of racism.
The nearly 1,000 delegates and visitors to the denomination’s top legislative assembly in Pittsburgh participated in a Service of Appreciation, honoring and celebrating those African Americans who remained as members of the former Methodist Episcopal Church and other predecessor Methodist bodies in spite of the racial indignities that occurred in a segregated structure.
The service celebrated God’s presence in the life of the church, recognized wounds and encouraged healing. A video montage of African-American United Methodists of yesterday and today centered the delegates as they began their witness and confessed to the sin of racism that continues to exist in the denomination.
The delegates gathered to “rise above the transgressions that have wounded us” and “celebrate a new beginning … and human dignity,” said Bishop Peter Weaver, Philadephia Area, the opening liturgist for the service.
As United Methodist Christians, Weaver said, the delegates came together as a community of faith under one baptism and gathered “because sin interrupts community” and shatters hope and possibilities.
The delegates were reminded that the African-American presence in the United Methodist Church did not begin with the denomination’s 1968 creation but existed when Methodism began. Today, there are 423,456 African-American U.S. members of the United Methodist Church, including 14 bishops.
“The roots of Methodism are in the African-American community,” said the Rev. Vincent Harris, president of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, a 37-year-old national caucus that promotes advocacy and leadership development. The roots are evident in the fruits of new church starts and other acts that not only benefit the church but also are new creations for the future, he said.
“It is important to be clear that I would not be here if they had not stayed,” Harris said. As a third-generation Methodist, “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.”
The need for such a service arose following the 2000 General Conference, where delegates participated in an “Act of Repentance for Reconciliation” service, acknowledging the racism that caused blacks to leave the denomination in the 18th and 19th centuries. But no mention was made of the African Americans who stayed. Black Methodists for Church Renewal expressed its concern about the omission to the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, which organized the 2000 service and related resources for annual (regional) conferences. In the four years since then, all but six of the 63 U.S. annual conferences have held acts of repentance services, said Ruth Daugherty, a consultant to the Christian Unity commission.
The service for those who stayed is a step on a “long journey for us on this road to inclusiveness,” she said. While noting the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in May, she said, “we are still a segregated society (and) we are still a segregated church (and) even when we sit beside one another, we are segregated.”
“If we as Christians cannot repent and take the next steps and learn the contributions that are made and the richness and necessity that we need to have for ourselves, how can we expect our society to turn around?” she asked. “I think that this is a great responsibility that we as Christians in the church have in our communities and society.”
Confessing to the sin of racism as a member of the majority population was Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who leads the church’s Charlotte (N.C.) Area.
During her message highlighting the African-American legacy of faith, she told the delegates that the United Methodist Church inherited a big, worldwide house for the whole family. But, she said, a problem arose because ideas, cultures and interests “unduly” separated the family.
The service, she said, would pave the way for United Methodists because “we are getting our house in order.” Holding the service at a General Conference was a way to verbalize how the denomination “has been blessed by the presence of faithful, strong African-American members,” she said.
Kammerer 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’ for you,” Kammerer said. “Those of us in the white majority confess that we have sinned against you and against God who made us all one family. 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.
“We confess our sin and ask with humility that God move us toward repentance and a place of reconciliation and forgiveness.”
During a press conference after the service, Harris said the service will be in vain if United Methodists do not move outside their comfort zones and engage others, and assist in civic and legislative processes that will help in education and alleviating poverty.
At the service’s conclusion, the General Conference approved a motion directing the churchwide Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns to lead the church in continuing acts of repentance and reconciliation. The delegates also directed the council, with assistance from other churchwide agencies, to collect data on African Americans in the United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies in preparation of a resource or resources that will inform the church and other faith communities of the contributions African Americans have made and are making in the denomination.
“As with many marginalized groups in majority societies, the majority society writes its history through its own lens and through its own eyes, and the richness of the history of other persons in those communities or cultures is often lost,” Weaver said.
Today, the United Methodist Church is in a new era and is “claiming that we need to do the hard work of study and celebration in print, in books, in media resources of the rich gifts that are here,” he said. “Much of that is still present in the oral history, but it needs to be brought together, so that as we move forward in the church, we continue to learn from both the things we should not have done as well as the things that were done right.”
The delegates also recognized Bishop James S. Thomas for the historical contributions he made in the former Central Jurisdiction and as the chief architect of the plan that helped dissolve that racially segregated jurisdiction in 1968 and merge it into regional jurisdictional conferences. He was also awarded for the vision he cast in his book, Methodism’s Racial Dilemma, where he stated that the “opportunities before the church are always better than dilemmas.”
Thomas thanked the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, the bestowers of the award, and the delegates. “Over the last 40 years,” he said, “I tried to do what I could do.”
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer.
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