This week I spent time with hundreds of other United Methodists at Lake Junaluska, a place I deeply love and has been significant in my life for many reasons, but particularly that’s where Linda said “I do” to a kid with no ring and at best aspirational plans for the future.
But this time, this space was very different. This week, Junaluska was holy ground, not only because it held space for joy, but because it held the pains and brokenness of who we are, the hope of who we should be, and the mystery of who we shall become.
Even though I grew up in the Methodist family, I become a United Methodist when I moved to the United States in 2001. Today, I have the honor of serving God as an Ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church, at the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Annual Conference. I love my denomination and if you look at the last 22 years of my life, you may have a hard time pointing to many significant moments and events in my personal, professional, and spiritual journey not influenced by this denomination.
The person I am today, I am because of the generosity of United Methodist congregations, the care and wisdom of United Methodist clergy, the friendship of many United Methodists who helped me to grow in love, faith, and service, and also the generous ways this denomination has offered me opportunities to serve.
In this season and time, we stand at a place in where we must carefully consider not whether The United Methodist Church will exist in the future but what type of church we choose become. “Who shall we become?” is the question that our generation must answer in this particular moment in time.
Though the history of our denomination has been accentuated with many types of challenges, at our best United Methodists have been a people who believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit and in the work of love. But, as the great social prophet James Baldwins reminds us, these days “…love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided.” Yet we hold on to the hope that Baldwin proclaimed, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
The call of love, particularly the love of Christ, invites us to carefully consider what type of church we shall (and must) become so the good news of Jesus Christ may give hope and transformation to the disinherited, neglected, forgotten, and all who are broken. Whether you agree with me or not, that means all of us.
Baldwin tells us, love is not a “sense of being made happy but … the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” Love, as Baldwin seems to see it, is a call to the grand work of sanctification—a core doctrine for those called United Methodists and a life commitment for all who are ordained in this denomination.
Even though I celebrate the election of Bishops Berlin, Shelton, and Desse (and pray for their fruitful ministry among us), I deeply grieve the painful reality that our election process seems to force marginalized communities to objectify and fight against each other in order to have space within our denomination. Even more painfully, those who have historically suffered the longest are asked to give up the most.
The events that transpired at Southeastern Jurisdiction Conference are a painful reminder that as far we have come in the work of racial justice in this denomination, we still have much farther to go. It would be right to point out that the racial problems that plague our denomination are the byproduct of structural system that favors those who already hold power. But it may be naïve to stop there and not address the reality that no system works without people, and ultimately, people must bear the responsibility to dare to do something new.
For over 50 years our denomination has held parallel realities that from time-to-time collide and break open the pain, oppression, and sorrow that lies beneath the vision of hope that warms the hearts and fuels the passions of this global movement that has been a spiritual home for people of all stripes. But sadly, the sins of racism along with the realities of segregation continue to prevent us from realizing the vision of being a church that is truly open to all people. The dreams and hopes Black Methodists expressed on the eve of the birth of this denomination continue to be aspirations not fully realized.
Reflecting on the 50 years since the abolishment of the Central Jurisdiction, Bishop Melvin Talbert expressed that black Methodists received not a real commitment that would ensure a fully integrated church, but only a promise—and one that 54 years later is yet to be fully realized. As the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery stated reflecting on the progress of our denomination, “The real power to elect black leadership (in an integrated church) rests in the hands of whites.“ Therefore, progress and a new reality for those who have been historically marginalized is dependent on cooperation and collaboration with siblings who make up the majority position.
This dynamic of hope, sadness, pain, and unfulfilled promises continues to play itself each time people of color offer themselves in humble service to make this denomination a bit more perfect. Retired Bishop Ken Carder tells us, “The church exists as an alternative community, a light to the world, a beacon of God’s coming kingdom brought near in Jesus Christ.” But often times our processes and practices seem to be a mirror image of chaos and brokenness our world offers.
While counting votes is a normal exercise in political systems, I believe the movement of the Spirit does not need to be tallied in such a way. Can we imagine a future where our leadership selection process truly embodies the love of Christ instead of mirroring the contentiousness of the world? Can we imagine a future where people’s full humanity can be recognized and the voices least heard can be uplifted? Can we imagine a future where offering oneself to serve is not an exercise of dehumanization and pain?
I do realize that many may see things differently or believe that “this is just how things work.” But I believe we can do and be much better.
I love being a United Methodist, because our vision of the kingdom of God is one that embraces all people. We seek this vision not because the world tells us to do so, but because God’s love manifested in Jesus Christ is not limited to what one looks like, the language they speak, or even who they love. But in order for us to live a new reality we must give up the notion that for some thrive others must suffer and for some to be included others must be excluded.
There can be no justice, inclusiveness, and true community if the cost of our actions is the humanity of others and their subjugation to our will and ways. The good news of Jesus Christ invites us to freedom from walls that separate us from the great love of God and from each other, growing in the perfect image of the One who is able to make all things new.
The question that continues to stand before us is, “who shall we become?” The mistakes of our past should not continue to haunt the realities of our present, but inform a better way for our future. But to get there, we will need to acknowledge our mistakes, seek forgiveness, and work collaboratively so that we may become an alternative to the destructive ways of our past and our world.
I pray we will enable in this imaginative work with open minds, open hearts, and the resolve to become a people whose actions—particularly towards one another—are a true embodiment of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.