Black caucus still fills vital role, leaders say

Feb. 16, 2005 

A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*

In 1968, African Americans created a caucus to advocate for their concerns — and their future — in the new United Methodist Church.

Black Methodists for Church Renewal was formed following the dissolution of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction. Now 37 years old, BMCR has a been a strong advocate for the black colleges related to the denomination; for parity for black clergy in the appointment process, in compensation and in other areas; and for the inclusion of African Americans in positions of leadership in the church.

The caucus remains unique because of its keen concern for the future of African Americans in the denomination, said Bishop Melvin Talbert, the interim executive director.

Black Methodists wondered about their future when the Central Jurisdiction was dissolved. No plan existed for merging the African-American leadership with the larger church, except for the placement bishops. Nothing was given or guaranteed for other black leadership, Talbert said. “It was on faith with no conversation at all.”

Black United Methodists were concerned about absorption, powerlessness and invisibility in the newly integrated church, as well as their needs for advocacy and renewal.

“No one felt that the future was clear, and the only thing to do was live into it,” Talbert said. “We were all deeply concerned and felt we needed to be together to focus on that issue.”

When the Central Jurisdiction was created in 1939, there were more than 300,000 black Methodists. The racism that helped create the jurisdiction also led some African Americans to leave and join black Methodist denominations. Today, the United Methodist Church has more than 425,000 African-American members, including 12 bishops and 2,500 black U.S. congregations.

BMCR has been described as the “agitating conscience” of the church, working to ensure equity and inclusiveness throughout the denomination. Many highlight BMCR’s leading the charge in showing black Methodists that although they were part of a predominantly white denomination, they did not have to deny their identity as black people. The caucus has also championed strengthening African-American congregations.

Since its inception in Cincinnati, the caucus has consistently been the voice of black United Methodists and an advocate for the growth and development of black churches. It was organized as a forum for black Methodists to define issues and develop strategies for change within the United Methodist Church. It aims to empower black Methodists for effective witness and service; involve them in the struggle for economic justice; and expose racism at all levels in the church, its agencies and related institutions.

“Those needs still exist,” said Newtonia Coleman, a BMCR staff member from 1978 to 1982 and today an executive with United Methodist Communications. “I believe BMCR is still viable. There are issues and concerns vital to the black church that no other organization is addressing.”
 
BMCR came into existence “not to be anti-white but to be pro-black,” Talbert said, “and to say we were saddened that our white sisters and brothers did not grasp the vision to sense how important it was to be intentionally inclusive regarding black people.”

The denomination showed mixed feelings toward the new caucus, black leaders say. Some thought the caucus opposed the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches into the new United Methodist Church. Like many, Talbert voted against merger “not because it was not the right way to go, but because our concerns were not dealt with, and we were not heard. I felt that this was a serious slap in the face.”

He said the newly merged church overlooked leaders who were in the Central Jurisdiction.

“Questions were raised about should we stay or should we leave” the denomination, he said. After debate and rationalizing, a commitment was made to remain with the realization that things would not be as usual, Talbert said. “BMCR vowed to make a difference in the church.”

Talbert was ordained in the Central Jurisdiction but never served one of its churches. He was one of those who made a commitment to stay in the United Methodist Church because “it is the only thing I’d ever known.” He acknowledged that despite the way he was treated, he is who he is today because of the church. “I have always had this love-hate relationship with my church.” He credits the church for fostering an experience of salvation and the grace of God for “some of the most exclusionary acts that one could expect.”

The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., civil rights leader and United Methodist pastor, said BMCR helped shape the future of the new church. In a reflective piece on the early days of BMCR, he said the caucus brought a “spirit of renewal and transformation.” Writing in the 1993 edition of Our Time Under God is Now, Lawson, who helped found the caucus, said BMCR made racism, desegregation, justice and freedom issues for the entire church. “We challenged the denomination to stretch toward its very being as God’s people. We dared to love the church enough to confront her sin and work for her sanctification. We dared to be black and followers of Jesus and Methodists.”

BMCR remains the best venue for blacks to get their concerns addressed in the church today, Talbert said.

“For blacks in the church, BMCR speaks to issues in a forceful way,” he said. “It is needed now more than ever. It is the most logical and feasible instrument that black people have for addressing the concerns of black people within the church structure today.” Its national meetings are a time of learning and fellowship.

Although Coleman did not work for the organization until after the merger, she said it would be fair to characterize BMCR as a “baby” of the Central Jurisdiction. “Many of the caucus leaders had been a part of the Central Jurisdiction and formed BMCR because they recognized that it was important to provide an opportunity for black leaders in the church to have a forum where social and spiritual issues and concerns could be discussed and shared with the denomination.”

Today, the black constituency of the church is “all over the map” about the organization, which makes leading the caucus challenging, Talbert said. He said some question the existence of the caucus today, some are lackadaisical about it and others believe it is strongly needed. In BMCR’s early years, lay and clergy were clear about the caucus’ mission to be the voice of justice.

Talbert has a twofold vision for the organization he is to direct for two years. He would like to see the caucus become financially solvent and focus its energies on justice and advocacy, “an area that is sorely lacking right now,” he said.

“People of color are continuing to experience injustice even in the 21st century,” he said, “and we have to advocate for ourselves and for all people who are still being overlooked.”

Many leaders such as Talbert believe the United Methodist Church won’t have full inclusion until all people realize that it is all right to join a church or organization that is primarily of another race. Unfortunately, at the worship hour on Sunday, the church is the most segregated place in the country, Talbert said.

He emphasized that some significant advances that African Americans have made in the United Methodist Church are the result of BMCR’s work. “Many of us would not be leaders in the church today if it had not been for the advocacy role of BMCR.”

The caucus is credited with effectively lobbying the denomination in 1968 to create a Commission on Religion and Race, for birthing the churchwide Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century initiative, for helping create a churchwide African American United Methodist Heritage Center, for helping create the Minority Self-Determination Fund, and for assisting in desegregating the United Methodist Publishing House.

Talbert says BMCR should focus on justice and advocacy because a concerted effort is being made to turn back the clock on the numerous advances ethnic groups and women have made in the church and society. He says some conservative and evangelical groups have different goals, and one is to put the conservative white male in charge again.

While BMCR supports the inclusion of blacks and all others, it would not advocate that the denomination do away with conservative and right-wing groups, he said. “You are free to be who you are, but you also have to be free to let other groups be who they are as well. We need to learn how to live and let live rather than assume that they have the only way that is the right way.”

Talbert said BMCR is needed today to build and strengthen bridges of understanding and cooperation among all races and cultures, to seek answers to the serious questions posed by a changing society, and to continue its witness for creative change.

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

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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