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Methodists inspect 'fruit' of church's repentance for racism

12/3/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

Photos and audio clips are available.

By Linda Green*



BALTIMORE (UMNS) - Three years have passed since the United Methodist Church apologized for the sin of racism and sought to reconcile with African-American Methodist denominations that formed during the 18th and 19th centuries.

During that repentance service at the 2000 General Conference, United Methodists were warned that the fruits of their repentance would be under scrutiny by the African-American churches.

"The ritual act of repentance alone would not lead to the development of a new attitude or a new social consciousness," said Bishop Clarence Carr, with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, at the end of the repentance service.

"The ritual tree of repentance is barren without fruit worthy of repentance," he said. "Repentance leads to redemption, and redemption demands restitution, reparation, liberation - a new sense of freedom - both for the victim and the victimizer."

Calling the act a defining moment for the church of John Wesley, Carr said that he and other members of African-American Methodist denominations would not judge the United Methodists but would be "fruit inspectors." The denominations were formed largely because of racism in the United Methodist Church's predecessors.

Since then, most of the 64 United Methodist annual conferences in the United States have held repentance services. Local congregations have engaged in partnerships with members of the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches. Members of those denominations also hold membership on the governing bodies of United Methodist boards and agencies.

But what else has been done? Members of the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union, which consists of representatives from all four denominations, and the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns are looking for the fruits of repentance.

Representatives of the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal and United Methodist churches came together in Baltimore before Thanksgiving in search of the fruit and to see how they would journey together in Christ in the future. Native American United Methodists also participated.


The United Methodist Church has made strides in its repentance, but it needs assistance in identifying the missing pieces, said Anne Marshall, a staff executive with the denomination's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

The consultation focused on identifying next steps for the United Methodist Church to take beyond the act of repentance to reconciliation.

Several ideas for next steps included moving beyond the "safe" observances, focusing on people 25-45 years old, acknowledging the intersections of race, and tearing down walls that separate various races. The group also discussed encouraging the startup of cooperative congregations under the pan-Methodist banner.

After all of the churchwide and caucus reports on racism and the ritual acts, "where are the fruits of repentance?" asked the Rev. William McClain, professor of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. In the keynote address, McClain wondered aloud whether any fruit exists or "do we still produce wild grapes?"

"If a tree is purporting to be an apple tree, the way to tell if it is so is to taste the fruit, examine the fruit," said Staccato Powell, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion representative from West Chester, Pa. "So if the United Methodist Church is genuinely repentant for its actions of the past, then we want to know that by their current deeds and practices."

Powell asked how the United Methodist Church could reach beyond its institutional walls if it continues to exclude those who never left its ranks - a reference to the racism that still exists in the denomination. He also questioned whether the act of repentance was an attempt to "bring people of color back in to reverse the cycle of the downward spiral in terms of membership, or is this an attempt to control and dominate as the past has proven?"

The United Methodist Church should "walk the walk and not simply talk the talk," Powell said.

He also called for a pragmatic process or strategic plan with measurable action steps to help the churches in their journey together.

Using the image of a rear-view mirror, McClain said it is important to reflect on history, looking at how mistakes have prohibited reconciliation and prevented the denomination from becoming "the church in the world."

It is time to get serious about living out the faith, he said. "We need to be serious in not simply talking about multiracial churches or multicultural events and people holding office and serving the church, but in fact doing it." The barriers to reuniting the pan-Methodist denominations must be removed, he said.

McClain suggested that reconciliation is possible if the United Methodist Church "confesses and ... straightens out what we messed up."

Listening, sharing and trusting will move the four denominations toward becoming the Methodist family again, she said. She indicated that she was not talking about merger or organically becoming one, but in developing concrete relationships within communities.

The Rev. Lisa Lewis Balboa, pastor of Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Elkton, Ky., focused on relationship building. Accompanied by the Rev. John Reilly, pastor of Peachtree Memorial United Methodist Church, Elkton, Ky., she discussed how, through participating in a study called Learning and Repentance: Steps Toward Wholeness, their congregations overcame differences and established relationships.

"It was a scary and wonderful experience," Balboa said. "We did not know what to expect. In the end, we had a bond and a relationship."

The four churches' journey together will not end, Marshall said. "Once you develop a relationship, there is not an end to it. You will always be on this road together. The destination is one where we listen to each other with respect and work together with integrity and come together in a relationship that has trust."
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*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

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