Open Letter to BMCR
Reflections on John 5:1-17
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m reminded of a young teenager, traveling from New York to Cleveland, Ohio, for the first time to attend a Black Methodists for Church Renewal general meeting. The young man was more excited about the hotel room and pool than the opportunity with which he was presented; his pleasure and comfort were interrupted by that meeting. Although the bed was comfortable, the pool was cool, the jacuzzi was hot and the food was filling, he could not find the rest he desired. Early the first morning of the conference, he began to believe in freedom and couldn’t rest.
An avid sports fan, I began talking to one of the elders about the Cleveland Indians, specifically how they weren’t better than my beloved Yankees. The elder interrupted me and educated me on the social injustice and racism involved with the name of Cleveland’s professional baseball team. This elder caused me to ask myself a question that has agitated my conscience ever since I thought, “How would I feel if the team were named the Cleveland Niggers?”
A group of young Black people who chose to identify themselves as Methodists decided to agitate the conscience of the Methodist church more than 50 years ago—so much that the dominant culture was compelled to take action. Ignoring the risk of unemployment, exile and potential physical harm, they traveled to Cincinnati to develop their plan and path forward in The United Methodist Church. The fire, passion and sense of purpose for the Black church created a movement and programs that have fostered prosperity and growth in our churches. What a time it was.
In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King beautifully summarized our current reality: “[BMCR] must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the [church], but rather the conscience of the [church].” He continued, “If [BMCR] does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority” [the words in brackets are my additions].
Once a powerhouse organization, BMCR has become a social club for the spiritual elite Black United Methodists. I have personally witnessed hallways overflowing with conference attendees while half the seats in important plenary sessions and workshops are unoccupied. Our meetings have become reunions and kickbacks rather than training grounds. Banquets and awards are the highlights of our time together. Business sessions are dedicated to constitution and bylaws amendments, nominations, lengthy reports, disagreements and griping sessions.
Meanwhile, our churches are declining, our voice and impact are dwindling, and our membership is growing in age but not in number. BMCR’s accomplishments are great and have been celebrated, but our celebrations must fuel the continuation of our work.
In my personal bible study, God brought me to a story that in many ways mirrors BMCR’s current state. In John 5, we find Jesus visiting the pool of Bethesda, or the House of Grace. This place is filled with “invalids”—people who are blind, lame and paralyzed.
We as a church need a vision for the way forward, but can’t seem to function normally because we don’t have one. Instead, we find ourselves unable to move forward and live into our full calling as a church.
While Jesus is in the valley of invalids, he finds one particular person and asks him a simple question, “Do you want to get well?” I believe this same question is being asked to BMCR. In the midst of uncertainty about the UMC’s future, in the midst of declining churches, in the midst of police brutality against our communities, in the midst of growing racial tensions, in the midst of a political landscape that is unparalleled in hatred, we have been presented with a question: Does BMCR—Does the Black church—want to be well?
Like the lame man, we have responded to this question with the list obstacles we face. We have told God about our mountains: the mountain of our generation gap, the mountain of feeling unwanted and under-supported by the dominant culture, the mountain of lacking resources, the mountain of racism, prejudice, sexism, tokenism, a devalued ethnic voice, and on and on.
But we have yet to answer the question simply and in full confidence that the asker will ensure that we are well. We have yet to understand that God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly, above all we could ask or think according to the power that works within us. In this current season, we have yet to move in confidence that if God be for us, who would dare stand against us? We have yet to tell our mountains about Our God.
That’s what the lame man did. After Jesus told him to pick up his pallet and go, after being told by the Pharisees that he couldn’t pick up the pallet and go, after being told that the move of God in his life was out of order, the lame man told the dominant culture to take it up with His Savior.
When will BMCR regain its prophetic zeal? When will BCMR reclaim its prophetic voice? When will BMCR speak to the mountains in our community, our church, this country? When will BMCR:
- empower Black Methodists for effective witness and service;
- encourage and involve Black Methodists and others in the struggle for economic and social justice;
- act as an agitating conscience on all UMC boards and agencies;
- keep before the church those crucial issues facing us;
- initiate, develop and implement strategies and instruments to develop, maintain and grow strong Black local churches; and
- provide an instrument through which we can educate and cultivate the Black constituency of our church?
When will BMCR raise up prophetic leaders to advocate for the needs of the Black church within this UMC? When will we pick up our pallet and walk?
TODAY! This is the day. Today we begin to change the projection of the Black church and proactively combat our challenges. The following seven actions can be undertaken to begin this process:
- Speaking to the issues that plague our communities. For years the church has been the voice of our community. We must reclaim our voice in our communities by speaking to the issues such as gentrification, police brutality/excessive use of force/unjust policing tactics, and public-school systems. These issues matter in our communities. For us to reclaim and bolster our voice, we must join the efforts of our community to find just solutions immediately. Redrafting the “Black Letters” to address these issues for release beginning February 2019 would begin this process
- Creating safe, authentic spaces to recognize and heal “church hurt.” The exodus of Black people from the church—and disdain towards organized religion—is alarming. In many cases, these departures are associated with damaging experiences within the Black church. The source of these negative experiences may vary, but the need for repentance, understanding and healing remain. We must provide safe spaces for people that foster free expression, healthy conversation and healing movements.
- Providing scholarships for youth and young adults to attend BMCR conferences and meetings. Our younger generations do not have the funds to attend and participate in our meetings. It is essential to our future as a church, caucus and denomination to “raise up” prophetic young leaders. We have talked for too long about wanting more youth and young adult involvement. By fiscal year 2020, each jurisdiction should add five scholarships to their annual budgets for youth/young adults to attend general meetings. By fiscal year 2020, each caucus should add five scholarships to their annual budgets for youth/young adults to attend jurisdictional meetings.
- Establishing intentional spaces for younger generation to share. Youth and young adults’ attendance at our meetings solves one issue, but we must go further. The next step is ensuring that youth and young adult voices are heard and incorporated. (We must consider students’ academic schedules when planning our meetings and events.) Also, starting with the 2019 General Meeting, we should not only listen but also consider younger generations’ perspectives (and remember that they are not monolithic) in our actions, agendas and programming.
- Recruiting and mentoring young Black clergy and general agency staff. Our mission statement requires us to be intentional in recruiting young Black people to lead our churches, and advocate for Black people’s needs within the UMC. Our work doesn’t stop at recruitment; we must mentor and prepare these people for the internal and external adversaries they will encounter. Within the next three years each, jurisdiction should identify 50 youth and young adults who are being mentored to advance the torch on behalf of BMCR.
- Explaining our choice to be United Methodists. The UMC’s dominant culture must be reminded of our humanity and the difference between that and our choice of religious affiliation. God made us Black, and we choose to identify as Methodists. For our place in this church to be fully respected and valued, we need to help the dominant culture understand the difference as well as the strength of our choice. This would also require the church at large to speak to the issues that attack our humanity rather than remain silent. Developing a series of videos to explore the God-given gift of Blackness and the choice of Methodism within the next year and sharing the videos in non-Black spaces within the next year will begin this process.
- Holding conferences and our churches accountable for mission support. Blame for the Black church’s decline can be placed in many areas and has been debated far too long. This letter is meant for us to take responsibility for our own contributions to this decline. We also must hold our conferences and bishops accountable for sending underprepared clergy to our churches, creating intentional “death” appointments, and under-valuing Black churches’ missional work.
Our time under God is now. It’s our time to share authentic stories of life as Black people within the United Methodist Church. It’s our time to engage in healthy discussions about these experiences to help us understand them and their effects. It’s our time to lead the church toward becoming fully inclusive and cooperative.