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Southeastern Jurisdiction tackles diversity issues

Cherokee Bo Taylor leads participants in a dance during the multicultural event.
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 community.

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.
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."

Strong showing

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 support.

"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."

Bishop Woodie White says the church was borne out of a diverse population, as told in Acts 2.
Bishop Woodie White says
the church was borne out of a diverse population,
as told in Acts 2.

Breaking down barriers

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 membership.

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 Christ."

*Caldwell is editor of The Virginia United Methodist Advocate.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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