Delegates to the 2004 General Conference will both celebrate the African American witness and presence within the United Methodist Church today and recognize “those who stayed” in spite of racism.
On April 30, the nearly 1,000 delegates to the denomination’s top legislative assembly in Pittsburgh will participate in a “Service of Appreciation” recognizing, 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 will celebrate God’s presence in the life of the church, recognize wounds and encourage healing, according to a purpose statement. It will be one of many activities for delegates attending the April 27-May 7 assembly.
In 2000, General Conference delegates participated in an “acts of repentance” service, acknowledging the racism that caused blacks to leave the denomination in the 18th and 19th century. But no mention was made of the African Americans who stayed, said Black Methodists for Church Renewal, a 37-year-old national caucus that promotes advocacy and leadership development.
The caucus 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.
It also created a document, “The Problem with Repentance,” with four recommendations, including the idea of the service of appreciation.
“While we (the church) recognized the injustice done toward those who left, we did not recognize the injustice done to those who stayed in the acts of repentance service,” said the Rev. Renita Thomas, associate director for church development for the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference and a caucus member. “If we are going to get our house in order, then we ought to start in the house.”
“The purpose of this service is an appreciation of the gifts and contributions that blacks have made since the beginning of our church because blacks were there at the beginning,” added Bishop Melvin Talbert, interim chief executive for the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
Organizers call the service of appreciation an opportunity for the church to repent of its racism and move toward community and reconciliation as it works to eradicate isolation and oppression.
Another goal is to add to the church’s history. “There is nothing that talks about the blacks who remained and continued to give leadership in the church,” Talbert explained. “We are hoping …to collect information on those who stayed that will be added to the history of blacks in Methodism.”
The Rev. Vincent Harris, president of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, noted that those who stayed “were led by faith that God would not leave or forsake them as they fought for inclusion, equality and justice. They deserve all the honor, respect and gratitude we can offer for their tumultuous journey.”
Harris said the service should serve as a “clarion call for a spiritual transformation and conversion” in all the church, but especially in the black church.
Jerry Ruth Williams of Columbia, Mo., a member of the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, said it is hoped that holding the service during a high-level meeting would make more United Methodists aware of the contributions African Americans have made to the church.
“The goal is to show appreciation and honor to people who have provided leadership and staying power under some very unpleasant circumstances,” she said.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media can contact Linda Green at (615)742-5475 or [email protected].