The Church and Civil Rights
By: Ray Waddle
Nearly 40 years after the U.S. Civil Rights Act and 30 years after the end of legal segregation in the church, look how far we’ve come—and how far we’ve yet to go.
For Byrd Bonner, an influential white United Methodist in Texas, the moment of truth came when he sat across the table from a group of African Americans during a pan-Methodist study session on race.
There was nowhere to hide, no excuses to make.
“We all looked at one another and we had to ask, what now? What will we do? How are we actually going to achieve racial reconciliation?” he recalls.
“And I realized, as a white Christian, that it’s not enough to get to know one another across racial lines. We have to go outside the church and learn to walk in other people’s shoes and heal this illness in the world.”
The sickness is racism, and the United Methodist Church has been taking its medicine. Recovery is slow. The patient is still ill more than 200 years after the first racial split in the Methodist family.
Now, in 2003, the air is thick with prayers and remedies—and a sense that the time is near for the church to turn a corner or to fall under the weight of hypocrisy.
“Because of our history, we’re in a position now to grapple with it, thank God,” says Bonner, a San Antonio layman who directs the United Methodist Foundation in Evanston, Ill.
“We’re asking laypeople to come to grips with our own racism—the sinfulness that is in each of us—and recover from it.”
Like no other denomination in the United States, United Methodism is using its vast institutional reach to face up to its racist past and present. It’s an impressive list of high-level initiatives—a racial reconciliation study guide (Steps Toward Wholeness, available at www.gccuic-umc.org) distributed to 30,000-plus clergy leaders, national programs to boost ethnic growth, official repentance services that apologize for white racism.
But it won’t be enough—not if rank-and-file laypeople fail to join a journey to the heart of the gospel of compassion, forgiveness, unity, hospitality to the stranger and challenge to the status quo.
That’s the message you hear from the foot soldiers in the long fight for racial reconciliation in a denomination that has been bedeviled by racial conflict from the start. Racial healing must begin in the pews, not merely be decreed in national agency memos.
“There’s a struggle now to make repentance credible after speaking so many words for so many years,” says the Rev. Bruce Robbins, head of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
What will success look like? He replied: “What does the kingdom of God look like? No matter what color you are, you’re the body of Christ.”
February is Black History Month, when an ethical vision rouses again after tossing and turning all year long, the promise of the beloved community, racial justice, themes of accomplishment and hope, a new start.
In the United Methodist Church, a long-elusive aim of racial reconciliation has sparked unprecedented motion in the last three years.
By now, nearly every U.S. annual conference has held an act of repentance service, or plans to this year. Modeled after a service held at the 2000 General Conference, participants in these ceremonies repent of racism and pledge to overcome its alienating legacy. Many such services have witnessed heartfelt singing, jarring sermons, tears of remorse, spontaneous embraces across the aisles and across color lines, new friendships, seeds of new ministry partnerships and new energies.
The Missouri Area, for instance, is making sure the message is reaching into its churches by distributing a racism-awareness video (The Cost of Reconciliation; e-mail email@example.com) and study guide and conducting training sessions.
“No matter where you go now, people know we’re taking a stand,” says the Rev. Monica Jefferson, who coordinates the Missouri effort.
“We’re turning it up. We’re here to break the silence and admit that racism exists, and to understand that racism is a sin and contrary to our theological understanding that people have value,” she adds.
The denomination can point to other gains, such as more U.S. bishops of color than ever—17 of about 50 active bishops. There’s more ethnic diversity in leadership at church agencies.
But statistical success starts to dwindle, and resistance stiffens, when racial reconciliation moves closer to the local church.
Advocates say there are not enough cross-racial clergy appointments, not enough minority recruits for seminary, not enough racial-ethnic membership growth, not enough multicultural congregations and not enough white passion for racial justice.
“We are not what we ought to be, but thank God, we are not what we used to be,” said the Rev. John Corry of Nashville, Tenn., an African-American pioneer in the church’s racial saga and now president of the churchwide Judicial Council.
“And by the grace of God, we are not yet what we shall be.”
The challenge to United Methodism stems from a tempestuous history unique in U.S. church life: In its early years, the Methodist church spawned three black denominations because of racial inhospitality.
Those three denominations—African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church—have a combined membership of nearly 4 million people. Talks are underway now, through the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union, to seek ways toward meaningful unity between those three church bodies and the United Methodist Church.
The other wounding United Methodist Church memory involves the treatment of black members after 1939, when the northern and southern branches of predominantly white Methodism reunited to form the Methodist Church. African Americans were organized into a separate administrative entity called the Central Jurisdiction, with its own annual conferences and bishops. The arrangement gave blacks a voice in the larger church but minimized contact with whites. It was administrative apartheid—official segregation—and it was not dismantled until 1968.
“The very existence of the Central Jurisdiction crippled the United Methodist witness in the (civil rights) movement,” says the Rev. James Lawson, racial justice patriarch of nonviolence and a retired United Methodist pastor in Los Angeles.
Today, the United Methodist Church in the United States has nearly 400,000 African-American and other racial-ethnic members, whereas white U.S. membership tops 7 million.
A leading denominational caucus, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, urges the church body in its new-found mood of repentance to commemorate not only those African Americans who left the “mother” church, but also to honor those who stayed “in spite of the racist indignities we suffered under the yoke of a racially segregated church structure” during the Central Jurisdiction era.
“We were here from the beginning,” says Corry. “We stayed on and fought the system. We couldn’t change it by leaving. It’s our church as much as anybody else’s.”
The point suggests a neglected dimension in Methodism’s racial history—the contributions that African Americans have made in shaping the United Methodist Church’s identity.
“The African-American presence has brought a fervency of spirit, a flavor of grace and evangelism,” says Bishop James Thomas of Atlanta, a distinguished churchman and one of the first black United Methodist bishops.
Those gifts include exuberance in worship and a theological passion for Jesus’ redeeming the world. Thus the popularity of communion Sunday in black United Methodist congregations, where the presence of Jesus is felt as ultimate hope against oppression as well as savior of souls, Corry says.
Further, without blacks, Thomas argues, the denomination would have been fatally isolated in a rapidly changing society.
“Without the black presence, the white United Methodist Church would have had to fight the fight of being uniracial in a society that was moving toward biracial tolerance,” Thomas says.
Others point out that John Wesley himself condemned slavery in his day and preached to black Americans. Rediscovering Wesley’s visionary fire is vital to the denomination’s efforts at renewal and reconciliation, Lawson says: The church must move beyond repentance ceremonies and spark a reformation of high purpose and church growth.
“We must reaffirm our historic Wesleyan mission and outreach—zeal for the poor, for the oppressed, for the young, for the prisoners,” Lawson says.
“Standing firm with them is central to historic Methodist identity, and that means facing up to racism, sexism and violence.”
Today, many churches are giving up an all-white identity to embrace a multicultural witness—hiring people of color and reaching out to ethnic visitors and neighborhoods.
But reconciliation ultimately means something more, Bonner insists. It means learning habits of empathy for other people, and challenging social structures too—financial institutions and prison systems—that have subtle or blatant biases against people of color.
“We are all called to be people who can step into the shoes of any marginalized group—step forward and hold hands with them and take up the cause and wear their feelings and their pain,” Bonner says.
“If we can do that, then God will shine and incredible reconciliation will take place in the United Methodist Church.”
Ray Waddle Nashville, Tenn., is a freelance writer and lecturer.