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Caucus says empower black churches, communities

Bishop Beverly Shamana of San Francisco opens the annual meeting of Black Methodists for Church Renewal in Los Angeles. UMNS photos by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
March 6, 2008 | LOS ANGELES (UMNS) 

African-American United Methodists must engage in the Wesleyan code in their own zip codes to help black churches and African-American communities.

That was the message to nearly 400 participants at the Feb. 27-March 1 annual meeting of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

The gathering focused both inwardly and outwardly to examine the realities and challenges of following John Wesley's three general rules for a faithful Christian life: doing good, doing no harm and staying in love with God.

“We are not second string.”
–Bishop Beverly Shamana

Referring to the television show "Divine Design," which focuses on transforming spaces, empowerment and willingness, United Methodist Bishop Beverly Shamana of San Francisco told the body that "change happens as a result of constancy, as a result of perseverance, as a result of drawing the vision so large that you are stretched toward it and …everybody has a stake in making this destination happen."

Shamana opened the meeting by noting that the African-American church is empowered with a responsibility and equipped to remake the world. "This is what God is calling BMCR to be," she said. "We are not second string."

BMCR represents more than 2,400 black United Methodist congregations and approximately 500,000 African-American United Methodists across the United States. With headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., the group was organized in 1968 as a forum for black Methodists to define issues and develop strategies for change within The United Methodist Church.

It aims to empower black Methodists for effective witness and service; involve them in the struggle for economic justice; and expose racism at all levels in the church. It also serves as an "agitating conscience" working to ensure equity and inclusiveness throughout the denomination. 

Knowing oneself

In a message about identity, the Rev. Henry Masters pointed out that "knowing oneself" is both a Greek philosophical concept and an idea with African roots. "To know thyself is an ancient African truism (and) to know ourselves produces positive self images in ourselves and that what we are called to do."

The Rev. Ernest Smith, who created the group's tagline "Our Time Under God Is Now," speaks to the caucus.

Participants also met with individuals who work on the front lines of issues surrounding immigration, HIV/AIDS, community development and youth development. They offered encouragement to increase HIV/AIDS awareness in churches and communities.

The lack of a positive self-image is one reason why more African Americans are in jail than in college, according to Masters, pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, Los Angeles. "Many of our people have lost a sense of who they are and whose they are," he said.

BMCR provides an avenue to teach African-American children who they are and help foster their gifts and strengths. "We must understand that out of our history comes an understanding that we know how to excel in adversity," he said.

Participants interacted with leaders who began the caucus 41 years ago. A musical drama introduced them to the founders of black Methodism––who created their own denominations because of racism that existed in the main Methodist bodies in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Among them was the Rev. Ernest O. Smith, who coined the group's tagline "Our Time Under God Is Now." Smith, 94, former president of Rust College and a former executive with the old Board of Social Concerns, told the caucus that they cannot just talk about making a difference. "Get off your duff and do something," he said. "Recognize God's presence and he will be there when you turn to him." 

Seven Vision Pathways

Denver Bishop Warner Brown led an examination of the Council of Bishops' Seven Vision Pathways, which include new church development, transforming existing congregations, expanding racial and ethnic ministries, leadership development, reaching a new generation of children, eliminating poverty in community with the poor, and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles delivers the keynote address.

"We are at a unique place in history. A lot of things are going to change in this century," said Brown, inviting participants to align the pathways to meet the needs of the African-American church.

Churches of all races, sizes and compositions are in trouble, he said, because the world in which they organized has changed––but they have not.

In a keynote address, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who has represented the 35th district of Los Angeles for 18 years, commended BMCR's 41-year legacy of working for justice. "I am so moved by your mission," she said.

Waters talked about disparities in education, criminal justice and health care systems for people of color and the effects of HIV/AIDS, a disease that is running rampant in black America and increasingly afflicting African-American women.

She pointed out that nearly 32 percent of black males will enter prison in their lifetimes. "Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot continue to tolerate the incarceration of black men," she said, noting that many are in jail because of the disparities in sentences for possessing crack and cocaine.

Around the United States, African Americans meet together "to see what they can do to make our people stronger but never think about the extraordinary work of the church," Waters said, reminding participants of what faith is and BMCR’s advocacy role in helping reach the present and future generations.

Talbert’s leadership

Bishop Melvin Talbert accepts an inaugural statue from Pamela Crosby (left) and
Cheryl Walker.

Nearly four years ago, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert––working without a salary for two years––took over the leadership of BMCR and brought it back to financial solvency and spiritual empowerment. Today, more than 1,000 people are members in the organization, now led by Pamela Crosby.

"He moved this organization to the point of health that no one believed would happen," said Cheryl Walker, chairperson of the BMCR board of directors.

In honor of Talbert's work, the board created the Bishop Melvin G. Talbert Institute of Leadership Development. This institute will identify and promote 20 clergy for leadership development during 2009-2012 and continue the mission in the future.

"BMCR, you have blessed me," said Talbert, in accepting the honor.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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