You don’t have to go to Pharoah to design a course on freedom, so says Professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Vanderbilt University. Per usual, Dyson puts the pith into pithy. We need his clarity as we enter Black History Month 2023. Right on time, Michael Eric Dyson nails the ugliness, the meanness and inappropriateness of Governor Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to block the content of AP African American Studies curriculum.
This is but a contemporary example of a governor standing in the schoolhouse door. It is like George Wallace in 1963 who sought to block African American students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama. This time it is a governor seeking to block the free exchange of ideas and a shared knowledge of a painful history. It is an attempt to keep us from acting like respectful adults, as people open to the free expression of differing ideas.
But, what about us? It’s too easy to pick on a demagogue stirring up racial animosity as he prepares to run for the presidency. How might churches faithfully respond in this time? Let me speak for my group, the United Methodists. We, who are heirs to John Wesley’s legacy, have a ready response built into our theological DNA. Sadly, many of our congregations and denomination institutions have forgotten and often don’t display it. Early Methodists, in cities like London and Newcastle, formed a Strangers Friend Society. Wesley taught Christians “should meet strangers in their own habitation.” These societies designed “to visit and relieve the sick and distressed” were expressions of acceptance and inclusion. One such society still meets, weekly, in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol near a clock identified as the Strangers’ Friend clock.
In the United States, the distressing illness of racism continues – sometimes it seems to overwhelm. Let me suggest it is time for United Methodists to turn STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS. What if United Methodist congregations across the nation and world offered classes in Critical Race Theory or on Being “Woke” to Racial Injustice? Okay, not realistic, you say. Well, what if… oh, let’s say 50%, or 25%, or even 10% of United Methodist congregations offered such courses? What if pastors and lay leaders in these places taught complementary classes based on Biblical sources and drawing on curriculum already developed by fine faculty in our seminaries?
In a time when all Christians, especially United Methodists, are too focused on much less relevant matters like institutional survival, or on how to handle our divisions, what if we called for healing of the disease of racism in our nation. What if we acted like we believed in a conversion (a wokeness). What if we called for the need of repentance and conversion from our chronic racism?
I can imagine certain politicians’ discomfort when they passed the church with the sign “Critical Race Theory Taught Here, Monday evening at 7:00 PM, Register NOW.” It’s about time!
What an interesting coincidence that the violent attempt to overturn the presidential election of 2020 occurred on the day Christians celebrate Epiphany! On the first anniversary of that ugly day and as another Epiphany arrives, it seems appropriate to reflect on the relationship between them.
Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance,” “manifestation,” or “revelation” and is commonly linked with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12). The Magi, from the region of what we know as Iraq and Iran, were foreigners who studied the stars for signs of divine presence and revelation.
An implication of Matthew’s story is that the God made known in Jesus the Christ reveals God’s self in multiple ways and to ALL people. God’s saving presence is not limited to our religion, our race, our nation, our culture, our political party. God is sovereign over ALL!
Juneteenth is officially a national holiday. Good. Great even! It is an annual remembrance of when news of the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery finally reached Texas, 1865. It had taken two and a half years for the news to arrive from 1863. Today, it has taken 156 years for our nation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Check out the poem by the Rev. James Forbes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aafi3a9-eS8).
Some say the Juneteenth holiday is only symbolic. The challenge of addressing racism requires more than a holiday, or two if you count ML King Jr. Day, every year. Each of us, each of our communities, must determine our responses to persistent racism. As an ole White guy who acknowledges my own struggles, who has worked to address racism and thought much about it, let me offer three suggestions for predominantly White folks to consider: 1) Being a friend; 2) Defining the problem; 3) Acting our way to new ways of thinking.
Friendship. Dr. William Pannell is a friend; a longtime friend with whom I have spent too little time. It was in the late 1960s when we first met. Bill’s book “My Friend, The Enemy” was published in 1972. Over the years while our paths have occasionally crossed; the message of his book has remained as a companion with me. Bill is Emeritus Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary for whom that seminary’s African American Church Studies Center is named. Bill wrote of our “Pigmentocracy” where “whiteness” was automatically, often unconsciously, given a higher status. He said if our national dilemma were given a color, that color would be white. Bill valued the paradoxes of racial engagement in the United States. He was an early teacher of the value of moving past easy dichotomies — one could at the same time be both friend and enemy when ensnared within the dominant culture. He noted that the challenges of racism aren’t going to be solved by simply changing the hearts of individuals, one at a time. Bill, who was a professor of Evangelism, believed in conversion and also noted that an individualistic proscription (changing hearts) was inadequate. Something deeper and more substantial was needed.
The friend might also be an enemy, or at least live and work behind enemy lines. Friendship, based on an honest knowing of the other and an honest awareness of the matrix of systemic brokenness, was critical, if racism was to begin to be addressed. Bill spoke of a gross ignorance of one another exhibited across racial lines — especially the ignorance folks like me have about persons of color in our society. Bill wrote “my White brother taught me to sing, ‘Take the World, But Give Me Jesus.’ I took Jesus. He took the world.”
Racism Defined. “There is not a racist bone in my body.” I heard these words again just last week. Typically, they are spoken by a person who would define racism around the single notion of prejudice or personal bigotry. Can one be racist and still believe that they view all persons equally, no matter the race? Well perhaps, but racism has a larger definition. For now, let’s simply begin by saying understanding racism needs to include both individual prejudice as well as systemic discrimination. There are cultural inequities as well. The person who said “there is not a racist bone in my body” also attended schools that were racially segregated. That person also benefited from national housing policies preventing Blacks from the mortgage support offered to whites, from educational and health advantages and from employment options over the years. Benefits offered to one generation accrue and are passed on to the next. The ways racism shapes our everyday lives, over the years, is wide and profound. If one thinks racism is only about individual attitudes, he or she, is ignoring the benefits accrued to and for them over generations.
Acting our way to new ways of thinking: Last Juneteenth, as our nation was reeling in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, I watched with some discomfort as well-meaning folks made plans to address the persistent racism in our nation and in my denomination. You see, almost fifty years earlier, I had been involved in research on racism and how it might be best addressed by the church. (My research drew on research of over 1,100 persons in six cities and over forty congregations, and also included studies that went back decades further.) I remember having some blow-back last year when I advised pastors “don’t preach that sermon on racism now.” If they did, it was probably too late; but certainly a sermon alone was inadequate. If you are going to preach it include some action as follow up.
We like clear and simple formulas for success. You know, the “five things that will make your life better” type of things. In the church this has been particularly true. I have often thought that church growth, or solving the dilemmas associated with the broad national move away from Christendom in our time, would better be labeled “the Church’s one fixation.”
So, when I suggested that there were better things to do than preach a sermon or hold a book study, I knew my counsel would not be heard or would be misunderstood. I kept saying it is more important to make friends with people who are of a different race. It is important to work together on some project to address racism than have a book study. At the time, I knew such counsel was futile. After all, a book study is so much easier to organize — and be counted. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good books out there. Read them; even better, read these books in a racially diverse setting where the likelihood of some substantial change is much greater.
Last summer, within a few weeks, I watched as study programs on diversity and efforts to teach cultural competencies were offered. It is all well and good… but these efforts are insufficient and can even be counterproductive as folks think, “We’ll now I have the cure.” Again, this is about more than educating an individual or changing hearts and minds one at a time. Until we walk alongside persons living in a different racial reality, we will have difficulty understanding the breadth of white privilege. Until we establish lasting friendships we will miss the necessary struggle to establish meaningful, structural ways to address generational racial inequity. Go ahead, name your friends… or, make some new ones.
Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.
As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.
There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.
This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.
When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”
Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.
I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”
Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.
We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.
Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.
It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.
Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.
I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.
Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.
This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.
They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.
I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.
I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.
I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.
I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.
Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”
I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.
Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?
Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.
As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.
No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!
Prayers for our nation today — and a resource for hope.
This week, my friend, Mark Feldmeir’s book,
“A House Divided: Engaging the Issues Through the Politics of Compassion,” will be released. It offers a hopeful way forward in these challenging times. Mark is pastor of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Regarding racism, Mark offers these axioms:
How we think about racism is largely determined by our own particular race.
Race is the child of racism and not the father.
Colorblindness is a myth that blinds us to the truth about racism.
God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters, in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racial attitudes behaviors, and speech that demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. Amen. (A House Divided, page 30)
Prayer for Today, August 31, 2020:
Dear God, calm the fears of our nation. We think especially of the events in Kenosha, Portland, Louisville, Atlanta, Minneapolis and in so many other places. We pray for our own home towns. [Silent prayer] Show us the way to greater justice for all as we seek understanding. Even as we go about our lives in this restricted world of COVID 19, awaken us to, and remind us of, the gifts and value of our neighbors. [Silent reflection]. Make of us, who are your church and who live outside the church, advocates for non-violence and renewal. [Silent prayer] Amen.
There are multiple reasons to ignore the Republican National Presidential Convention this week: Hurricane Laura battering the Gulf Coast; unrelenting wildfires in California, the death toll from the coronavirus passing the 180,000 mark, as millions of students from kindergarten to graduate school return to classes — and others face months of isolated online learning; concerns about future postal service as persons wait for needed checks and medications, another young black person, Jacob Blake, shot by police — this time shot in the back, seven times — and the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin erupt in protest. Plenty of reasons to ignore the GOPs made-for-reality-television episodes.
It can be overwhelming. Each of these tragic events deserves attention, human care and response. There are so many threats as so many innocent people face unexpected, life altering events.
Two images come to mind as I watched the Republican National Presidential Convention. The first is a balcony curtain seen in Barcelona two winters ago. It was, to my eyes, a delightful piece of whimsical art: two hands appear to be pulling back the curtains on a balcony. It represents the joy of discovering what might otherwise be hidden.
The other image is a photo taken on the same day in a nearby neighborhood. There were dozens of these banners, hanging from balconies and roof tops. The image is a blank face where a mouth has been smeared over and the word “democracia!” is printed below.
Democracia! This is a cry heard round the world in our time. From Hong Kong to Belarus to Damascus to Louisville and Kenosha the cry, too often muted and all too real, rings out.
As I watch snippets of the made-for-television Republican convention, there is little mention of the multiple tragedies that surround and threaten to overwhelm. In fact, these calls for democracia are not mentioned.
Folks are paraded in front of the cameras — grifters, cons, wanna-be-future-presidents. There are folks who seek profit or status by supporting the forced alternative reality that is being sold from the platform of fear and grievance. It is a world deconstructed of truth; a world of scarcity that is broadcast by folks who have more than enough.
All aimed at good persons, who have bought into conspiracy theories because they fear the future and, like too many people all across the world, they are willing to put their trust in a totalitarian idea… No worse yet, trust is put in a totalitarian and narcissistic man. He actually suggests we shouldn’t believe what others may say or think — trust him only as a source of truth. Forget science, ignore history, avoid moral thinking apart from a few made for grievance and simplistically answered dilemmas. He who, though you know he cheats and manipulates, still claims to be the one to bring the order and easy solutions you hope will one day come.
Truth is turned on its head — the immigrants who bring talent and a willingness to work are turned into the enemy. Young people who seek justice and protest out of conviction are turned into rioters. NATO becomes our enemy and Russian operatives who seek to undermine our common well-being are turned into our friends. After all, the supreme leader sends love letters to the North Korean dictator and speaks fondly of the tyrant in Turkey. He is “doing foreign policy differently” we are told and any appeal to human rights disappears. The scriptures are not read or studied; no. The “holy book” is but a symbol, a prop; it is held up like some talisman that can block out the truth contained in the great and true counter narrative within the book.
The idea that there is only one person who can fix things, all of the social disarray around is what this man openly stated four years ago. Today, in the United States the true believers are the Trumpists. Who would imagine, who could imagine, a political party that decided it needed no plans for the future, no party platform, especially when tragedies abound? Who could imagine? Would someone please pull back the curtain and let the realities of our situation be made apparent. Might “we the people” discover it is essentially our shared, widely enacted, response that can begin to bring renewed health and hope.
There are also well meaning, sincere folks. Persons I think of as “the genuine articles” who are given a cameo performance on the GOP stage. They have bought into the big lie. The lie that the world is an either/or place. Either you are with the supreme leader, and that is the only way to fix things, or you will lose your place of security, of status and order. There are multiple alternate paths for a people who might seek truth together; however we will have to work with persons who see some parts of reality differently. Pull back the curtain. There are options to being a Trumpist. It will require pulling back a curtain to see that those who differ are also Children of God, like you? The Trumpist wants to say all who differ are “socialists.” Such astonishing, deceptive, untruthful language is repeated over and over until good people believe the lie.
Democracy means we will have to work with others to solve the complex real world problems; we must, in fact, do it together. I so value the good folks who seem stuck in this trap of binary thinking — they are my neighbors, my friends, my family. Still, my reality is that our democracy is now being smothered.
It is like a giant pillow of grievance and fear is forced down across the face of our body politic. There is not room for protest, dialogue, compromise. As Bill Moyers put it “A democracy can die of too many lies. And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (See Bill Moyers on Truth).
A Call for Antiracist Commitments by Indiana United Methodists
Date: August 17, 2020
At the August 15th session of the Indiana Annual Conference the following motion was referred for consideration: “In preparing the 2021 budget for the Indiana Annual Conference, the Conference Finance and Administration Commission will set aside 10% of future program ministry budget(s) for antiracism work.”
Rationale: We have reached a kairos moment in the life our nation and church. Ours is a time of opportunity, transformation, and an occasion to clearly and directly address the enduring racism that besets our nation, state and church. In truth, racism is embedded in all of our systems: education, medicine, commerce, housing, law enforcement and, most tragically, even the church.
This motion to aside a tithe of conference program budget for antiracism efforts is an opportunity for United Methodists to lead in this critical work. It would demonstrate again our witness to racial justice through positive and constructive actions. We would thereby demonstrate our commitment to follow the Christ who welcomes all without reservation. Sadly, more than the vestiges of racism survive in our body. Racism continues to reshape our practices, our ministries and our structures. By wide majorities our members live and worship in racial enclaves. Membership reports, programming and attendance records since the beginning of the United Methodist Church in 1972 offer abundant evidence of our failure to extend our denomination’s welcome very far beyond that of being a church primarily focused on ministry with and for Whites. At the same time the racial and ethnic diversity of our state has greatly expanded while our percentages of persons from differing racial groups remains small.
This is an evangelistic and missional dilemma – and an opportunity. If Indiana’s youth see our church at all, there is scant evidence that Indiana United Methodism is modeled upon the beloved community of Jesus, where all are welcome. Antiracist commitments are seldom displayed, whether in camping, leadership initiatives, or church development programs. It is painful to ask the question, Where do we invest our dollars and our lives in specific and clear ways that confront the sin of racism in our society and in our own church? Persons of Color now make up more than sixteen percent of Indiana’s population, while our membership percentages of non-white persons is somewhere between three to five percent.
Tragically, it has taken the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abery, Elijah McClain, Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, Christian Cooper, Treyvon Martin, Eric Garner, and dozens of others, to awaken our nation to the profound violence and daily bigotry against African Americans. These murders, and dozens of others, are the most dramatic examples of the ways an acceptance of racism contributes to a societal assault on human decency. Indiana United Methodists have been far too passive. This is not a time to claim neutrality or blame some other forces for our tribal and de facto segregated lives. It is not sufficient to simply claim to be “non-racist.” This is a moment of gospel opportunity. This is, potentially, our Kairos moment, when the United Methodist Church in Indiana, can be true to the best of our history, our Evangelical theology, and our better angels. This is our time to act in bold, antiracist ways.
Fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote “I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.” (New York Times, February 2, 1969)
Robert P. Smith’s book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” published only this summer, draws on Baldwin’s perception. Smith’s research is both a deeply disturbing and helpful resource for Christians who seek to take the next steps in confronting the sin of racism. While much of this research is based on Smith’s own Southern Baptist background, there are ample illustrations for United Methodists and other mainline folks. Clear evidence of our racist complicity and our deeply embedded racist-worlds-taken-for-granted behaviors is provided. Fortunately, there are also examples offered of the ways congregations and judicatories have moved from simply talking about racism to taking specific steps to act in constructive and restorative ways to repair what has been broken and reach out in life giving ways.
This motion, offered and referred on August 15, is a call for the Indiana United Methodist Church to give witness and take responsibility for the damage done to all parties, Blacks (along with other “minorities”) and damage to Whites as well, for too long. It will require more than preaching to change prejudiced attitudes or attending workshops on inclusion and diversity. It will require more than a few token examples of racially integrated vacation church schools or charity work with the poor.
Antiracism work will involve structural changes, new partnerships and a stepping away from the paternalism that has shaped many of our ministries. This is a time for seeing the remarkable gifts and resources brought by persons of color already within our churches and in the neighborhoods and communities surrounding them. It is an opportunity to establish a new template for the long-term health of our congregations and conference that is marked by including new persons and groups. Such renewal work will require decades of effort and resources. It will be, however, a key investment in a stronger and healthier future for the church.
In earlier conversations, I have been appropriately reminded that Bishop Trimble does not need our counsel, advice or wisdom in matters regarding racism so much as he needs us to put action behind our words of hoped for racial reconciliation. I do not claim to be an expert so much as a long-time observer and a follower of Jesus; I am one who is captured by the hope of the gospel. Do I think such a change in the budget is easy or likely? No, and probably not. Even so, I believe a tithe toward antiracism ministries is essential to matching what we say with what we do – and to sustain United Methodism’s witness in the future.
How might this be done? There are dozens of ways our pastors and lay leaders can, and I believe would, respond to this call. Many more ways than we can imagine. Attached is a page of “possibilities” that briefly offer ideas for positive antiracism work in Indiana. Prayers for you and with you as you contemplate how best to respond to this time that calls for our repentance and action.
Philip A. Amerson
Ten Examples of Potential INUMC Antiracist Activities
There are dozens of ways Indiana United Methodists can act in antiracist ways. These could begin to repair damage done over the decades by racial violence and brokenness. Such actions might be mixed and matched together through study, travel, outreach, witness, etc. A tithe from our conference program budget might:
1) Reestablish the work of a Commission on Religion and Race in the Annual Conference with funding for such work for the next decade.
2) Join with our United Methodist Hospitals and other health services in direct, hands-on and prayer-supported, engagement to address the high rates of infant mortality in Indiana. This is something that is particularly a problem in our minority communities.
3) Offer annual updates and workshops on the racial makeup of our congregations and populations in each county in a district. This would offer new insights for persons who mistakenly believe there is “no diversity in our community.” Several counties have seen significant increases in Hispanic and other non-white populations in the last decade; still many in our churches seem not to be aware.
4) Provide resources for at least two annual gatherings of persons of color in the conference, pastors and laity. Mostly they would get to know one another. Another goal could be to monitor conference actions; or another goal might be to design “learning journeys” with white clergy and laity where they could spend time in prayer, reflection, learning and planning for the future, together.
5) Review and update existing conference programs, in consultation with African American, Hispanic and Asian educators to offer more racially sensitive and appropriate approaches to strengthening our education, outreach and evangelism. Persons like the Rev. Vanessa Allen-Brown or Mr. De’Amon Harges and Ms. Seana Murphy of The Learning Tree in Indianapolis would offer valuable assistance.
6) Encourage every congregation in the conference to establish a partnership with another congregation or group of persons from a different racial or cultural background. This might include regular ways to fellowship and worship with Indiana AME, AMEZ and CME congregations. One can imagine how remarkable such gatherings these might be if guest lecturers shared insights regarding antiracism options.
7) Read, study and travel with others. For example, read the books by Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) and Robert P. Smith (White Too Long) and take a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama Or, read Jim Madison’s book on the Klan in Indiana and visit one of the sites, perhaps with a video or face-to-face conversation with Professor Madison.
8) Join the Community Remembrance Project sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative to offer witness at each of the seven known lynching sites in Indiana. These are recorded at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and a part of the Community Remembrance Project that seeks to set a Historical Marker at each site. There is also a gathering of the soil near each site to be placed on display along with the victim’s names at the museum. Wouldn’t it be “GOOD NEWS” to report that it was the UMC in Indiana that saw memorials placed and services of repentance held in each of location of a lynching.
9) Identify places where racism has damaged our witness (such as the troubled cross racial appointment at Old North Church in Evansville in 1985 or the closing of City Methodist Church in Gary) and/or locations where we once had a congregation of color that is now vacated. Hire persons to document these stories and/or share with the conference materials that are already available giving preference to researchers who are persons of color. Work with pastors in these settings to hold gatherings of repentance and reconciliation.
10) Ask the Indiana United Methodist Historical Society to research and publish a fuller account of the connections between Indiana Methodism and the Ku-Klux Klan, especially in the early 1920s. (In his 1994 United Methodism in Indiana, John J. Baughman wrote: “Particularly awkward was some local Methodist support for the infamous Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s. Even now this is a no-no subject within the denominational history.”) Knowing this history, painful as it may be, can lead to honest acts of repentance and restoration. It is likely that several of our congregations could benefit from an honest knowledge such a history.
“Racial Prejudice is a sin.” So reads the lead sentence in an ad from a well meaning Christian institution. Yes, it is! “Good,” I thought. “Not sufficient,” was my second thought.
The ad was announcing a new educational program. Daily I read of a new degree program, or certificate, or workshop on racism. There are programs featuring inclusion and diversity; some offering cultural awareness. Good — many in our nation have been woke to our nation’s prevailing racism. Then, again I think, not sufficient.
Anti-racism work involves more than addressing individual prejudice, or practicing inclusion, or graduating from diversity training. The deeply embedded racist practices, white privilege and enduring structures of our society require more than changing bad attitudes or reorienting mental categories. I am helped by Isabel Wilkerson’s recent argument that our society is, in reality, a caste system.
In my tradition, the prayer for each day begins “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.” Once woke, there is the need to keep awakening.
Setting aside my unpleasant thoughts about the marketing and commercialization of programs to address racism, it is clear that antiracism work will require more than a new curriculum, or a certificate or registration for a webinar. If we are to continue movement toward the Beloved Community we will be required to do some major overhauls, yes personally, but also in our institutions and economies.
As I have come to realize, over and again, my personal confession and repentance is only the prelude to a life-long reorientation. Recently I was asked if I was suggesting there is need for a “continual conversion.” In short, YES. As one friend suggests, this is “one-hundred-year-work.” It is as Eugene Peterson reminds us “A long obedience in the same direction.” Antiracism requires sustained commitment to institutional and cultural change. If you thought differently, I want to disabuse you of belief in any easy path. This is to say those eight week or eight month programs are… well, a small, good beginning, but only that.
In ways too numerous to list, we will always be learning, confessing, repenting, and re-imagining our common life and its institutions. In our podcast/videocast, Mike Mather and I suggest this lifelong commitment will involve Remembering Community — remembering our common Beloved Community.
While we don’t offer a certificate, a degree program, or a $135 workshop or webinar, Mike Mather and I invite folks to listen in and join the conversation. We are reflecting on our own racism and the deep caste-like patterns with which we have struggled in our ministries — personal, institutional and cultural. In the weeks ahead we will be looking at this along with the many stories from parish and community ministry.
In this weeks episode we speak of institutional racism, and of how two remarkable African American women, Hertha Taylor and Sadie Flowers, each acted in creative and joy-filled ways. Our call is to remember folks like these and to venture beyond the comfortable formats of small projects in “helping others,” that so many assume to be best. You can watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFkguEMsSw.
As I watched the tragic scenes unfold across our nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I remembered the phrase scratched on a napkin and slid toward me: “Words, words, words: Hamlet.” This writer of the quote in 1992 was Bill Hudnut, former long-time mayor of Indianapolis. Bill was a friend. I was pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church. We often had to agree to disagree. In considering the wounds to our nation’s soul just now, I think of Bill.
There have been too many words. I believe this is a message the rioters are tying to communicate — in imperfect ways, yes, but there have been too many words… words of promise, words to placate, words to delay. And, there have been too many words from the highest office in the land that harm and destroy. More, even worse, there have been words designed to incite violence. There are words tweeted in short attacks or enshrined in policies that reinforce the systemic racism of a nation that has never recovered from slavery, segregation and centuries of discrimination and shame.
Hudnut wrote the note “words, words, words” as we listened to the remarks of a popular young governor. The speaker was his opponent in 1992, as Bill challenged the young governor for his seat. Hudnut lost that race. The governor went on to another term; then was elected senator, like his father before him. As I recall all these years later, Hudnut was reacting to the governor’s word-salad related to a question about law enforcement and tragedies like the death of Michael Taylor. How might we better address police abuse? In 1987, Michael Taylor, a 16 year old, was handcuffed and in the custody of Indianapolis police officers when he was shot and killed. The officers claimed Taylor had somehow, with hands in cuffs, behind his back, grabbed one of their weapons. — So, they said, “they had to kill him.”
Michael Taylor’s murder remains an open sore for many in Indianapolis, myself included. George Floyd’s murder and the national response only displays that we have a pervasive and longtime pattern of such abuse. We have only formalized the “lynching culture” prevalent a century ago. In 1987 Bill Hudnut and I publicly disagreed about Indianapolis’ response in the Michael Taylor case.
Don’t get me wrong — Hudnut was a wise voice, took a lot of heat for not being tough enough on crime and too friendly with the minority community. At the time, Bill challenged some prevalent police practices. Still, he was the mayor and thought his primary job was to keep the peace and the support of his party. In private, we talked on several occasions, we prayed together and he shared his profound sadness. Behind the scenes Bill took actions to improve police practices, including better public review — something that is still not sufficiently dealt with today.
“Words, words, words: Hamlet” is remembered now. At the time they were first shared with me, neither of us knew how much “the Rev. Bill Hudnut,” graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary, was a part of a dying breed. He was a Republican committed to racial justice and civil rights in word and DEED. A part of his story is told in Indiana History, “William Hudnut III versus the Reagan Administration” (https://indianahistory.org/stories/william-hudnut-iii-versus-the-reagan-administration/).
The Republican Party lost its way. How can they claim to be the party of Lincoln or Grant? How? I wish it was this easy. If one can just blame someone else, it is too easy. Our nation has lost its way as well. Bill Hudnut was a practical politician — yes, he made compromises. He was right to have a jaundiced view of the language of the Democrats.
We have all lost our way. We somehow think that there is some easy way to undo the massive damage of racial injustice that is four centuries old in our land. “Words, words, words” Bill Hudnut rightly quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In every arena related to racial justice we have talked too much and accomplished too little. The deceit was implicit in the opening words to our constitution, written by a slave owner, who knew better but never emancipated his own slaves. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (and women) all are created equal…” Perhaps our generation can do some bold things to make these sentiments more than words.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrives. Another year. Another invitation to dream, to conceive a different world. Memories cascade:
Dr. King’s funeral, standing with other seminarians outside Ebenezer Church, then, marching/weeping along the route;
Harlem, a year later, discovering my profound ignorance of the white problem in our nation;
Two years later, substitute teaching in Atlanta and realizing that the young shy boy named Marty, who seemed so lonely, had the last name of “King;”
Graduate research on Racism and Suburban Congregations opened new vistas on the complexity of white racism.
Then, I was honored to pastor a predominantly Black church.
These memories and many more remind me of the Whiteness Problem our nation faces. I am white; and have been shaped by hidden and obvious advantages of being placed in this racial category. Even though there is more than a hint of Native American ancestry, my whiteness still shapes how I navigate the world and the social structures in which I live. In the end I believe that all of our racial categories are only social constructs, they are none-the-less real and filled with the potential to do continuing harm to persons and groups.
White racism is the most negative of the templates shaping our nation’s core identity. There is slavery, reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow, federal policies restricting loans for African Americans leading to widespread housing segregation, the practices of red lining that continue, the courage of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement. The Whiteness Problem is embedded in the warp and woof of our core. Years ago Toni Morrison said that “Every American novel is about race.” Her novel “Beloved,” for me captures a way of seeing who we are and seeing a more hope-filled future.
Sixty-five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation was illegal. Desegregation of public schools was to be undertaken with “all deliberate speed.” In a majority of our cities little has changed since then.
Sixty-two years ago, as I was preparing to enter the seventh grade, there were nine young African American persons in Little Rock, Arkansas who would risk personal safety to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower faced with the threats of violence responded by sending troops to protect those young persons.
Fifty-two years ago, February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, otherwise known as The Kerner Commission released their extensive and clear analysis of the White Problem: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the report that it was a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Even so, President Johnson and Congress ignored the recommendations from The Kerner Commission Report. Johnson was leaving office as his Vietnam War policies were an evident failure. Richard Nixon would assume office in January of the next year.
In 1975, forty-five years ago, I completed my graduate work. My dissertation title was simple, “Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change.” The research was part of a national effort entitled Project Understanding. We measured changes brought about through a variety of interventions. More than 1,100 persons were surveyed from more than seventy congregations in six cities. We learned much; at the core of our learning was that the extent and pervasiveness of the Whiteness Problem waited to be addressed.
Any enduring change would require more than sermons, teaching, pulpit exchanges or even legislation. Change required relationship. It required those of us who are categorized as “White” to see with new eyes. It would require people lumped in each and all racial categories working together to uncover and end discrimination and prejudice.
Being “non-racist” is not sufficient. This myth of neutrality in vogue at the highest levels of our government seeks to paper over the deep wounds and sins that beset us. It is the notion of “good people on all sides.” Astonishingly, the racism that fueled the murders in El Paso is dismissed. Defenders of the current administration say, “It’s not us, the White Nationalist are the true racists!”
This is the challenge — how to name the evil, the oppression and remain clear. Amazingly, many leaders dismiss, confuse and obfuscate even as racist language, behaviors and institutional practices are on the ascendancy. Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell stood before T.V. cameras and said “President Trump is not a racist.” Really, Senator McConnell? You say this with a straight face.
There are few who write about race and racism today as astutely as Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her collection of essays “Thick” is a tour-de-force as it looks at the challenges and opportunities we face as a people seeking to live together with honesty and care. One of the sharp essays in this collection is entitled, “(Black is Over) Or, Special Black.” She writes of the way some seek to dismiss our deeply embedded racism by suggesting that the acceptance of academics like herself proves that we have entered a new era where the gifted, special Blacks prove we have moved on.
She writes: “Black is not over… There is no post-black race theory or race work or racial justice or activism that can thrive by avoiding this truth. Whether at the dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap. It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.” [Thick, p. 152]
Who or what will wash away the tears? On April 5th, 1968, I woke up crying. It was a cool morning, sunny as I remember, but a crushing shadow of sadness enveloped our small apartment. I had arrived home from travels late the night before. Stopping for fuel along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tennessee that evening I was met by an attendant (others pumped gas in those years) who, even before asking whether I wanted “regular” or “high-test,” ebulliently announced, “We finally got the SOB.” I didn’t know what he meant. “Regular,” I remember saying. Later I would think that there was nothing regular about that evening.
Upon leaving the gas station I turned on the radio and heard the horrible news. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, in Memphis, just a few miles away. The words “We finally got the SOB” were still fresh in my ears on that Friday morning, April 5th, 1968. They continue to echo fifty years later.
I wept on that cool sunny morning. Spring was near but hope seemed to be further away than ever. I was midway through my seminary education having come to understand and believe in Dr. King’s efforts. Professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon had challenged me to think more deeply about injustice. And I was reading widely — stretched to think that sin was more than individual and that prejudice was only the window dressing of racism. I was learning that discrimination and systemic injustice were often more difficult to see and much more difficult to address. I had not joined in any marches by then. Reading Dr. King had lead me back to the works of Gandhi, and surprisingly, back to E. Stanly Jones and J. Waskom Pickett out of my own tribe of Methodists.
(I chuckle at the folks who today tell their story of heroism — joining the Freedom Riders and so on. I’m glad, but my memory of those years does not include much heroism on my part.) I did march but it was four days later at Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta. A few other students from seminary joined a couple of professors in the trip but we couldn’t get near Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral.
We did march, in truth it was a procession, continuing for several miles from Auburn Avenue to the Black Colleges in west Atlanta. I recall seeing the mules and a wagon pass. At a distance there was Mrs. King and the children. There was Harry Belafonte and other civil rights leaders: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson. The Kennedys and Nixon, Humphrey and other politicos passed by. More than anything, I remember the press of people and their tears… and songs. Men hanging on telephone polls singing. One fellow, handkerchief in hand, weeping from a perch high up in a tree comes back to memory.
“We Shall Overcome” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were the songs. I knew then that tears and these songs would not be enough. Racism was more profound and entrenched than I understood then. My racism. Much as my heart was in the right place, this national sin required more than changing my heart — or the hearts of ten million others. Like so many of my peers in those days I was blind to this pernicious illness that touched every sector of our lives. There were expansive institutional, economic and cultural dimensions of this sin. Shaped by a predominantly white southern Indiana culture, racism was like the water in which a fish swims. It was all around me, in the language spoken and the institutions that would educate and credentialed me and in the church where I prayed.
It was in my senior year of high school that I had first experienced any real racial diversity. No, let me be more specific, it was only then I had my first lasting conversations with black students. It was then I had my first African-American friends. Here were my first arguments, first disagreements with black students, who were also friends. I was growing toward understanding, but slowly. At the time I didn’t know it, but that year was a remarkable gift, a privilege.
My “white privilege” was being unmasked, slowly and sometimes painfully, my layered naiveté about racial relationships was exposed. This unmasking of our nation’s sins continues these fifty years later. Still I live with hope — I have seen some positive changes. I have also witnessed great ugliness that can only be shaped by a nation still laboring to find equality for all.
Six years prior to Dr. King’s assassination, in 1962, the bishop moved my father, a pastor, to Indianapolis to serve a central city church. This meant I would be attending Shortridge High School. Shortridge was at the time among the most racially diverse schools in the state, probably the nation. The African-American students were about half of those enrolled.
Here I met African-American students as smart, and many smarter, than me. I remember another tenor in our choral group who one day said to me, “You have your prophet Billy Graham but we have a King.” He meant it out of kindness and I heard it in confusion. Didn’t we share both? I wondered.
Years and study have followed. I did graduate work looking at how racial attitudes, institutions, and cultures might be changed. Like my tears and songs, the teaching, preaching, writing and sharing I have done over these fifty years have not been enough. Racism still rages like an unchecked fever in our society. I have sometimes thought I should return my diploma to Emory University where I wrote a dissertation titled: “Suburban Churches and White Racism: Strategies for Change.” What more might I have done? Or, perhaps, I should turn in my ordination papers as the church seems as limited in addressing its own racism as ever. There are still too many who would join in saying “We finally got the SOB.” Some days it seems that even those in our nation’s White House live in a world that cannot acknowledge this national sin — and are far from supporting efforts to bring equity.
It is true, tears are not enough. Nor are songs, or sermons, or books. But they are all essential, I have come to discover. These and other artifacts of our learning new ways to live, help us as we work to reshape our communities, our friendships, our churches, our politics.
So there are still tears, and songs, and sermons, and books, and movies, and churches, the institutions we lead and serve, and our mundane daily schedules. All of these are a part of moving beyond our nation’s blindness.