faith in action

Book discussion informs, inspires, challenges, and grows commitment

Church and Society interns are encouraged to connect and learn from our UMC denominational boards and commissions' initiatives and programming. They consider how the denomination's commitment to dismantling racism relates to them and their vision for ministry. Emily Newman participated in the book discussion I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m United Methodist. from the General Commission on Race and Religion, and she was inspired, informed and grew in her commitment to eliminate racism.

A week after the insurrection at the Capitol, and 20 days before the start of Black History Month, the General Commission on Race and Religion (GCORR), a fellow agency of the United Methodist Church, held a book discussion on the new book, I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist, with its authors.

In the book, ten authors, all African American Methodist clergy, share personal reflections on the ways they have seen and experienced the impact of historical racism and the current reality of modern racism within the church as Black United Methodists.

Each author has a deep connection with, commitment to, and love for the church, and this book and the accompanying discussion is a hope-filled call to action for the United Methodist Church to move forward in transforming its own systems to be anti-racist so that we can better fulfill the gospel mandate.

In the book discussion, the authors offer insights into the history of racism and segregation in the church and how those historical realities continue to impact the church today, windows into what ministry is like for Black United Methodist clergy, and a serious look at what racism and discrimination have cost the church as a whole. Deaconess M. Garlinda Burton, interim General Secretary of GCORR, leads the discussion centered around three main topics: what racism has cost the United Methodist Church, how LGBTQIA+ discrimination and sexism intersect with racism in the church, and how racism impacts ministry.

The thread of the initial question, “What has racism and discrimination cost the church?”, is woven throughout, as the authors and Deaconness Burton share from their writing, their ministry experiences, their scholarly work, and their own spiritual wisdom.

Here, I want to share a small sampling of what just a few of these authors had to say related to this question. The discussion was incredibly rich and I would invite you to view it here for even more important conversation and profound insights for us as the Church.

As Rev. Dr. Lillian C. Smith points out during the first segment of the discussion, the United Methodist Church since 1968 has claimed that it is committed to doing away with racism, a commitment that is clear in the United Methodist Social Principles and the Book of Discipline. However, she notes, we have not always made this commitment clear in our congregations and from our pulpits, and we have not always been willing to address the sin of racism at a heart level with one another. Because of this persistence of racism, Rev. Dr. Smith says, we have lost churches, we have lost the ability to reach out to people of color, we have lost young people, and ultimately, we have lost integrity, and our opportunity to show our communities and our country what it really looks like to be the Beloved Community.

The Rev. Dr. Rodney L. Graves adds to this that because of racism, the church has also lost the ability to fulfill the Great Commission and curtailed its expression of the Great Commandment. He notes that when we do not address racism, we become like the Levite and the Priest in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. We simply walk by the suffering of our neighbor without working to address their needs. We choose to ignore what is difficult. Rev. Dr. Graves notes that the Priest and Levite might have said, “We didn’t do anything wrong”, in this situation, because they did not actively cause harm. But we know as readers of the story that this inaction was just as harmful and sinful. He equates this to how many United Methodists and UMC pastors might say “I’m not racist”, without doing any real work to dismantle racism and racist structures in their churches or in society at large. We must be willing to acknowledge and address the real and present sin of racism if we hope to heal our denomination, our country, and our souls from it.

Dr. Pamela R. Lightsey compellingly comments on the intersectional nature of racism with all forms of discrimination in the church. She calls us to consider how discrimination against LGBTQIA+ folks, along with sexism and racism, has caused incredible harm not only to individuals but to the church itself. We only torture and destroy ourselves further when we continue to perpetuate any form of discrimination. She says, with deep conviction, “When you get into bed with discrimination on any level, you are harming your ministry, you are harming your very soul, in the ‘name of Jesus Christ’.” Again, the church loses its ability to be the beloved community when it is discriminatory to any child of God.

I was very much moved, inspired, and convicted by this discussion. As a white woman and lifelong Methodist, I was struck by how much I thought I knew, but didn’t really know, about the history of racism within the church and how this history continues to impact all of our congregations today. I must continue to unpack my own privilege in the structures and systems of our denomination and work alongside people of color to move forward as the church, so that I may be a part of upholding the church’s commitment as stated in article V of the Book of Discipline to “confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of (the Church’s) life and in society at large.”