The Racial-Ethnic Caucuses of the UMC

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What they’ve accomplished and why they are still needed

By M. Garlinda Burton

The caucuses of The United Methodist Church (UMC) were created, beginning in the late 1960s, by those who felt they were alienated and excluded by the predominately white UMC. The United States at this time was experiencing great social turmoil as blacks, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Island Americans, Latinos, women and young adults were challenging political and social authority—including institutional religions—that they deemed exclusive and elitist. Blacks in the UMC were the first to organize, specifically to challenge legalized racially exclusive Church structures, policies, and practices. In the nearly 50 years since they first organized, theses caucuses continue to prove their relevance to the current state of church and society.

In the mid-1960s, the former Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church discussed merging into one, new Christian denomination. They were partial to the new moniker: The United Methodist Church.

The proposed name, however, rankled many African Americans, especially in the Southern United States. As the mother church was talking unity with another denomination, racial segregation against black Methodists was a fact of life—and church policy.

The Central Jurisdiction, to which Southern black Methodists had been assigned since 1939, had been formed as a compromise. After splitting the Church over the issue of slavery in the mid-19th century, the former Methodist Episcopal Church South agreed to rejoin the rest of the denomination in 1939, as long as blacks were relegated to separate parallel structures and judicatories, which was known as the Central Jurisdiction.

While the autonomous structure had granted a measure of freedom and self-determination to African Americans from 1939-1968, it also allowed the Church to ignore issues of racial justice and racial reconciliation—not just with blacks, but with all people of color.

Toward a “United” Church

 

When talks to unite with the Evangelicals began, black leaders challenged the UMC to make “unity” a broader, more authentic concept. Demonstrations, consultations, prayer meetings, petitions, and passionate speeches at General Conferences led to a watershed moment in 1968, when the UMC was born from the merger of two denominations and legally segregated church structures were abolished. (A handful of annual conferences in the south, however, delayed ending segregation in the Church and its structure until the early 1970s.)

Given the history of racial tension in the Church and the racial upheavals that marked the 1960s, the same black people and allies who supported desegregation now worried that those in the numerical minority—in a still racially divided Church—were not using guaranteed voice, vote, presence, and power in a new, overwhelmingly white UMC denomination. So they formed Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), a caucus dedicated to pushing for justice and full inclusion of African Americans, both inside the Church and in society.

It was the denomination’s first formally organized racial-ethnic caucus, and among its first actions was to call for the creation of a church agency to help the Church confront institutional racism within and beyond church walls. The first chief executive of the General Commission on Religion and Race was the Rev. Woodie W. White (1968-1984), a key voice among Black Church members before and after 1968. White went on to be elected a bishop in 1984; he retired from the episcopacy in 2004.

The struggle for racial equality within the UMC has nearly mirrored the same struggles in the larger society. The same year the Church voted to end segregation, the late Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Subsequent rioting and a worldwide spotlight on the United States’ shameful racial divide made international headlines and sparked everything from teach-ins at churches to public demonstrations on college campuses.

BMCR’s creation became a touchtone in the denomination, inspiring Latino, Asian, Pacific Island and Native American United Methodists to challenge racial bias in church policies, practices, rhetoric, theology, programming, and practices and form their own racial ethnic caucuses.

Caucus Advocacy, Action Transforms Church

In its 47-year history, BMCR leaders have advocated for, witnessed, and celebrated such United Methodist milestones as:

  • An increase in the number of black Americans as bishops, superintendents, lay employees, and senior staff at church wide agencies.
  • Expansion of liberation theology from African/African American perspectives being taught at church seminaries and reflected in United Methodist liturgy, worship, and music.
  • Desegregation of church-related colleges and universities, particularly those in the Deep South.
  • Church-wide acts of repentance for historic racism committed within or tacitly accepted by the UMC, including racial segregation against blacks leading to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian (formerly “Colored”) Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • A 12-year, denomination-wide missional priority (1976-1988) to resource and strengthen racial-ethnic congregations in the United States.
  • The creation of the first United Methodist-related university in southern Africa, Africa University in Zimbabwe.
  • The election in 1984 of the first black woman bishop in global, mainline Christendom, the late Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly.
  • The creation and sponsorship of Harambe, an annual summer gathering of black youth and young adults in the UMC.
  • A fellowship and mentoring program for women of color pursuing doctoral degrees to prepare them as professors and administrators in seminaries. (This program is administered and supported by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry; a majority of women of color serving on United Methodist-related seminary faculties have come through this program.)
  • The creation of the African-American Heritage Center to honor, chronicle, and archive the contributions of black United Methodists to the denomination and to society.

Push for Continued Relevance

The Rev. Cedric D. Bridgeforth stressed the need for Black Methodists for Church Renewal to form partnerships with other groups in The United Methodist Church to fight racism in the church and the nation. He spoke at the annual meeting of the caucus in April 2015. Photo by Maidstone Mulenga 

 

While the caucus celebrates the above accomplishments, the current BMCR president, the Rev. Cedrick Bridgeforth, says the organization must work to avoid becoming insular and irrelevant to new church members and to communities who are still challenged by complex issues of race, class, age, and gender. Attendance at national meetings, lack of broad communication with and engagement of black laity and clergy, and flagging financial resources all challenge the caucus’s current reach and influence.

“BMCR has been important because we were responding to the more urgent needs of the day.  In the early days, our leaders—lay and clergy—were engaged in voter registration, marching against Jim Crow, and listening to and engaging young people,” said Bridgeforth, who is ending an eight-year term as a district superintendent in the California-Pacific Annual Conference.

“But I don’t see us as a whole being as involved in addressing mass incarceration of black men or addressing poverty that disproportionally impacts black people in the United States and Africa. We’re more concerned about maintenance of our pulpits and churches than being relevant to our communities,” he added.

“A church that is not relevant serves no purpose. BMCR grew out of our desire to be relevant and to speak a relevant word to the whole Church. Racism is still an issue, classism is still an issue. Despair in a community that doesn’t think the Church cares about them is still an issue.

“God is still calling BMCR to be the voice of change and relevance, to be a relevant witness to the transforming power of the Gospel,” said Bridgeforth.

M. Garlinda Burton is a freelance writer, editor and project manager in Nashville, Tenn. A United Methodist deaconess, she is director of the Nashville Freedom School Partnership.

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