People of color are the disciples who can bring new life to The United Methodist Church.
That was a recurring theme throughout a historic gathering March 26-27 that for the first time brought together the boards of the denomination’s five U.S.-based ethnic caucuses.
Retired Bishop Linda Lee, in her sermon during opening worship, said it was long past time for many in the church — including some people of color themselves — to view The United Methodist Church’s racial and ethnic diversity in a different way.
People of color aren’t simply recipients of church money and ministry, she pointed out. They are Christian leaders who contribute to and distribute church funds, who bring spiritual insights to church decision-making and who have something to teach a denomination struggling with declining U.S. membership.
“We are the ones who can help the church experience new life through the power and presence of Jesus Christ as it is expressed in us,” said Lee, the first African-American woman elected to the episcopacy in the North Central Jurisdiction and now bishop-in-residence at United Methodist-related Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. “God calls us — each of us— to gain new sight, new voice and new ways.”
Her listeners included about 100 leaders of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal, MARCHA (Metodistas Asociados Representando la Causa de los Hispano-Americanos), the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, the Native American International Caucus and the Pacific Islander National Caucus of United Methodists.
The Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group, which consists of the top leaders of each caucus, held the board training event with financial support from the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.
During the two-day gathering, caucus leaders received training to improve their boards’ effectiveness and fundraising. They also shared common concerns and hopes for The United Methodist Church — and suggestions for improving disciple-making across the whole denomination.
Here are some of the ideas participants shared.
Embrace the marginalized
Those gathered were well familiar with Pew Research that shows the rapid rise in the number of Americans who answer “none” when asked their religion.
One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — identify as religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 Pew report. Denominations in the U.S. across the theological spectrum also have reported membership declines in recent years, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Christendom is over; triumphalism is over,” said the Rev. Jacob S. Dhamaraj, president of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists and pastor of Shrub Oak (N.Y.) United Methodist Church.
If the denomination is to fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, church members will need to build relationships with those “who have been left out of the church,” Dhamaraj said.
In the United States, that increasingly means reaching new immigrant populations and people of color who have historically been marginalized in mainline Protestant traditions. The people of color who are already United Methodist can lead the way in evangelizing the new mission field, Dhamaraj and other leaders said.
But for that to happen, Raúl Alegría, MARCHA’s president, said the church will need more “ethnic persons in leadership positions in our conferences and cabinets.”
“I am reminded of this phrase, ‘the least, the last, the lost,’” Alegría said. “If we are not welcoming those persons — whoever those persons are — we’re not doing what God called us to do.”
Expand the definition of vitality
Church vitality can appear and even sound very different among various ethnic communities, caucus members said.
Instead of singing Charles Wesley hymns or the newest praise and worship songs, ethnic and racial United Methodists — whether Native American or recent immigrants — may sing and pray using the language and customs of their cultures.
For Native Americans, worship may include a “cedaring” or “smudging” ceremony where people burn cedar or sweetgrass and pray. Cynthia Kent, chair of the Native American International Caucus, cautioned pastors from trying to get their congregations to abandon Indian traditions. She also said she is wary of pastors and district superintendents telling congregations they are not vital.
“I believe our churches are fine,” she said. “If they say we are not well, then we believe we are not well and then we do get sick. Instead, we should say, ‘If this is working for you, let’s keep it going this way’ or ‘Let’s add something to help you rather than revamping everything.’”
Cultivate young leaders
Like just about every United Methodist body today, the ethnic caucus boards discussed the need to develop young Christian leaders to succeed the aging Baby Boomer generation.
At the same time, each of the groups had 20- and 30-somethings among their leadership. The Rev. Cedrick Bridgeforth, chair of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, at 43 is a member of Generation X and younger than the 47-year-old caucus he now leads.
Bridgeforth, a district superintendent in the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference, noted that his group has long made youth leadership development a priority. The caucus holds national youth Harambee (a Swahili term that means “let’s pull together”) every other year, and its jurisdictional bodies also hold similar youth gatherings. In recent years, the caucus also has launched the Bishop Melvin George Talbert Leadership Institute to train young African-Americans to become creative leaders.
“We try to tap into what people’s gifts and passions are and let them live it out,” Bridgeforth said. “And we can stand to do more of that.”
Alex Soto, a 20-year-old board member from MARCHA and member of the Wisconsin Conference, credited the older members of his board with being willing to share their knowledge and pass the baton to a younger generation.
Work together despite differences
Even within individual ethnic caucuses, there is substantial diversity. MARCHA represents United Methodists from 22 countries. The National Federation of Asian American United Methodists has 12 sub-caucuses. These United Methodists don’t just differ in language and countries of origin, but they have differing points of view on the issues facing the church, including human sexuality.
Still, many at the gathering discussed ways they could work together in transforming the world. The Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow, a Black Methodists for Church Renewal board member, challenged his fellow board members to think of issues they could advocate for on behalf of the other ethnic caucuses.
“If I only fight for black issues, that’s self-interest,” said Miller-Yow, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark. “I have to move my conversation to a Kingdom mentality and touch on the issues that affect all of God’s children. When we do that, we build momentum and it builds trust.”
Remember, we, too, are The United Methodist Church
Repeatedly, caucus members noted that they too are United Methodist and can help the church better reflect the Kingdom of God.
“We have a message to share with the larger community to be powerful witnesses for Christ in our generation,” said Dhamaraj of the Asian-American caucus.
Monalisa Tui’tahi, who as chair of the inter-ethnic leadership group helped organize the meeting, said that she expected for the boards to hold joint gatherings again in the coming months and years. “We need to hold each other accountable, just as we hold the church accountable,” said Tui’tahi, executive director of the Pacific Islander National Caucus of United Methodists,
Bishop Lee called the caucus leaders “yeast in the loaf.”
“You are they who …. will impact the church from coast to coast and beyond the coast because you have come and participated,” she said. “Because of you, I believe there is hope for the church and hope for the world.”