|Church’s black caucus observes 40th anniversary|
Worshipers praise God during a
service as part of the annual meeting of the African-American caucus of
The United Methodist Church, held March 21-23 in Cleveland. UMNS photos
by John Coleman.
By John Coleman*
April 4, 2007 | CLEVELAND (UMNS)
United Methodism's African-American caucus celebrated four decades of
advocacy for racial justice and inclusion by challenging itself to
develop ministries that make a difference in people's lives.
More than 500 people attending the March 21-23 meeting of Black
Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) heard speakers recount the genesis
and growth of the nearly 5,000-member caucus and list its challenges and
possibilities for the future.
"Our full understanding of the past leads to our expectations of the
future, which ultimately gives us marching orders for the present," said
Erin Hawkins, a staff member of the United Methodist Commission on
Religion and Race.
Hawkins challenged caucus members to demonstrate integrity in
honoring commitments and stay authentic to their cultural identity and
"The reason we still struggle on so many levels and things don't work is
because we are lacking in authenticity and integrity," Hawkins said.
"There is power in acknowledging that we are, in many ways, our own
problem and we can be the solution."
Bishop Woodie White and
denominational staff member Erin Hawkins were co-speakers for the
meeting of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.
Hawkins urged members to embrace and interpret to younger generations
the whole story of their past - from struggle and solidarity, to
survival and salvation by the grace of God - and then to use the best
parts of that heritage as motivation to forge a positive future.
The history of Black Methodists for Church Renewal began when a group
of black Methodists met in 1967 in Detroit, followed by a larger
organizing meeting in Cincinnati in 1968, just before The United
Methodist Church was created through a merger.
The mission of the caucus is to develop prophetic and spiritual
leaders to advocate for the unique needs of black people in The United
Methodist Church and society. Advocacy and empowerment was the focus of
the 40th anniversary event.
"We decided to be an agitating force to call The United Methodist
Church to renewal," said Bishop Woodie White, bishop-in-residence and
instructor at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.
"My hope is that BMCR will be as faithful in
calling this church to renewal and justice in the future as it has been
over the past 40 years." -Bishop Woodie White"My
hope is that BMCR will be as faithful in calling this church to renewal
and justice in the future as it has been over the past 40 years."
The bishop, a respected interpreter of black Methodist history,
described that heritage beginning with early American Methodism's
"ambivalence regarding race." He described the divided church's stand
for and against slavery, its early refusal to ordain black clergy as
elders and bishops, its founding of schools and colleges to educate
freed slaves and their descendants, its racially segregated Central
Jurisdiction and, finally, the desegregation that led to the merger and
efforts to make the new denomination more inclusive.
"Racism is a strange creature with many tentacles and manifestations
of evil," White said. "But what some people mean for evil, God can turn
Recalling early fears - even among blacks - that the caucus would be a
separatist organization linked to the rebellious Black Power movement,
the bishop drew applause while reading the names of those who
nonetheless attended the first meeting in spite of warnings and threats.
He recalled how the caucus picketed the United Methodist Publishing
House in 1968 to challenge its practice of racial discrimination, and he
lauded some of the caucus' other contributions to the church.
Among historic church initiatives influenced by BMCR are:
The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race (1968),
monitoring the church on racial issues. White was its first head from
1968 to 1984;
The Black Community Developers Program (1968) of the Board of Global Ministries;
The Black College Fund (1970);
The Missional Priority on Strengthening and Developing the Ethnic Minority Local Church (1976-1988);
The Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century Initiative (1996)
"While you are spending so much time addressing the needs of the
majority culture in this majority-white denomination, what are you doing
to address the needs of your own people?" Michigan Area Bishop Jonathan
Keaton asked both himself and the BMCR membership during worship at
historic Cory United Methodist Church.
Bishops Jonathon Keaton, Gregory Palmer and Melvin Talbert lead worship for the gathering.
As chairman of the denomination's Strengthening the Black Church for
the 21st Century initiative, Keaton said the decade-old initiative has
helped hundreds of struggling black churches connect with successful
ones to gain insights and encouragement for their ministries.
Today and tomorrow
Bishop Gregory Palmer, leader of the Iowa Area and the next president
of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, urged members to "not try
to pay back what can't be paid back," referring to those who suffered
indignities and other sacrifices in the quest for racial justice and
equality. Instead, he said, "pay it forward, for we are called to live
in the now and in the future."
Palmer challenged the caucus to honor its history but also to "raise critical questions for the future."
There are 2,402 African-American churches and nearly 427,000 black
members in the denomination in the United States, or "less than 5
percent of the total membership" of 8.1 million people, said Cheryl
Walker in her state-of-the-caucus report.
Walker, who is both national BMCR chairwoman and director of
African-American ministries at the United Methodist Board of
Discipleship, highlighted a new strategic plan, with core values and a
vision for a renewed BMCR, including a call for overall caucus
membership growth, more higher-paying life memberships and more Harry
Hosier memberships to build the BMCR endowment fund from its current
level of about $100,000.
"Can you imagine us being a growing, self-sustaining advocacy
organization and truly a voice for the elimination of racism in The
United Methodist Church?" Walker asked. "We must move from being
reactive to truly living into that vision and mission."
Members support the organization by paying annual dues and through
reaching the status of life member and Harry Hosier member by
contributing $1,500 and $2,500 respectively.
A panel of four young adults described characteristics, interests,
needs and values of their generation and discussed ways to attract more
young people to join churches and the caucus.
"It's important to use 21st century technology
to reach youth and young adults or we will lose them and the future of
–Russell Goodwin"It's important to use 21st
century technology to reach youth and young adults or we will lose them
and the future of this organization," said Russell Goodwin of
Louisville, Ky., a United Methodist Communications' intern in the
The panelists described their peers as generally diverse,
well-informed, technology-savvy and unafraid of change, but also as
desensitized to painful issues - partly due to media saturation,
self-absorption and an unwillingness to make sacrifices.
"We've got to bridge the growing gap between young people and older
or more mature adults and to bring new life into this caucus and into
many of our churches," said Nicki Spencer, a local caucus and church
leader in Little Rock, Ark. She added that churches need to make their
ministries and Gospel message more outward-focused, going into the
streets and to places where young people can be found.
"Sincerity is key," said Henry Stewart, a political lobbyist,
local church leader and seminary student in Washington, in response to a
question of how to overcome fear and uncertainty in relating the Gospel
to urban youth and young adults.
"Introduce yourself, and then ask me who I am and what I care about,"
he answered. "You don't have to be like me; just accept me. If you want
to share what you know and respect what I know, we can talk."
Caucus members listened to and applauded about a dozen youth who
energized the gathering with their report on the caucus' National Youth
Harambee event last July at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. They
represented about 100 mostly African-American United Methodist youth
who attended the retreat, 88 of whom completed training there to become
local church lay speakers. The organization's Southeastern
jurisdictional caucus holds a larger annual Harambee youth retreat,
scheduled for June 28-July 1 at historically black Claflin University in
BMCR members heard reports from church agencies and several
constituency-partner groups and also viewed "Black Methodism: Legacy of
Faith-Revival," an updated, 31-minute DVD of the 1994 production "Legacy
of Faith." The 2007 offering was co-produced by the caucus, the United
Methodist Commission on Religion and Race and United Methodist
The caucus approved several resolutions for the 2008 General
Conference, calling for continued support for the Black College Fund,
Africa University and the African American Methodist Heritage Center,
located at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History in
Madison, N.J. and Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.
The caucus' 2008 annual meeting is scheduled for Feb. 27- March 1. The site is to be announced.
*Coleman is director of communications for the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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