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United Methodist bishops plan racism dialogues

By Linda Green*
Nov. 15, 2007 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)


Bishop Linda Lee

The bishops of The United Methodist Church are struggling with the issue of racism and how to eliminate it from the church, society and even their own Council of Bishops.

The council voted during its Nov. 4-9 meeting to conduct three dialogues over the next two years to examine racism within the council, how the church perpetuates racism through its culture, processes and policies, and to raise awareness of global racism.

"Racial division is like termites in the wood," said Wisconsin Bishop Linda Lee, who chairs the council's racism task force.

The dialogues are among several task force proposals approved by the bishops during its fall meeting. The council had agreed last spring to address the problem following a plea from one bishop of color that the bishops look inward on the issue of racism.

The bishops represent 11.5 million United Methodists in the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Of the 50 active U.S. bishops, 12 are African American, four are Asian American and two are Hispanic. The council also has 12 African bishops and three from the Philippines.

Lee noted the lack of ethnic representation among those addressing the council from the podium and others serving in the body's critical leaderships positions. Many bishops of color, Lee said, "have felt insulted and assaulted by both attitudes and behavior which wound the soul."

"There are ongoing and, for the most part, we believe, unintended consequences of racist beliefs which are doing harm to bishops of color in this room," the task force said.

The United Methodist Church is preparing for its global legislative session next spring, held once every four years, with a focus on unity and hope.

"Yet in some ways the things we are preparing to offer our beloved church are like a good architectural design," said Lee, also president of the churchwide Commission on Religion and Race. The design is good, but there are "termites in the wood being used to build the house" and, if they are not exterminated, the building is at risk, she said.

Daily reality

While some bishops view racism in the council as a non-issue, Lee asserted it is a daily reality on the council and in the world. "Our task as bishops in the midst of these realities is both within and without," she said.

Lee offered examples of recent racist and unjust acts toward people of color throughout the United States, including issues of immigration, financial inequalities, ethnic representation on churchwide boards and agencies, closing of ethnic congregations and a 30 percent reduction in racial and ethnic representation to the 2008 General Conference since 2004.

"We cannot effectively lead the church to eliminate racism unless we are dealing with it among ourselves."
–Bishop Bruce Ough

In spirited discussion, including a confession of racism from one retired bishop, the council amended one of their Seven Vision Pathways that calls the church to "expand racial/ethnic ministries" to new wording calling the church to "end racism and authentically expand racial/ethnic ministries."

The council will change the document's preamble to incorporate diversity and to assert that the church's mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world can be achieved "only when we embrace being one church of diverse people in many places and work to eliminate individual, institutional and societal racism," said Bishop Bruce Ough, chairman of the council's plan team.

The Seven Vision Pathways serve as the bishops' blueprint for leading the church in making disciples for Jesus Christ. They focus on developing new congregations; transforming existing congregations; teaching the Wesleyan model of forming disciples of Jesus Christ; strengthening clergy and lay leadership; reaching and transforming the lives of the new generations of children; eliminating poverty in community with the poor; and expanding racial/ethnic ministries.

"Because of the interactive nature of the Seven Vision Pathways, we cannot start new congregations without dealing with the inherent racism in how we go about doing that, we cannot develop leaders, clergy or lay leadership in the church without dealing with the issues of racism that are a part of that process," Ough said.

Self-examination

Lee said the dialogues are designed to help the bishops "communicate with each other honestly and build a beloved community." In so doing, bishops will model and lead the church into being a community in which "grace abounds and the love we have to share is lived out fully," she said.

The bishops will develop and implement a self-monitoring process on eliminating racism from its body, using the resources of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the Commission on Religion and Race, two of the church's monitoring agencies.

"We cannot effectively lead the church to eliminate racism unless we are dealing with it among ourselves," said Ough, bishop of the West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference.

"It is always about race when you deal with a white dominat church and the white church does not get it. We just don't get it." – Bishop Fritz Mutti

Following the dialogues, the "council will determine the most fruitful means by which to give pastoral guidance to the church on the issue of eliminating racism and incorporating diversity," Ough said.

Under a dialogue schedule approved by the council, the bishops next spring will focus on racism within the council and how to move forward. During that meeting, the council will develop a statement for the church on eliminating racism in the church and society. The bishops also are working on a pastoral letter addressing immigration.

In fall 2008, the bishops will focus on institutional racism within the denomination and the practices and stumbling blocks that occur as the church struggles to be inclusive and "justice-oriented." A manual emerging from that dialogue will be used by their cabinets and annual conference leaders.

The third dialogue, planned for fall 2009, will help raise awareness about how racism and ethnic injustice contributes to global health disparities, poverty and environmental degradation.

"We believe that if we take these steps with the dialogues, we can begin to address this particular issue which continues in the church and society," Lee said.

Bishop Fritz Mutti, retired, said the dialogues will move the council and the church in the right direction. "I give thanks to the little rural church I grew up in where I learned that racism is wrong. … In the ensuing 40-some years, I have learned that racism is prejudice and the exercise of power by the majority," he said.

Mutti reflected on his experience of leading church agencies and chairing the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union, which includes United Methodist and historic African-American Methodist denominations.

"It is always about race when you deal with a white dominate church and the white church does not get it. We just don't get it," he said.

*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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