Recommended steps toward living in “The Beloved Community” were made Jan. 25 at the annual Orders & Fellowship clergy gathering.
Originally planned as a three-day, in-person event in Kearney, Orders & Fellowship was changed to a one-day, online-only format because of continuing COVID concerns. About 500 clergy attended online.
Tim Wise, author of nine books, including “White Like Me, Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son” and “Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority,” was the plenary speaker.
From his office in Nashville, Wise introduced the clergy to the definitions of three types of racism: individual, institutional and systemic.
Wise said most white people don’t consider themselves racist, because their racism isn’t overt.
“They immediately pivot to this defensive space when they are accused of bigotry,” he said.
Likewise, Caucasians have become defensive when they hear the phrase “white privilege.”
“A lot of white people think (they’re being told) ‘You haven’t worked hard,’” Wise said.
Language, even unintentionally said by whites, can be a barometer of racism, he continued.
“People with really good intentions,” Wise said, are using words such as “underprivileged, underserved and underrepresented.”
Wise encouraged white people to be “as supportive and empowering as possible,” in working with the non-majority.
“If we do the work badly,” he said, “they will pay the price for it.”
Wise read messages from Great Plains Conference clergy about their experiences with racism, including one person who was required by their district superintendent to take English lessons, and another shared about the struggles faced in a small town when the pastor is the only nonwhite person in the community.
Wise said that through his writing, he will continue to fight racism in society.
“If they have to stay on the job, I have to,” he said.
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. said that when The United Methodist Church formed in 1968, approximately 38% of its membership was African American. Today, the bishop said, the number has dwindled to 3% or fewer.
The presentations were interspersed with videos from African-American and foreign-born pastors in the conference, telling large and small ways they have felt racism in their churches and communities.
“Their stories will become our stories,” Bishop Saenz said at the opening of O&F. “We can tell new stories of collaboration.”
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, associate professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary, returned to O&F after her presentation last year on “Preaching in the Purple Zone.”
Along with clergy and laity inside and outside the conference, Schade developed a 16-page issue guide that was introduced to pastors in the Great Plains to help facilitate discussion over the human sexuality issues that will come before the next session of the General Conference and a most likely will lead to a split of the denomination.
“This is a tool for conversation before whatever the headlines are next,” Schade said. “It helps to process those emotions, those concerns, without having the distress.”
Schade recommended pastors lead discussion sessions during the Lenten season.
“People to need time to talk about this. There’s a lot to unpack,” she said. “It’s about creating space to listen to each other.”
Two pastors, the Rev. Amy Lippoldt and the Rev. Brad Wheeler, were members of the committee that helped form the guide and gave it a trial run with their congregations.
“It was a tremendous experience, and I’m really grateful we did it,” said Lippoldt, pastor of Papillion St. Paul’s UMC in the Omaha area. “The congregation had not created a space about where their thoughts were.”
Lippoldt said members of her congregation were surprised there were LGBTQ+ allies among them that they didn’t know about before the conversations began.
“In my congregation it’s just not something you talked about,” she said. “It’s not the end of the conversation by any means.”
Wheeler, pastor of Louisburg UMC in Kansas, said he and six members of his congregation took part in the discussion.
“It led to a place where we really didn’t feel totally divided,” he said. “I think the guide is empowering.”
Bishop Saenz engaged in a webinar conversation with the Rev. Andrew Finch, associate pastor of Omaha St. Paul Benson, about racism they have felt in the churches and communities in which they have served.
Finch said that at one appointment, he was asked by the Staff-Parish Relations Committee if he wanted fried chicken and watermelon served for his introductory dinner to the congregation.
“Am I showing the opposite of what the stereotype would be?” Finch asked. “I’m always having to walk that tension.”
The Rev. Sarah Marsh, mercy and justice coordinator, reported on the work the conference is doing with the Direct Action and Research Training center, or DART, and the Western Organization of Research Councils, or WORC, in determining the greatest needs in Kansas and Nebraska and steps to begin to make changes. A recent grant of $1.7 million from the Kansas Health Foundation, coupled with $2.1 million in seed money from the conference, means that the work of DART in Wichita and Sedgwick County can advance “sooner than expected.”
Marsh said small-group meetings will begin in March and April focusing on the well-being of children in the two-state area.
Orders & Fellowship concluded with Bishop Saenz answering questions from the clergy about COVID protocols, whether he thought the twice-delayed General Conference would happen in 2022, how smaller congregations can convince their members to remain part of the UMC, the impact of the Boy Scouts of America bankruptcy settlement, and whether the bishop would continue to provide video sermons to the churches in the Great Plains.
The Great Plains Conference’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity Task Force is working with the General Commission on Religion & Race to determine what steps it can make for progress and change in the conference.
“We have chosen GCORR to consult us as a task force as we continue this process,” said the Rev. Kathy Williams, task force chair and leadership development coordinator for the conference.
The group is working with the Rev. Dr. Giovanni Arroyo, general secretary of GCORR — the denominational agency that cultivates racial inclusion — until March, when staffing changes are scheduled to take place at the Washington, D.C.-based organization. Arroyo will then name his successor to work with the Great Plains.
The group, convened by Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., first met in person in October and has been looking at its members’ own experiences.
“In order for us to be able to do the work of diversity, equity and inclusion, we have to go through some training ourselves,” Williams said. “Just by virtue of us being on the task force, it doesn’t mean we have the tools we need to accomplish what the bishop is asking to be accomplished.”
Williams said the task force highlights the range of experiences in the Great Plains.
“I don’t think we’re realizing how diverse in our thinking and life experiences that we are as a conference,” she said. “There’s beauty in that, but there’s great challenges as you try to bring everybody along together.”
Bishop Saenz convened the group to give a report at the 2023 annual conference, but Williams said the task force will likely continue its work beyond that date.
“We’ll just be getting started,” she said. “We have a good group of people, and they’re very committed. They’re doing their part to living into this process and their covenant to each other.”
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