by Rev. Jackie Gardner
As guaranteed appointments decline in the connection, reflecting on African American’s history of mistreatment, wonder what will this mean if there is a schism?
African Americans have been with the Methodist connection from early on. Richard Allen and Harry Hosier were there at the first conference, the Christmas Conference. Hosier even traveled around exhorting with Frances Asbury and Thomas Coke. Coke was impressed with Hosier’s oratory skills and power he held over his audiences in spite of his illiteracy. But on their travels, when it came time to bed down for the night, Hosier was not privy to the finer lodgings where Coke and Asbury stayed, due to his race. Richard Allen refused to go traveling around in the South with Asbury because he was quite aware of the danger to a black man in the South at that time.
The Methodist church had an anti-slavery clause early on, and John Wesley never supported slavery. However, white pastors at one point in our history had to be forced to give up their slaves as mandated by the Church. And some were in no hurry to do so. And we can’t forget that as the country grew in wealth and the middle class moved in, blacks were pushed out of the church they once were welcomed to be a part of. Thus, we had the beginnings of the black churches: AME, AMEZ, and later, the CME’s. In 1939, blacks were forced into a Central Conference, as segregation made travel to Conferences very inconvenient for black pastors and parishioners.. Meanwhile, other regions were divided into conferences by five convenient geographic regions.
According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration is the latest movement to keep black people disabled so they cannot make significant contributions to society, parent their children, and get jobs to support their families. Mass incarceration over minor drug crimes is a serious atrocity in our society today. As we look at the systemic killings of George Floyd and many others, Will Smith (the actor) observes that “racism is not getting worse, it’s just getting filmed.” Systemic racism is alive in society as well as in the UMC, and of course, when many of our churches are metaphors of little “country clubs,” racism is not necessarily high on the agenda of conditions to resolve quickly.
It is extremely difficult to change hearts and minds of oppressive, bigoted, white privileged people who have passed on their bigotry and privileged mindset from generation to generation. And, quite honestly, how do you place a black woman pastor in a church where the congregants claim they do not like women or will not accept a woman pastor? How do you place a black male pastor in a church where the congregants claim they will not accept a black male clergyperson? I do know of a case one county over from me around 20 years ago when my district had our first black DS. There was such a disagreement regarding having a black man in charge that the door was padlocked when he came to visit, and no one allowed him in. In the same county, a woman minister who had a 2-point charge had to allow a lay minister to speak in one of her churches because the congregation would not listen to her; they did not “believe in women pastors.” This incident as well was around the same time as the scenario with the DS.
I do say that the United Methodist Church has done a wonderful job in creating agencies over time to try to bridge gaps and teach people about racism. I enjoyed the devotionals done by the bishops on Dismantling Racism over this Lenten season. It is wonderful to see the UMC bishops take stands on issues of racism whether it is against African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, etc. The global church agencies and Council of Bishops are making an effort to include all its people in its writings, town hall discussions, and resources to aid in the eradication of systemic racism.
The problem is that the local churches, by and large, are existing in an unrealistic state and many times their beliefs do not reflect the same beliefs as the Church at large. Sometimes, there is a great divide between what the larger church is doing and what the local churches are doing. For instance, in the small church where I am filling in for the pastor, I have been filling them in on the six special days that UM’s celebrate. This church is a small, white, affluent church with a handful of elderly members. They seemed unaware of these special days. Recently, we honored Native Americans, and the congregation soaked up the information as I talked about the Sand Creek Massacre ordered by Rev. Chivington, a Methodist minister in 1864.
In an article entitled The Risk the White Church Must Take to Address Racism, the Rev. Eric Mayle says that the greatest obstacle for the white church’s response to racism is not their silence but rather it is their being lukewarm, shallow, and timid in addressing racism. He quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. who stated “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Mayle challenges Methodists to raise up leaders in congregations who will venture to take risks of rejection to say the things that some feel they cannot. He encourages congregants to be “holy troublemakers for racial justice.”
So, as guaranteed appointments decline in our connection, am I concerned about the plight of African American clergy? You bet I am. Do I have a solution to suggest to resolve what issues may come up? I encourage the global UMC to continue offering services and I encourage the bishops to make it mandatory that the preachers and District Superintendents utilize the information and keep a record of such. For instance, if you were to tell me that a training is mandatory or I may not be appointed to a church, I would be the first to arrive at the training. I say to the presenters of the training, make sure that your training presentation is a good, quality training and worth the time of the preachers to make the trip or make the zoom if virtual. I also believe that we as pastors need to be reminded often of our baptismal vows and what is expected of us as pastors. We might need to be reminded that this whole deal is a “God” thing, not a “career” thing.
Without changes of the heart, yes, I am concerned that there might not be an appointment for me in the United Methodist Church, especially if a schism or schisms occur. It is customary in many districts to supply African American pulpits with African American pastors. Many African American pastors live on an equitable salary as their parishioners cannot pay the minimum salary defined by the UMC. Many white pastors do as well. However, with schisms occurring, and the congregants possibly not having enough funds to pay salaries, what is the plight of the African American pastor? Which way will the African American congregants choose to go regarding LGBTQ marriages and clergy serving in their churches? The African American community has been slow to address issues on LGBTQ persons. Kelly Brown Douglas argues that there is a lingering trauma of black sexuality brought about by how white slave owners abused black slaves’ bodies and caused negative feelings about their bodies Black United Methodists need to be addressing their own issues in this arena.
Rev. Jackie Gardner is a lifelong Methodist whose home church is Wiley United Methodist Church in Paris, TN. Gardner is enrolled MDiv program at MTS and just completed her 3rd semester. She received a call on her life over 25 years ago and has served in several capacities in the church all during her adult life hoping to satisfy that call, but just recently surrendered her will to the call. She says, “I have been told that one is never too old to be used by the Lord Almighty and that is my story that I am sticking to. I call myself the preaching grandma!”