|Southeastern Jurisdiction tackles diversity issues|
Dancer, singer and storyteller Regina LaRoche leads worship
at the "Embracing God's Diversity" convocation at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
UMNS photos by Neill Caldwell.
By Neill Caldwell*
December 19, 2007 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)
Leaders of the United Methodist Southeastern Jurisdiction addressed
the challenge of churches that struggle with inclusiveness during a
conference aimed at bringing varied ethnic groups from diversity into
A sense of urgency marked the "Embracing God’s Diversity" convocation
Dec. 13-15 at the United Methodist retreat center in Lake Junaluska.
Organizers hoped to turn years of talk into action, and for the
Southeast to take on a leadership role throughout the denomination.
Cherokee Bo Taylor leads participants in a dance during the multicultural event.
"Across the SEJ, we’re tired of talking about a more diverse and
inclusive church," said the Rev. Carl Arrington, the region's director
of African-American Ministries and a conference organizer.
"We want people of all backgrounds to know they are welcome in The United Methodist Church as equal children of God."
About 350 people participated, including
almost every bishop in the region and cabinet members from each
conference. Some attributed the high attendance to the bishops' strong
"SEJ bishops want to lead this struggle to become a community, and
some of us have done some arm-twisting to get many people here who would
not normally come to this kind of event," said Bishop James Swanson of
the Holston Annual (regional) Conference. "We’re concerned that
diversity hasn’t come, and where it has come, community hasn’t come."
Suanne Ware-Diaz, an associate executive of the United Methodist
Commission on Religion and Race, spoke directly to whites in attendance.
"We know that we’re 92 percent white in The United Methodist Church, so
we can’t go forward in a ministry of reconciliation without your
support," she said.
Woodie White, bishop in residence at Candler School of Theology in
Atlanta and former bishop of the Indianapolis Area, said he believed
there had "never been a gathering as racially or ethnically inclusive"
at Lake Junaluska. The retreat center was for whites only into the
1960s. "I remember what it was so I can give thanks for what it’s
become," White said.
Attendees broke into small groups that were racially and
geographically diverse. Listening skills were strongly emphasized as the
groups grappled with questions related to inclusiveness and welcoming.
"People will change when we get to a place when we open ourselves up
to understanding who (our neighbors) are," said Herb Walters of Rural
Southern Voice for Peace, a Burnsville, N.C.-based conflict resolution
organization. As an example, Walters said his group has connected with
conservative evangelical church members in the area who share a "love
for these mountains and want to take better care of God’s creation."
Walters encouraged participants to conduct similar listening sessions
in their local churches and communities. "We need some rednecks in
these groups," Walters joked. "We want them all. But the people we need
to reach don’t come. Words like 'multiculturalism' and 'diversity' scare
those people away."
Breaking down barriers
Bishop Woodie White says
the church was borne out of a diverse population,
as told in Acts 2.
In a sermon, White reminded participants
that the church came into being in diversity. "How did we miss it (in
Acts 2)?," White asked. "The context is utterly diverse, multilingual,
multicultural, multiethnic. … God said 'this is the setting. … This is
how I want it to be.' In the midst of that diversity something happened.
The Holy Spirit came among them and broke down the barriers.
"Heaven will be integrated," White continued. "I know hell will be
integrated. This (earthly life) is a trial run. … If you can’t get it
together here, you’ll be miserable in eternity––whichever way you go."
Representatives of several ministries spoke of their experiences. The
Rev. Sylvia Collins, a Native American pastor in the Rockingham
district of the North Carolina Conference, said she realized early she
could answer a call to ministry in The United Methodist Church. "The
Lord brought me out of the tobacco fields and planted me in a place that
is rich with love," she said.
"At Sunday morning worship I see every pew filled and every pew
diverse because of what we believe," said the Rev. Laura Early in
celebrating her congregation. All God’s Children United Methodist
Church, a new start near Ahoskie, N.C., has an equal black and white
Silvia Peterson, director of Centre Latino in Mitchell County in
western North Carolina, said Hispanics will continue to come to the
United States despite immigration crackdowns because "we all have a
dream when we come to this country that this is a land of endless
possibilities." She added that she wishes "we will all listen to the
words we say in church and try harder to live out what they mean."
Swanson said he probably won't see racial equality achieved in his
lifetime. "But because I’m a person of hope, even if I won’t get there,
it’s no excuse (not) to try and make it happen. We are a people who
believe in transformation. … When people say that we’re fighting a
losing battle, tell them they have no choice because we are children of
*Caldwell is editor of The Virginia United Methodist Advocate.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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