In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the church of today should be more like the church depicted in Acts, not merely reflecting the surrounding values of the culture but transforming them. Rather than mere thermometers, we are called to be thermostats. Building on this insight, the theme of this year’s conference MLK Celebration was “Changing the Atmosphere: Be Not Conformed, Be Transformed.”
This event was sponsored by WNC Black Methodists for Church Renewal in partnership with the Justice and Reconciliation Team. On Saturday, January 17 more than 150 United Methodists from across the conference gathered at Crossroads UMC in Concord to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King. After some introductory comments by Kathy FitzJeffries, who coordinated this year’s event, and words of welcome from Lowell McNaney, the host pastor, the morning started with a panel discussion. While there were too many great insights to adequately capture in this report, here are a few of the highlights from each panelist…
- Mark Sills, a retired clergy person, opened by explaining his understanding of the difference between racial prejudice and racism. He said that while all are guilty of the sin of “pre-judging” people – an unavoidable part of the human condition – the only people in the room that are racists are White. Prejudice may be ancient, but racism was invented in 15th century Spain to justify enslavement and persecution of non-Christians. It was later codified in America. Racism involves three necessary components: 1) a buy-in to the concept of “race,” which is a philosophical construct rather than a biological reality; 2) belief that one’s race is superior to one or all others; 3) institutional enforcement – which, in the US, means Whites can be racists. Sills also unpacked the notion of “white privilege” and talked about how it harms us all.
- Cherlue Vang, pastor of First Hmong UMC in Charlotte, said that denial is no antidote for racism. Unless you accept that there’s a cancer, you won’t get better. Unless a person admits racism, they won’t get better. It’s not enough to be kind… unless you kneel, your sin won’t be removed. While all present were pleased to have a diverse crowd, he did lament that there weren’t more Caucasians to hear the day’s message. White privilege allows Whites to say “that’s not my problem.”
- Daphine Strickland, a layperson from Triad Native American UMC in Greensboro, told stories about how she had encountered racism in court and in looking for housing. She expressed the pain of younger Native Americans who have been greatly damaged by negative stereotypes. They lack self-esteem, many assume they will never go to college. Kids have told her, “I don’t even want to be an Indian.”
- Donnell FitzJeffries, pastor of Brooks Temple and St. Stephen UMCs in Winston-Salem, told a story about when a dear friend who was White declined to preach at a revival for him. That was the first time he realized that he wasn’t the only one trapped by racism. He told another story about how he and his wife Kathy had together experienced discrimination (he is African-American and she’s Caucasian). He came to the realization that if she was going to set aside her white privilege to be with him, it was only fair that he set aside some of his male privilege for her.
- Aleida King, a layperson from Crossroads UMC in Concord, told a story about a time when she was promoted to a supervisory position in her company, despite being less experienced and less fluent in English. She experienced great resentment from the White applicants who perceived her hire as an injustice. But over time King earned their respect over time, not through argument, but by overcoming their hard feelings with compassion. She gave thanks for the warm welcome she had received in her church but worried that Latino children were inheriting their parents’ reticence to feel fully included.
After the panel discussion, BMCR awarded MLK Drum Major of Justice Awards to Lazelle Free, Connie Locklear, Frank Ramos, Nancy Rankin, Mark Sills and Carl Arrington.
Tables engaged in scriptural reflection over lunch, looking at Romans 12:2, the key passage for this year’s event. The Apostle Paul, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good and pleasing and mature.” The pattern of the study was suggested by Erick Law. By attending to Law’s guidelines for respectful communication and process of mutual invitation, each person at table was invited after a first reading to share a word, phrase or image that stood out for them. After a second reading we reflected on ways in which the church conforms to the ways of the world, when it comes to race relations, rather than to God’s vision for the world. Upon a third reading, participants were invited to reflect on what God was inviting them to do, be or change through this passage. After concluding in prayer, participants were invited to use this Kaleidoscope Bible Study method on their own contexts.
The day concluded with a service of worship. The service was led by a great variety of laity and clergy, reflecting the diversity of God’s Kingdom, from a dance by the Trauma Drama Team of Triad Native American UMC to communion selections from Greensboro Korean UMC. We collected an offering for The Children’s Home. The Bishop preached and led us in Holy Communion.
If you wish to read more, you may want to visit the United Methodist Women’s website. They are inviting everyone to observe 40 Days of Racial Justice for Lent.