How One Question Led to a Call for Change
By The Rev. Dr. Joseph W. Daniels, Jr.
Like many Americans–and people around the world–I was infuriated as I listened to the district attorney’s dysfunctional decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. As a father and uncle of young black males, I became highly concerned for the safety of our young people, and wondered out loud, “are we really returning to the realities my parents fought to overcome when I was too young to know my name?”
At the same time, my daughter, an elementary school teacher who watched the Brown verdict with me, asked me with a troubled heart, “Dad, what do I tell my kids at school tomorrow? I honestly don’t know what to say right now.” After a very long delay, I eventually told her to tell her kids to do all they could to love themselves and to love each other, regardless of skin color or differences.
But I didn’t stop there. God also told me that I needed to do something more. I was moved to use my position to call people together to strategize for positive change.
Specifically, I invited laity and clergy interested in racial reconciliation and changing systems of racial oppression to gather together and develop short- and long-term strategies for overcoming the problem at hand. The Church, the United Methodist Church, could no longer remain silent on the major issue that continues to divide America: race. W.E.B. duBois said it was the problem of the 20th century; in the 21st century, unfortunately, it still is.
So we gathered on Dec. 16, representatives from 66 churches in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, and from general boards and agencies in the United Methodist Church. More than 150 people gathered to begin the dialogue and planning. The meeting produced conversations, relationship building across race and class, connections to potential partners, clarifying next steps, and feedback. Teams were established around issues; issues such as the prison pipeline, education, the criminal justice system, and legal reform. Some teams have already developed plans and are working their plans, including the team in place to get us ready for our second gathering, which will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 24. Changed hearts change systems of oppression!
As I continue to reflect and work on this effort, particularly as the marches have died down and the media is now reporting on other matters, what’s clear to me is that our church needs to repent and get to work in our communities. For we, like many in private industry and government, have turned our backs on marginalized communities all across the country. Until, we collectively turn our faces, our human and financial resources, and our energies back to marginalized and disenfranchised communities–the very thing Jesus and John Wesley did–the incidents that have dominated the conversation of race once again will continue to happen.
These are times when a relevant church must stand to its feet and embrace a people and a nation with love. Love defined by and seen through our actions.
A man came to our first meeting all the way from Annapolis, Md., some 40 miles away. He was frustrated with our denomination, the silence of our bishops, and the inactivity of the church in the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Eric Gardner events. He hugged me and told me he was so happy that we were organizing in this way; he said he was about to give up his membership in the United Methodist Church, but now he had hope. Seems to me that in the face of oppression, in this Kairos moment, we need to give people hope and a way to where truth and justice can be experienced for all.
The Rev. Dr. Joseph W. Daniels, Jr. is the district superintendent for the Greater Washington district of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. He is also the lead pastor at Emory United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.