A UM Missional Future: Path 6

Part 16 of 21...

"End racism as we authentically expand racial/ethnic ministries..."

Today is a good day to write about this vision pathway. With race very much in the news, and with a significant speech today from one of the candidates for US President on this very topic, the US may be primed for this conversation just now. We are fully aware of the "elephant in the room." It has been named. And the challenge has been put before all of us to find a way through it together-- a way that neither keeps us stuck in past behaviors and resentments, nor allows us to act as if there is nothing more to talk about. There is still much more to talk about-- and we need to talk about it together as a nation.

And for United Methodists, even more as a church.

I am grateful for the work of several bishops, endorsed by the Council as a whole, to ensure that any final articulation of the vision pathways would not act as if some kind of head-on and consistent address of institutional forms of racism were not at the heart of a vision for a more faithful future for our church. We can't not talk about this.

The question is how not only to talk about it, but actually to act in ways that end the power of institutional racism (in the US-- some of our African bishops helpfully remind that this would be understood perhaps more as tribalism in their contexts) and its sapping of the mission of the people called Christians.

One more thing about the statement. It appears to me that the bishops do NOT intend to limit the work around ending institutional racism ONLY to cases relating to the expansion of "racial/ethnic" ministries. They really do understand (and want us to understand) that ending racism is something we will continue to work at in and through all the vision pathways, including perhaps especially this one as a hallmark.

Racism is prejudice with power. It's more than feelings of discomfort with people of a different ethnic or cultural background. It's more than acts of discrimination. It's the whole system of relationships that allows and indeed privileges such feelings and enables such acts of discrimination to continue without serious challenge and perhaps without consequence for those who perpetrate them. Racism as such will not be dismantled only by individual actions. It will take a sea of such individual actions, plus deliberate, intentional efforts at the policy level to ensure that wherever racism continues to function, its capacity to do so is challenged and eventually (sooner rather than later, as we work and pray) terminated.

There is no room for racism in the body of Christ.

Well-- of course, in fact, we give it "plenty good room." We need to stop doing this in every way we can.

Several fairly random thoughts along that path...

1) The example of Koinonia in South Africa. As Apartheid was beginning to be challenged not only within South Africa, but outside it as well, a number of Christians, African and Afrikaans, decided they needed to start acting to end Apartheid in the hearts of people even before it was ended as policy. I had the privilege to meet one of these folks, a man named Ivor Jenkins. Their strategy was simple, but somewhat risky. They would make it a point to gather together for a meal in each other's homes on the opposite sides of Johannesburg one night a month.

That probably doesn't sound so radical to most of us. But it was huge. It was illegal, you see. There were strict curfews. Black South Africans were not supposed to be found in white areas of the towns and cities after a certain hour of the evening. To do so was to risk arrest and possibly worse. And few white persons would want to be found on the black sides of the towns after that hour, either.

Except for these people-- Christians determined to end the Apartheid in their hearts and the hearts of those around them. Eating together, and taking the time and sharing the stories of their lives around that simple act was their way. They called this movement, which spread widely among Christians in South Africa, "Koinonia"-- which they pronounced Kee-NO-nya-- the Greek word for fellowship-- common humanity shared with one another.

The nation in which they lived made them two people. It would soon-- they were all convinced it was only a matter of time-- make them legally one people. They wanted to incarnate that oneness that the law would later require-- so that when the law did require it, they could teach others how they could share the same goodness they had come to know in this simple practice.

Koinonia is a reminder to me that incarnation matters, perhaps even more than policy, when all is said and done. We don't need to wait for policies of the United States or the United Methodist Church to change before we live out the unity that is already ours in Christ, who is making of the broken humanity one new humanity in him. We can practice, or rather live into, that new humanity with our neighbors of many cultures and races here and now-- if we will, and if they are willing to allow us to serve them and our larger communities in this way.

2) Early Methodism knew this. The class meetings were not segregated by ethnicity-- at least not at first. Neither were the societies. And even, early on after we were made a church, neither were the congregations. Segregation was a practice white Methodists grew into, not one they initially inherited. Most of us know the sad story of Old St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadephia-- which is still around to this day-- the congregation where African Methodists found themselves more and more pushed off to the sides and then to the balconies for worship and even for prayer, so that Absalom Jones (who left to become an Episcopal priest) and Richard Allen (who left to found Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church) and other Methodists of African descent found no home there after long.

3) The AME, AME-Zion, and CME churches, among others who split off or launched away from these in the 19th century holiness movement and the early 20th century Pentecostal movement are the living sign of institutional racism at the heart of white Methodism in the US. AME and AMEZ have now even left the table of the ecumenical effort called Churches Uniting in Christ for this very reason-- that issues they bring from their heritage and their perspective are viewed as inferior or not worthy of equal notice by the majority white/Euro traditions who also gather at that table. Their witness calls to the rest of us that there is still not enough room for their understandings and practiced to be heard, respected, and shared.

4) I have to ask this. Why are we still in the same breath we call for the ending of institutional racism calling ministry with non-Euro descended populations "racial/ethnic"? Doesn't doing so implicitly presume that THOSE people fit into that category, but WE, who are "normal" (or at least majority culture) do not? Does continuing this labelling-- and the fairly separatist ways we actually fund these ministries as a denomination-- help or hinder the cause of ending institutional racism?

5) Expanding racial/ethnic ministries--- or as I might suggest we retranslate it, expanding ministries with people of all nations, cultures and heritages wherever we encounter them-- is very much on the right track, though. That is, so long as our effort here isn't a kind of colonization of THEM into US (so WE can count THEM in OUR stats), but rather an instantiation, an incarnation of the gospel among us all (them AND us, if we have to use the possibly oppositional terms).

The UMC IS a global church-- including here in the United States, where all the nations come. Expanding ministries that help us realize this may have the salutary effect of helping all of us also realize the many missional contexts in which we all find ourselves all the time (see http://www.membermission.org), and may also help us all think much more clearly about the basic calling of Jesus that all of us who follow him act as missionaries in his name wherever we are-- sent as signs of his mission happening, sent to live this out in community, the real communities in which we find ourselves, and the real communities to which we may also be called to go beyond our "natural" networks.

If we approach this pathway, this missional work, compassionately-- practicing deep hospitality with and among all whom we encounter-- rather than "industrially"-- practicing consumerist, marketing principles, for example, which in the end are often forms of colonialism and racism in more friendly guises-- we may find God ending the racism in our hearts and lives, and not only in our policies and personnel practices. We will need some of the latter, too-- though I would hope in a far more effective form than the ones we have now which can seem to be just as outrageously focused on race and ethnicity rather than God-breathed passion and giftedness as the ones we're hoping these help us escape. It's always both-and.

But let's lead with our hands and our hearts. And let's start leading, now.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards