Historical group remembers milestone in church desegregation
Sep. 27, 2006
NOTE: Photographs and a related story are available at http://umns.umc.org.
By Kelly C. Martini*
HARRISBURG, Pa. (UMNS) -- Though the United Methodist Church remained segregated until 1968, its top legislative assembly took steps more than a decade earlier to enable African-American churches to join previously all-white regional conferences.
The Historical Society, affiliated with the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, marked the 50th anniversary of that action by General Conference during a Sept. 22 meeting. The society met at Camp Curtin Memorial-Mitchell United Methodist Church, the congregation that decided to challenge racism within the Methodist Church.
Three African-American women recalled the events surrounding their church's move from the all-black Central Jurisdiction - a move that made it the first black congregation in the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the Methodist Church.
Jurisdiction based on race
Created in 1939, the Central Jurisdiction represented a compromise on the issue of race when the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church merged. The jurisdiction comprised all the Methodist Church's African-American congregations, no matter where they were located, while the denomination's white churches were divided into geographically based jurisdictions.
The Central Jurisdiction went out of existence in 1968 with the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches, resulting in today's United Methodist denomination.
Judith Hill, a lifelong member of Mitchell Memorial, the only black congregation in the Central Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference, remembered the trust that church members had in their pastor, the Rev. George Davis.
"Our church was a village where everyone looked out for everyone else's child," said Hill. "Rev. Davis was the same way. He was active in the congregation, trustworthy and involved. So, when he came to us with the proposal to leave the Central Jurisdiction, we were supportive of the idea."
The Rev. Bernice Stevens, Davis' daughter, was the first black female minister ordained in the Central Pennsylvania Conference. She recalled discussions with her parents about the transfer and the excitement around it. The decision was based on action by the 1952 General Conference allowing African-American churches to join previously all-white regional conferences.
Stevens said her father saw this as a way to change how the church would do business as far as race matters were concerned. "These first churches that transferred were the catalyst for the abolishment of the Central Jurisdiction, and it had to happen," Stevens said. She said the Central Jurisdiction was not conceived on any Christian premise.
Two years of struggle
Once the decision was made in 1954, the church had to go through two years and layers of approvals from the white leadership of the Methodist Church. The district, annual conference and General Conference all had to approve the transfer.
According to the church's 1954 minutes, Davis and his district superintendent believed this "would be an opportunity to foster better race relations ... and it would be of help to our church."
Hill recalled that after the church became a part of the Central Pennsylvania Conference, white congregations didn't invite them to be part of committees or to attend other meetings. "We knew we weren't a part of the white experience, and even when we became part of the conference, we weren't very involved because we were the 'black church,'" said Hill.
"We missed opportunities to get to know Methodist polity, worship, ministries and mission in which those around us were participating," Hill said. "I've always considered these years a missed opportunity because I wanted to be involved in the full life of the church."
Hill later became the first African-American woman in Central Pennsylvania to be elected as a General Conference delegate. She also served on the boards of churchwide agencies and was elected president of the Northeast Jurisdiction Historical Society.
Facing 'walls of prejudice'
"Mom and Dad had made some great friends and felt welcome in the new situation," said Stevens. However, she explained that because Davis was the only black minister in the conference, leaders would not move him out of the only all-black church. He appealed to the Central Pennsylvania Conference several times over the next 15 years, but he was denied a move to another church. He retired from Mitchell Memorial in 1969.
Jane Reeves, another daughter of Davis and the church organist in 1956, appreciated the move from the Central Jurisdiction. She credited her mother, a woman with a dynamic personality, for helping to forge relationships with white church pastors in the area. "Only through building relationships could the walls of prejudice fall," she said.
"We haven't made all the strides we need to make, but that takes time because people's hearts have to change," Reeves said. "When you are there, you don't see it. But when it's history, you appreciate it. This time was a step forward."
Reeves said the church continues to struggle with racism. She noted stories, images and statements that stereotype Muslims. She said her experiences with racism serve as a check on her own prejudices.
"I have to educate myself about these issues. And, if you have God in your life, you question yourself about prejudices," she said.
Hill agreed and said the church continues to have the responsibility to address inclusiveness.
"There was a period when we were much more aware of our lack of inclusiveness. In the 1980s, we started developing more programs at General Conference addressing racism, and during this period, countries, schools and laws became aware of it," Hill said.
Hill said the church is getting away from efforts to be inclusive. "The only way we'll understand each other better is if we interact and use the opportunity of interaction to get better acquainted," she said.
The women's feelings on inclusiveness mirror the 1954 Mitchell Memorial minutes, which stated that the steps taken by the congregation would promote relationships across racial lines.
"I know that sometimes God just uses individual," concluded Stevens.
*Martini is a freelance journalist residing in the Philadelphia area.
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