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Remembering the Central Jurisdiction, reunion to celebrate history


Remembering the Central Jurisdiction; reunion to celebrate history

July 21, 2004                                          

By Linda Green

United Methodist News Service

African Americans across the country once had to operate under a segregated societal structure and those in the former Methodist Church also had to endure a separate racial structure to worship, lead and preach.

On Aug. 27-29, African-American United Methodists will remember the Central Jurisdiction, the racially segregated structure for black Methodists that existed from 1939-1968, when it was dissolved in the five current geographic jurisdictions of the United Methodist Church. The event will be at the Atlanta Marriott Airport Hotel.

The Central Jurisdiction, composed of all the “Negro Annual Conferences” in the former Methodist Church, functioned exactly as the jurisdictions for the church’s white membership. The only difference was its racial distinction.

The jurisdiction was the result of an agreement for a place for black Methodists in the merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.  In the introduction to the book Our Time Under God is Now, Bishop Woodie White wrote that although the creation of the Central Jurisdiction was nearly unanimously opposed by black Methodists, those same Methodists “endeavored to make it an effective organization. It became almost a church within a church.”

It is that spirit that African-American United Methodists, especially those who were a part of the Central Jurisdiction, will celebrate and remember at the first “reunion” of the former jurisdiction, which was disbanded 36 years ago.

When the Central Jurisdiction was created, there were more than 300,000 black Methodists in the Methodist Church. The racism that helped create the jurisdiction also led some African Americans to leave and join the other churches, including black Methodist denominations. Today, there are 423,456 African-American U.S. members of the United Methodist Church, including 12 bishops and 2,500 black congregations.

Under the theme “Reviewing Yesterday...Discerning Paths to Tomorrow,” the reunion is designed to provide a “living history from the voices of those who stayed during segregation and remain today within the United Methodist Church” and to collect artifacts and documents from the era for the proposed African-American United Methodist Heritage Center.


Delegates to the 2004 General Conference approved the center and established an endowment fund through the United Methodist Church Foundation. Until a permanent facility is built at one of the denomination’s historically black colleges or universities, the center will be housed at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History at Drew University, Madison, N.J. The General Conference also approved a motion directing the churchwide Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, 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.

“We have never had a reunion of the Central Jurisdiction and at this juncture in the church, especially in the black United Methodist church, we need to revisit our history and move forward while learning from the past,” said the Rev. Renita Thomas, a member of the reunion design team and associate director for church development for the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference.

“So many of those people who were part of the Central Jurisdiction are dying off and since there has never been a time where those of the jurisdiction could come together and share their history, we wanted to have an event that allows for reconnecting with the past and seeing how the past can inform our future as blacks in the United Methodist Church,” she explained.

The reunion will include worship, presentations, panel discussions and an old-fashioned church picnic. Featured among the leadership will be Bishop Leontine Kelly, who will preach at a citywide worship service, and Bishop Forrest Stith, who will provide a historic overview.

One person who was a member of the predecessor denomination before the jurisdiction was created in 1939 is Bishop Charles W. Jordan, Upland, Calif.

The Central Jurisdiction has a historic place in the life of the church, he said, while describing it as a setting where clergy and laity were not only trained and mentored in ministry, but also given opportunities to thoroughly understand and appreciate the connection even though they were a separate part of the church.

“I remember well how much people were committed to the connectional institutions of the church, the agencies, apportionment payments, missionaries. It was something that I think we have lost today. The claiming of the connection and the commitment to our connection is not as strong as it was back then.”

Jordan said the benefit of a reunion of the Central Jurisdiction “is for us to remember what has been, to tell the stories and hopefully see how those stories and experiences will help us as we ponder what our future is all about.”

As the bishop reflected upon growing up in the Central Jurisdiction, he added, “Those were some great days, even in our segregation. We were segregated, but connected.”

Acknowledging that a reunion of the former Central Jurisdiction is long overdue, Cecelia Long, Dayton, Ohio, said it is an opportune time to celebrate the past and remember the positives that resulted in spite of the racism upon which the jurisdiction was founded.

“We must keep issues of full inclusiveness always before the United Methodist Church and I think the reunion could help do that,” she said. “The reunion can be an educational opportunity for our children to learn the history and appreciate how we’ve come to this point in the denomination.”

Although Long entered the denomination after the jurisdiction was dissolved, “I appreciate all that happened and the leaders who emerged and how they impacted my life,” she said.

Also affirming the impact the Central Jurisdiction had on his life and how involvement in it formed him to take what some say are radical positions today is the Rev. Gil Caldwell.

This reunion is an opportunity for black United Methodists to remember, reflect and reconstruct, he said. “The reunion should be the first of subsequent gathering to refine the Central Jurisdiction experience so that it can have meaning for the 21st century,” he explained. “There is something unique that black United Methodists have to contribute to the denomination as well as the nation that we have not yet done.”

Caldwell calls the Central Jurisdiction the heart of the United Methodist black experience. “It was a living manifestation of how belief in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can sustain people,” he said. “We did not allow segregation to destroy our humanity and hope.”

Like much of the black experience, the Central Jurisdiction “is an illustration of how we create soul food,” he added. “We take leftovers and make something good and the Central Jurisdiction is a representation of that.”

For more information, including registration and hotel information, call either Evelyn Lowrey or Linda Askew at the Central Jurisdictional Reunion Headquarters at (404) 589-1120 or e-mail


*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or


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