From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
New churchwide task force confronts racism
Thu, 22 Aug 2002 14:51:08 -0500
Aug. 22, 2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: Head-and-shoulders photographs of the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell and the
Rev. Chester Jones are available at
A UMNS Report
By Tim Tanton*
A new United Methodist task force is pulling together people from throughout
the denomination's agencies to study ways to combat racism in the church,
and to enable healing and reconciliation around the issue.
When the church formally apologized in 2000 for racism, many of its own
African-American members complained about having been overlooked in the
process - that the apology was directed more to members of the three
predominantly black Methodist denominations. Some said the church should
have apologized to its own African-American members first.
A "deeper, more internal step" was necessary, says the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell
In response, the Interagency Task Force on Racism has been formed to address
racism issues in the church in a more coordinated way. Representatives from
all of the church's general agencies and possibly other organizations are
expected to participate in the group, administered by the United Methodist
General Council on Ministries in Dayton, Ohio.
"If we're ever going to deal with our vision to promote racial inclusiveness
and eliminate racism, it's going to have to be more than just something
that's lodged in one agency of the church," says the Rev. Chester Jones, top
staff executive of the church's Commission on Religion and Race in
Washington. "It's going to have to be something with an emphasis on
inclusion in all dimensions of the church. ... Therefore, it's going to take
all the agencies working in some kind of comprehensive way to address this
as kind of a priority."
Jones and the Rev. Bruce Robbins, top staff executive of the Commission on
Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, initiated the creation of the
task force. Robbins had approached Jones about the concerns raised following
the General Conference's Act of Repentance. Jones suggested that the General
Council on Ministries would be the best place to coordinate follow-up work.
Each of the 14 general agencies was asked to send a director from its board,
plus a staff member, to serve on the task force. Representatives from church
ethnic groups will also be invited, eventually boosting the task force's
size to a little more than 30 members.
The task force wants to go beyond black-white issues, to look at the whole
impact of racism and racial and cultural sensitivity, says Nelda Barrett
Murraine, a staff executive with the General Council on Ministries.
The group met for the first time in July in Dallas. Caldwell, serving as
facilitator, describes the gathering as "a time of candor, pain and honest
reflection." At the meeting, he emphasized the need to look at the impact of
racism and racial-cultural insensitivity "on those whom I describe as the
indigenous, the immigrants and the imported." The group observed that damage
has been done to people of all races.
"Our racial legacy in terms of people of African descent has shaped our
church in many ways, and we, of course, need to understand that," Caldwell
says. Key parts of that legacy have included the formation of "breakaway"
denominations - the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal
Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches - and the creation in 1939
of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, abolished with the 1968
merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches.
The task force plans to get time on future meeting agendas of the general
agencies. It wants to encourage their directors to incorporate diverse
worship styles and to address ideas for battling racism. The group is
interested in creating opportunities for dialogue and discussing with the
agencies how "we move beyond our racism training and workshops to the next
level of our call as Christians," Murraine says.
One idea would involve creating "grace zones" for dialogue. Such zones,
similar to the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, would
provide a place for people to talk about their experiences and feelings
without fear of repercussion.
"We have to move to a point where we can dialogue about these issues and we
can get it all out," Jones says. Through dialogue, the church can move into
confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, he says.
The church has a lot of people who are "walking wounded," dealing with past
hurts caused by racism, Jones says. It also has members who are in denial
about racism and don't want to acknowledge the hurt that it has caused not
only to African Americans but also to people of other backgrounds, he says.
The grace zones would also be geared toward bringing local churches together
in districts and communities. Even with the repentance services at General
Conference and subsequent annual conference gatherings, "you still have not
been able to touch the very foundation, and that's the local churches,"
Next steps will include incorporating other ethnic groups into the task
force's work and developing a Web site. Other ideas include having the
general council take inventory of church resources for eliminating
institutional racism, supporting continuing education for clergy on the
issue, and developing a resource on racism as a "faith question."
Jones and Caldwell see the need for the task force continuing beyond the end
of the current 2001-2004 period of church work.
"My vision is that it will not end in 2004," Caldwell says. "There is much
more subtle and deeper spiritual work that we need to do within the
denomination on our racial history and our racial reality."
# # #
*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.
United Methodist News Service
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