Civil Rights

Close-Up: Church confronts pain, reality of racism

By Yvonne J. Medley

Like a scene from the pages of the civil rights movement, more than 300 United Methodists, white and black, marched in the nation’s capital as an act of repentance for a stormy past.

Members of the predominantly white Foundry United Methodist Church and the predominantly African-American Asbury United Methodist Church joined together to declare that love had no boundaries, no color, no gender during the Lenten season last spring.

“It was a very beautiful thing,” says the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, recently retired pastor of Foundry in Washington.

The two churches, physically separated by only 10 blocks, had been kept apart by a history of racial discord. In 1836, African Americans left Foundry because of racism – being relegated to the balcony and barred from full participation in church leadership – and founded Asbury.

Asbury’s Rev. Eugene Matthews explains that the Lenten march and reconciliation services with Foundry served as a public covenant to heal hearts, open minds and open doors. “It was really a way to envision what could have happened and should have happened if (the departure) had not taken place because of racism,” he says.

The two congregations symbolize the United Methodist Church’s struggle and historic divisions over issues of race. Today, the church is actively repenting for past and current racism, and it is seeking reconciliation with African-American Methodists, who have often been marginalized in the denomination or driven out altogether. The church has made strides in inclusiveness, but much work remains in the battle to eradicate racism in the denomination and society at large.

First step

The Asbury-Foundry event was sparked by the Act of Repentance and Reconciliation service at the 2000 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative assembly, in Cleveland. That service has inspired similar acts of repentance in congregations and regional gatherings throughout the denomination.

Reconciliation and repentance cannot occur without facing tough issues, says the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired African-American pastor and civil rights activist with 47 years of service in the United Methodist Church. “There can be no reconciliation without facing the issues and going through the pain of addressing the issues.”

Much can be learned about reconciliation from groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where the ninth step of the 12-step program is to make amends, Lawson says. Eight steps are needed to move through pain, growth and even a worldly death before an addict can get to that point, he says. “We say in the Christian tradition that the cost was Jesus’ death. So I would like to suggest that with these sins of racism, sexism, homophobia and all, there has to be death in us for the reconciliation in us to bloom.”

Reconciliation can be achieved, but it is costly, he says.

And it can be messy. General Conference’s act of repentance was a major step for the denomination, but it left wounded feelings among African-American United Methodists. Many of them complained that while the church had apologized to the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal members, it had overlooked the racial indignities experienced by blacks still in the United Methodist Church.

“They did all that apologizing to the AME and the AMEZ, but they didn’t reconcile with the folks who didn’t go anywhere,” says Paula Watson, a staff member at United Methodist-related Philander Smith College, a historically black school in Little Rock, Ark.

Lagging behind?

The Rev. Rodney Smothers laments that society is ahead of the church in dealing with racism. “The church, in general, unfortunately lags behind society when it comes to taking an active stand against racism,” he says. Smothers, is an African American and pastor of Covenant Point, a new church initiative in Maryland.

Matthews agrees. “The military addressed it first. Sports, with Jackie Robinson and others, addressed it,” he says. “And even during those eras, we still had the Central Jurisdiction going on,” he says. Between 1939 and 1968, the former Methodist Church segregated all of its African-American churches into the Central Jurisdiction. That division was eliminated with the creation of the United Methodist Church, and today all of the U.S. jurisdictions are based on geography.

“We should be at the forefront, the cutting edge,” says Asbury’s Matthews.

The church must shake itself and society up, Smothers says. “The church was never called to be a safe society. It was called to be just the opposite – to be an agitator of society. And consequently, if you’re going to have a prophetic voice, you’re going to upset the status quo.”

James Taylor, an executive with the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, also believes that a shakeup is needed. “We are still a 93 percent white church in terms of our membership,” he says, citing 2000 statistics from the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration.

In 1990, the percentage of ethnic and racial membership in the denomination was 5.67. Ten years later, the percentage is 6.83 percent. “You could almost do nothing and accomplish that,” he says.

In total figures, the U.S. church has about 392,824 African-American members, compared with 7.2 million whites and about 137,393 Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to finance council data.

Taylor, who is white, says that one of his roles at the commission involves “talking to white people about white privilege and white racism.” The commission conducts sensitivity training nationwide, and Taylor refers to them as “ministry in a post-majority age.” He says that no particular racial or ethnic group will claim majority status by the year 2010. “The numbers are shifting, but who’s got the power? That is the question,” Taylor says.

Although numbers are important, they are not everything, says the Rev. Yolanda Pupo-Ortiz, another commission executive. “So if you tell me that we have 10 whites, five blacks and three Hispanics, I want to know who’s making the decisions. How do you welcome the new insights that people are bringing? Are people feeling that they really belong at the table and that they’re making contributions?”

“If we’re all saying that we’re all equal in the eyes of God, then everybody is going to have to give up something to equalize the issues of power and control. ... We’re all saying that we want to do it, but no one stands up to do the action to get it done,” says Anne Marshall, an executive with the denomination’s Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

Marshall is the first Native American to serve as an associate general secretary for a United Methodist agency. The denomination’s first Native American general secretary (top staff executive), the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, led the Board of Church and Society from 1989 to 2001, but no American Indian has been elected bishop.

However, gains have been made in the church, and Taylor acknowledges the plethora of racial reconciliation services. But, he says: “While we may feel better about being nicer to people, we’re not doing as well at addressing some of the systemic issues.”

Hard work

More work is needed in building racial-ethnic involvement at all levels of the church, say advocates for inclusiveness.

“If you look at the numbers in terms of racial-ethnic involvement, it’s the highest and most pervasive at the general church level,” Taylor says, “but you can just graph the line down as you move toward the local church.”

Indiana Area Bishop Woodie White has been helping the church deal with issues of race and equality for decades. He was the first general secretary of the churchwide Commission on Religion and Race, and he was a founder of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. He stresses that in the fight to eradicate racism, the United Methodist Church has “to be vigilant to see that the gains we’ve made are sustained.”

For example, the cross-racial appointment of pastors represents an area of progress in the church, but that has not been widely accepted throughout the denomination. “If there is a (white) church that has a need and if there’s a person of color who seems to have the gifts for that particular situation, then we should not automatically rule that person out” because of color, White says.

“Pastors, regardless of color, must be willing to go, and bishops must be willing to appoint them,” he says.

White suggests looking at racism in three categories: attitude, behavior and institutional presence. “I think we have addressed institutional racism, and we have made significant gains. We have removed the segregation and the discriminatory structures that place persons in structures by race,” he says. However, attitudes are another matter, he says, “and the observation is that the closer you get to the local church, the more evident are racist attitudes.”

Besides pastoral appointments, salary levels represent another equity issue that the church must address, African-American leaders say.

Moving target

Today, racism is more subtle than overt. “I call it a moving target,” Taylor says. “When you think you’ve got it cornered, it will jump around somewhere else.”

Bishop Forrest Stith of Upper Marlboro, Md., says racial subtleties exist throughout the church and the country. For example, it is rare for a racial-ethnic to serve as chairperson of a conference finance committee, he says. An African American, he was elected bishop and served as president of the General Council on Finance and Administration, but that “was not, and is still not, the norm,” he says.

Bishops are not exempt from racism in the church, says Bishop Melvin Talbert of Nashville, Tenn. Like Lawson and White, Talbert worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. “What happens to you as a bishop is you show up at gatherings and you’re treated just as white folk treat black folk, but the moment that people discover who you are, it’s ‘Oh, this is the bishop,’ and everybody’s glad to see you.”

“Racial issues have been a longtime struggle primarily because the United Methodist Church is one of the most racially diverse denominations around,” says the Rev. Zan Holmes, who recently retired from the 5,000-member St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas, a predominantly African-American congregation. “We’re still making progress.”

For example, seven of the 13 people elected as new bishops in 2000 were African Americans, including three women. Today, the church has 14 African Americans among its 50 or so active bishops.

But the numbers fall when it comes to bishops representing other ethnic and racial groups. The council has one Asian-American bishop, two members of Hispanic descent and no Native Americans or Pacific Islanders.

Many African Americans and people of other ethnic groups have become complacent since the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, Stith says. “A good position, a semi-good salary, a safe pension can sap one’s strength to fight.” When a “lone ranger” comes along, “everybody will look at him like he’s crazy,” he says. The attitude is, ‘You’re going to mess up my good thing,’ he says.

The laypeople must be catalysts for promoting conversation in the church around these issues, Smothers says. Trying to get to know people on a personal level is key to a better racial understanding, he says. “If you don’t know a person of a different culture at a personal level, then you have very little point of reference to get beyond the stereotypes.”

Medley is a writer based in Waldorf, Md.

This story was produced by United Methodist News Service for


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