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54th General Meeting Update

The BMCR is one of The United Methodist Church’s five U.S.-based ethnic caucuses and represents more than 2,400 predominantly African-American congregations. BMCR’s work includes advocating for the interests and inclusion of black United Methodists in the general church structures; serving as a spiritual agitating conscience for the denomination; and raising visionary and spiritual leaders.

The 54th General Meeting of National Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) was held on March 19-20, 2021. Due to the Covid pandemic the meeting was held as a 9-hour weekend virtual Zoom. The theme was “Racism: The Unfinished Agenda — BMCR Calls Our Church to Fulfill Its 1968 Promise”.

Retired Bishop Forrest C. Stith gave the keynote address.

  • He cited the stubborn resistance among many white church leaders, despite the new denomination’s initial progress in developing churchwide programs, benevolences, and leadership opportunities to benefit Black members.

  • Despite the church’s stated goal of inclusiveness, “achieving an anti-racist society is so difficult in this church.”

  • Urged the caucus to keep shaking up the system by becoming a larger, stronger, and more outspoken organization.

  • Urged members to recruit and develop more and younger Black leaders, to collaborate more with allies and to reclaim its early activist role as a “gadfly” demanding lasting institutional progress across the denomination.

Panel Discussion

There were back-to-back panel discussions both moderated by M. Garlinda Burton, interim top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. Burton informed members of several efforts being waged around the connection related to the U.S. church’s Dismantling Racism campaign, which was launched jointly by the Council of Bishops and several general agencies.

She shared from Religion and Race’s monitoring that many conferences were getting a slow start — offering anti-racism education in book studies and dialogues but not yet “dealing with real systemic concerns.” She said caucuses representing people of color need to work at “holding their conferences’ feet to the fire” to spur more progress.

Panel Participants

  • The Rev. Denise Smartt Sears, a New York Conference district superintendent, described efforts in her conference to “de-center whiteness” through anti-racism education and training, listening sessions, accountability measures and advocacy for reparations.

  • The Rev. Cody Collier, a retired member and clergy coach in the Missouri Conference, has helped his conference stimulate deeper awareness and greater accountability in combatting racism, while increasing equity in hiring, clergy appointment-making, financial decisions and other intentional practices.

  • Three co-authors of the popular new book “I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist” were featured.

Co-writers: The Rev. Tori Butler, pastor of Good Hope-Union United Methodist Church in Silver Springs, Maryland, and the Rev. Erin Beasley, associate pastor of Germantown (Tennessee) United Methodist Church, a cross-racial appointment. They spoke about their encounters and efforts to help white and Black United Methodists gain a better understanding of the history and current challenges of racism in the denomination. Both cited a need for more connection and support for young Black United Methodists that could bolster their recruitment into pastoral ministry, a goal that is widely acknowledged as a dire need for the church.

Book editor: The Rev. Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s Downtown Church in Houston, Rasmus observed that racial injustice and protests incited a “great Black awakening of 2020” and shared concerns from his recent doctoral study on “Millennial Culture and Institutional Religion.” He said the book is intended “to spark conversations that need to happen” about racism across generations in the church. “The church has the unmitigated gall to be discussing laws around the issue of human sexuality but has not sufficiently addressed the long-standing problem of racism in the denomination,” he said, echoing a complaint of many Black leaders.

  • “Racism is definitely still an unfinished agenda that the church needs to deal with,” said the Rev. Antoine “Tony” Love, Black Methodists for Church Renewal chairman. “We need to grapple with our history and understand what is in the church’s own constitution and stated beliefs that it’s not living up to.” Love said the caucus is “not calling for revolution or reparations necessarily,” rather that it is committed to the renewal of church values. “We still believe the church can become a beloved community. That’s what we’re still hanging in here for,” he said.

Closing Message

Mississippi Conference Bishop James Swanson ended the meeting with a closing sermon that delved more into the theological and political aspects of institutional racism as a sin and stain on the church’s character, requiring earnest repentance.

Preaching from Joel 2:12-14, he called for “a ripping and rending of our hearts” that leads to real change and transformation. “It’s not enough to just put it on paper.”

Echoing Stith’s theme of the illusion and temporary nature of superficial change, Swanson contended that the denomination’s decision to desegregate in 1968 might have been spurred emotionally by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a month earlier and a desire to signal a new era of justice in the church.

“There needs to be a repentance of the heart on the part of us, too,” Swanson said. “Sometimes we’ve forgotten our first love, and, in many ways, we have traded in our own hunger for a reconciliation and true sharing of who we are in Christ Jesus.”

He also complained of the delusion some have that “things are getting better when many times we know they aren’t” and lamented that “materialism and racism often go together like hand in glove, as causes of oppression that stop us from realizing our dream of being the beloved community.”

Meeting Overview with excerpts from John W. Coleman, Director of Communications, Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.

54th General Meeting Reflections March 2021
Download PDF • 143KB

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