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Forum addresses racism, need to recognize 'those who stayed'

5/15/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs of several of the speakers in this story are available.

By Denise Johnson Stovall*

DALLAS (UMNS) - Racism has "clogged the arteries" of the United Methodist Church, and like a heart-attack victim, the denomination must make changes in order to survive, according to an African-American church leader.

"We look good, but we're not well," said Marilyn Magee, a staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and former officer of the church's Black Methodists for Church Renewal caucus.

Magee likened the denomination to a person who has a long-term illness. Black church members thought the body was healthy enough to overcome its ailment, but "they were wrong."

"They were not aware (that the) disease of racism clogged the arteries of the body called the church," she said. "A steady diet of bigotry, discrimination, and legalized segregation and racism is harmful and has not been good for the body." Heart attack victims learn that their survival depends on their willingness to change their lifestyle, and the United Methodist Church must do the same, she said.

Church leaders wrestled with the problems of racism and reconciliation during a May 2-4 dialogue sponsored by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. The ecumenical agency of the church held the event, "Acknowledging the Past, Shaping the Future," as a follow-up dialogue to the denomination's official act of repentance for racism in 2000.

Speakers at the forum emphasized the need for recognizing "those who stayed" - the African Americans who stayed in the denomination despite a history of racism.

After the Act of Repentance for Reconciliation, performed by the denomination's 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, black United Methodists voiced concern that they had been overlooked. They noted that the apology had been directed largely at the black Methodist denominations that had formed over the years in response to racism in the predominantly white church: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

Those concerns were addressed during the Dallas forum.

"We all have a commitment to move forward to be the church that God calls us to be," said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, top staff executive of the Commission on Christian Unity. "We know that we are part of a broken church, and racism is a central part of that brokenness.

"We have taken some steps and stumbled some and have taken some steps forward as the whole 'Act of Repentance' process has gone on since 1996," he said. His agency "wants to do the best it can to enable and assist this healing, in envisioning a church that is reconciled and addresses the sin of racism."

The commission needs help as it prepares its report to the 2004 General Conference, Robbins said, asking for suggestions for additional steps that should be taken for the United Methodist Church to become whole.

Most of the denomination's 64 annual (regional) conferences have performed acts of repentance services since 2000, at the direction of the General Conference.

The National Black Methodists for Church Renewal, a United Methodist caucus group, had taken the lead in expressing concern following the Act of Repentance service in 2000. In a letter to the Commission on Christian Unity, the caucus noted that "most of the General Conference worship and the related study material say relatively little about those African Americans who remained members of the former Methodist Episcopal Church, in spite of the racist indignities we suffered under the yoke of a racially segregated church structure. We, the members of National Black Methodists for Church Renewal, are troubled by this omission."

In a letter to BMCR this year, Jerry Ruth Williams of Chesterfield, Mo., an elected director of the Commission on Christian Unity, said the agency admitted that the Act of Repentance event "reopened old wounds and revisited unresolved issues."

"We failed to acknowledge adequately and to apologize to the African Americans who remained within the denominational bounds from the 18th century through the creation and eventual dissolution of the (segregated) Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church, and acquired the designation of 'those who stayed,'" Williams said.

The agency "is acutely aware" of the need for the denomination to follow up its Act of Repentance with a similar act of repentance and appreciation for the African Americans who remained within the United Methodist Church, she wrote. "It is of paramount importance that the church express appreciation for the gifts of 'those who stayed.'"

'No debate' about penance

Retired Bishop James S. Thomas of Atlanta noted that following the 2000 General Conference's Act of Repentance, many young African Americans asked him about "the need for reconciliation."

"Biblically, there is no debate about repentance and reconciliation - none," he said. "At the heart of the biblical story is the enduring paradox of human beings who are forever seeking peace, while at the same time creating conditions that produce alienation, separation and even subjugation."

Thomas contends that the service held at General Conference was timely, "no matter how one feels about the process of repentance and reconciliation." In fact, the bishop said, "it was indeed long behind times," since services have been held by other denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, the Roman Catholics, the Presbyterians.

The United States and the international Methodist family have a long history of racial dominance, said Thomas, a Methodist historian. "Do not forget, we are encased in a racially oppressive society in the United States. Slavery entered these shores in 1619. In the year 2003, the United States is 227 years old, and the UMC is 219 years old. Black slavery was the evil institution first of state and then supported by church."

However, Methodism also has a redemptive history, he noted, citing movement founder John Wesley's fight against slavery; early American leader Francis Asbury's campaign against slavery in the Southern annual conferences; the long history of abolitionists in Methodism; and the founding and support of black colleges by Methodists - the largest number of black colleges by any denomination or faith group.

"So-called racism is idolatry," he said. "God made us different! Did God make a mistake? No."

Said Magee: "There are many illusions of inclusiveness in our church. Racism is a reality, even in the church. We must be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. We cannot afford nor do we have time for hate or pity."

Bishop Ernest S. Lyght, who leads the church's New York Area, assessed the challenges facing African-American United Methodists in setting goals for the future.

"Quite frankly, I had mixed emotions about the service of repentance," said Lyght, who was a member of the Pan-Methodist Commission on Cooperation before the 2000 General Conference. "I was not sure how I felt about the matter of repentance. Who was repenting? Why? What was to be gained? What did I, as an African American, have to repent about and-or for?"

Lyght said African American United Methodists must never forget to do "what we do best."

Quoting Bishop Noah Moore, a leader of the Central Jurisdiction, Lyght said, "'We were at our best when we helped the denomination to pray into the future, see into the future and live into the future.'

"We are not at our best when we dwell too long looking to the past and helplessly staring at our present situation in exasperation and helplessness."

Lyght challenged the United Methodist Church to open its heart to feel the pain of African Americans and other disadvantaged groups. The denomination must also be "receptive to the ideas and teachings of African Americans."

Celebrate contributions

Other participants in the consultation also offered observations. Dallas layman Joe Nash said the bishops from the historically black Methodist churches "may never come back to have their powers watered down." He feels that United Methodists should not only repent but should "celebrate" the contributions of the blacks that stayed.

"Perhaps the celebration has not been done the way it should," Nash said. "As black United Methodists, we are now in great leadership roles and are part of the influence of the church. So we need to be about empowering people - particularly the young people."

Anne Fleming Williams of Philadelphia, who was the national BMCR chairperson when the letter of concern was sent to Christian Unity, said African-American United Methodists have "whined long enough and had enough pity parties."

"We have to continue to 'Acknowledge the Past,'" she said, referring to the conference theme, "but we don't have to dwell there."
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*Stovall is a freelance writer in Dallas.

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