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New churchwide task force confronts racism

8/22/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Head-and-shoulders photographs of the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell and the Rev. Chester Jones are available at http://umns.umc.org/photos/headshots.html.

A UMNS Report By Tim Tanton* By Tim Tanton*

A new United Methodist task force is pulling together people from throughout the denomination's agencies to study ways to combat racism in the church, and to enable healing and reconciliation around the issue.

When the church formally apologized in 2000 for racism, many of its own African-American members complained about having been overlooked in the process - that the apology was directed more to members of the three predominantly black Methodist denominations. Some said the church should have apologized to its own African-American members first.

A "deeper, more internal step" was necessary, says the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell of Denver.

In response, the Interagency Task Force on Racism has been formed to address racism issues in the church in a more coordinated way. Representatives from all of the church's general agencies and possibly other organizations are expected to participate in the group, administered by the United Methodist General Council on Ministries in Dayton, Ohio.

"If we're ever going to deal with our vision to promote racial inclusiveness and eliminate racism, it's going to have to be more than just something that's lodged in one agency of the church," says the Rev. Chester Jones, top staff executive of the church's Commission on Religion and Race in Washington. "It's going to have to be something with an emphasis on inclusion in all dimensions of the church. … Therefore, it's going to take all the agencies working in some kind of comprehensive way to address this as kind of a priority."

Jones and the Rev. Bruce Robbins, top staff executive of the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, initiated the creation of the task force. Robbins had approached Jones about the concerns raised following the General Conference's Act of Repentance. Jones suggested that the General Council on Ministries would be the best place to coordinate follow-up work.

Each of the 14 general agencies was asked to send a director from its board, plus a staff member, to serve on the task force. Representatives from church ethnic groups will also be invited, eventually boosting the task force's size to a little more than 30 members.

The task force wants to go beyond black-white issues, to look at the whole impact of racism and racial and cultural sensitivity, says Nelda Barrett Murraine, a staff executive with the General Council on Ministries.

The group met for the first time in July in Dallas. Caldwell, serving as facilitator, describes the gathering as "a time of candor, pain and honest reflection." At the meeting, he emphasized the need to look at the impact of racism and racial-cultural insensitivity "on those whom I describe as the indigenous, the immigrants and the imported." The group observed that damage has been done to people of all races.

"Our racial legacy in terms of people of African descent has shaped our church in many ways, and we, of course, need to understand that," Caldwell says. Key parts of that legacy have included the formation of "breakaway" denominations - the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches - and the creation in 1939 of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, abolished with the 1968 merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches.

The task force plans to get time on future meeting agendas of the general agencies. It wants to encourage their directors to incorporate diverse worship styles and to address ideas for battling racism. The group is interested in creating opportunities for dialogue and discussing with the agencies how "we move beyond our racism training and workshops to the next level of our call as Christians," Murraine says.

One idea would involve creating "grace zones" for dialogue. Such zones, similar to the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, would provide a place for people to talk about their experiences and feelings without fear of repercussion.

"We have to move to a point where we can dialogue about these issues and we can get it all out," Jones says. Through dialogue, the church can move into confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, he says.

The church has a lot of people who are "walking wounded," dealing with past hurts caused by racism, Jones says. It also has members who are in denial about racism and don't want to acknowledge the hurt that it has caused not only to African Americans but also to people of other backgrounds, he says.

The grace zones would also be geared toward bringing local churches together in districts and communities. Even with the repentance services at General Conference and subsequent annual conference gatherings, "you still have not been able to touch the very foundation, and that's the local churches," Jones says.

Next steps will include incorporating other ethnic groups into the task force's work and developing a Web site. Other ideas include having the general council take inventory of church resources for eliminating institutional racism, supporting continuing education for clergy on the issue, and developing a resource on racism as a "faith question."

Jones and Caldwell see the need for the task force continuing beyond the end of the current 2001-2004 period of church work.

"My vision is that it will not end in 2004," Caldwell says. "There is much more subtle and deeper spiritual work that we need to do within the denomination on our racial history and our racial reality."

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*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.

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