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New leader shares vision for racial justice agency


Erin Hawkins, newly installed top executive of the United Methodist Commission
on Religion and Race, gives her first address to the agency's board.
UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.
 

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Oct. 10, 2007 | OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS)

The commission charged with "building a beloved community" must become the heart of The United Methodist Church, said Erin Hawkins, the newly installed top executive of the church's racial justice agency.

 
Katelyn Sutfin, 10, signs the Lord's Prayer during the opening worship service.

"As the heart of the church, we will serve the primary function of pumping life into and throughout the body of United Methodism," she said. "The life of this church is the people who represent all colors, nationalities and languages."

Hawkins, 31, became the head of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race on Sept. 1. She was welcomed and installed as top executive during the Oct. 3-7 fall board meeting in Oklahoma City.

With "35 days, 12 hours, and 47 minutes" under her belt, Hawkins charted a bold course for the agency during her first address to the board.

"Jesus taught that love of God and love of humanity are the central tenets of the Christian faith," she said. "The Bible says that the person who claims to love God and does not love their neighbor is a liar."

Hawkins said the great commandment places the commission and its ministry of anti-racism at the center of the church.

'Lead on'

During Hawkins' installation dinner, Bishop Linda Lee, president of the commission, said, "Lead on, general secretary, lead with boldness, with all the passion you have in your heart."

"Christ is with us, and we can lean on Jesus," Lee said. "It is time for a change of heart."


Commission President Bishop Linda Lee receives a shawl and basket as gifts from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.  

The Rev. Dorothy Watson Tatem, board member from the Northeast Jurisdiction, said moving the agency's work from the fringe to the middle of church life will be difficult but that the time is right. "When people have a heart attack, that is when they start taking care of the heart. We are in the midst of a major heart attack here; we need to care for the heart," said Tatem.

The board approved a summary report of the strategic plan for 2007-2012 as a working draft, including four goals to:

  • Educate and mobilize people to challenge racism throughout the church and the world;
  • Engage leaders to work as partners to eradicate racism;
  • Develop and support inclusive, multicultural leadership;
  • Advocate for human dignity, compassion and hospitality for all racial/ethnic groups.

"It is our dream to be a non-racist denomination," said Ilda Vasquez, a board member from the South Central Jurisdiction who worked on the strategic plan. "That's a pretty huge dream, but we would like to see a rainbow of colors on every board and agency, equal representation, voices heard and not ignored — just an equal place at the table."

Areas of focus

Hawkins outlined five areas of focus for the agency through 2008 as she asked board members to work to change the commission from "a small, expendable agency" on the fringes to the "hub of ministry for the entire church."

Internally, Hawkins plans to realign the board and staff, casting a critical eye at way the board uses its time during and between meetings and working to place staff in positions where their gifts and talents can be used more effectively.

“After 40 years of faithful service, it is time for us to begin doing a new thing in new ways.”–Erin Hawkins

The proposed staff structure would assign each of five associate general secretaries to one area of focus: internal operations, research and monitoring, advocacy, education and training, and communications and marketing.

The second area of focus is to review and retool ministries to monitor United Methodist entities to ensure equal racial and ethnic participation in the life of the church. Hawkins plans to assess ways annual conferences, churchwide agencies and theological schools are reviewed so the information can be better used by both the entity and the commission.

"The meetings we hold with racial ethnic constituencies is often very illuminating and an important part of the process," she said. "My hope is that we will retool the review process so that, although it may yield findings that are uncomfortable for the parties being reviewed, it is seen as a service that we are able to provide to these entities to give them an alternative point of view regarding their operations and provide the foundation for future partnerships that help them reach their goals with greater ease and proficiency."


Native American storyteller Raggatha
Rain Calentine weaves a story for commission members.
 

The third area of focus is to jumpstart the commission's research and evaluation process. In 2008, the commission will begin working with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women to hire a shared staff person for this task. "We must ensure that our evaluation process does not make the agency vulnerable in the future," Hawkins said.

Hawkins has set a goal of raising at least $1 million for the Woodie White Endowment during the denomination's next four-year budgeting period beginning in 2009. The fund was established in 2003 to support the ministry of racial justice.

The fifth area of focus is to prepare for the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the church's top legislative body, meeting next spring in Fort Worth, Texas. The commission will partner with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women to provide cultural sensitivity training for the conference delegates.

The racial justice agency also will celebrate its 40th anniversary during the churchwide meeting.

'Peace, be still'

Using Mark 4:35-5-1, Hawkins compared the board's current challenges to those faced by the disciples as they were on a small boat in the Sea of Galilee threatened by strong winds and high waves.

In fear, the disciples went to a sleeping Jesus and asked, "Why do you sleep when we are about to lose our lives?"

Jesus quieted the wind and the waves with a command: "Peace, be still."

 
Board members present Hawkins with a blanket during her installation dinner. 

"I believe Christ is beckoning to us, saying, 'Come let us go to the other side,'" Hawkins said. "After 40 years of faithful service, it is time for us to begin doing a new thing in new ways."

Hawkins said the commission will face storms as it confronts racism. "We must claim the non-anxious presence of the savior in the midst of turbulence," she said.

Citing alarming statistics of a world where 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day, where every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria and where an estimated 38.6 million people were infected with AIDS by the end of 2006, Hawkins said the commission is being called to go to the other side to face a world of brokenness and pain.

"In the spirit of the great mandate that lies before us and with the reassurance of a God that is calling us to have faith that we will be delivered safely through the storms of change and resistance, I say to you, members and staff and friends of the Commission on Religion and Race, 'Come, let us go to the other side.'"

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

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio

Ilda Vasquez: “The dreams and hopes are for a non-racist denomination.”

The Rev. Dorothy Watson Tatem: “We need to care for the heart.”

Erin Hawkins: “We will be confronted with storms as people try to silence our voice.”

Erin Hawkins: “All are welcome at God’s table.”

Related Articles

Racial justice agency names Erin Hawkins as CEO

Church's black caucus observes 40th anniversary

Agency plans more advocacy against racism

Jones to leave commission, return to Arkansas

Resources

United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race

Oklahoma Indian Missionary Annual Conference


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