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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 values.



Bishop Woodie White and denominational staff member Erin Hawkins were co-speakers for the meeting of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

"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."

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.

Looking back

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 to good."

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)



Bishops Jonathon Keaton, Gregory Palmer and Melvin Talbert lead worship for the gathering.

"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.

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.

Reaching youth

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 this organization."
–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 Minnesota Conference.

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 Orangeburg, S.C.

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 Communications.

 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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Black Methodists for Church Renewal

Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century

United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race

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