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Bishop Warner Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, calls on bishops to address racism and strengthen ecumenical relationships in his presidential address. Photo by Diane Degnan, United Methodist Communications

Photo by Diane Degnan, United Methodist Communications

Bishop Warner Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, calls on bishops to address racism and strengthen ecumenical relationships in his presidential address.

Bishops urged to speak out as group on racism

By Heather Hahn
May 1, 2015 | BERLIN (UMNS)

United Methodist bishops must speak out against racism and address the anger that has sparked riots in Baltimore and other U.S. cities, the Council of Bishops president said in an emotional address.

“It is not enough for us to remain silent. We’re dealing with principalities and powers, I believe,” Bishop Warner Brown Jr. told bishops on May 1. The bishops are meeting this week in Germany’s capital.

Brown, who also leads the denomination’s San Francisco area, spoke to a group that included 65 active and 26 retired bishops from around the globe. Brown also released a letter to all United Methodists asking them to join the council “in prayer, reflection and action toward overcoming the issues that sometimes divide our societies.”

“Together we can find ways, appropriate to our social context, for healing the brokenness between us,” Brown wrote.

After Brown’s address, Ohio West Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer called for bishops to develop a pastoral letter on racism and asked Brown to appoint a task force to complete this before the bishops adjourn May 7.

His motion received booming, unanimous assent.

Palmer, who is himself a former Council of Bishops president, noted that many individual bishops have released statements addressing racism and unrest following the deaths of unarmed African-American men.

“God knows we are called to brighten the corners where we are,” Palmer said. “The ‘but’ I would offer is that we have yet to clear our throats and raise our collective voice with a statement calling on The United Methodist Church to become an anti-racist institution.”

He quoted a famous spiritual, urging his colleagues, “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass.”

This is personal

Brown, a Baltimore native and former police chaplain in Oakland, California, said he grieves when he sees what is happening in his hometown. Parts of the city, including Brown’s childhood neighborhood, have erupted in looting and violence after the unarmed Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in police custody.

The six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray’s arrest now face criminal charges and Gray’s death has been ruled a homicide.

“I grieve when I look at what happened in Baltimore. Misguided anger has shifted the focus from justice,” Brown said. “People with nothing to lose have looted and damaged businesses that were key to that community.”

Churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the United Methodist Committee on Relief are responding with kits for health and hygiene needs following the destruction of a pharmacy and the temporary closing of drugstores and groceries. UMCOR is also providing a grant to help churches be a resource for dialogue, peace, and healing.

As a pastor and police chaplain, Brown said he has known many law enforcement officers of integrity whose work “is so vital to human society.” But he also urged his fellow bishops to recognize the anger so many feel after the deaths of multiple unarmed African-Americans and other young men of color at the hands of police and others.

“Video documentation has raised expectations in people that claims of wrongdoing will be seriously considered,” he said. “So distrust grows because very few police officers have been held accountable.”

Fifty years ago, he pointed out, it was common for the killer to be set free when a black man or woman was murdered. “There is a lot of pain, and the history of that causes a lot of pain to be pent up,” he explained.

Racism in the church

The church itself is not untouched by racism, Brown said.

In 1968 — a year that saw riots in many U.S. cities following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — a newly desegregated and newly merged United Methodist Church promised to build “a new kind of church” where all people would be welcomed. But that promise remains unfulfilled, he said.

“Today there are still churches that don’t want a pastor appointed because of his or her race,” he said. “There are still churches that aren’t open to being a fully inclusive community. There are some churches that still might send a visitor to that (African Methodist Episcopal) church down the road.”

To go forward, the bishop suggested that part of the work “is to find a way we can live into the social holiness that must go hand-in-hand with the spiritual holiness — a life lived as a disciple of Jesus.”

He said that United Methodists need “conversation partners,” especially sister denominations in the Pan-Methodist movement including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. All three of those historically African-American denominations formed in response to racial prejudice and disrespect found in earlier strains of U.S. Methodism.

He noted United Methodists rely on ecumenical partnerships in responding to natural disasters like the devastating earthquake in Nepal, as well as addressing the terrorism of Boko Haram and ISIS. Ecumenical partnerships can help address the ravages of racism as well.

“We need to overcome our fearfulness of being viewed harshly,” he said, “and have genuine conversation that can let us break through, that we can be a part of the movement of hope, healing and justice in our land.”

Bishops respond

Missouri Area Bishop Robert Schnase and Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter  are among the bishops who have issued pastoral letters in the wake of deaths of unarmed black teens in their areas.

The two sat beside each other during Brown’s presidential address, and both supported the idea of bishops speaking out on racism as a collective body. But they added that such statements should go hand-in-hand with local church action.

Schnase pointed to Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson, Missouri, a three-year-old predominantly African-American congregation that has become a resource for the entire community since the death of Michael Brown.

 “Sometimes we set up a false dichotomy between focus on new congregations and social justice issues,” Schnase said. “If we had not identified Ferguson as an underserved area and started a church there three years ago, we would have been outsiders looking in, even in Missouri.”

Washington Area Bishop Marcus Matthews, who leads United Methodists in Baltimore, has spoken out about the current crisis in Baltimore and said a letter from the full council “is long overdue.”

“What I hear from United Methodist clergy and laity is: ‘What do you as bishops collectively think of this issue?’” Matthews said. “The AME has spoken out on this issue of racism as a group. Other groups have too, but we have not as United Methodists.”

Erin Hawkins, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, said she hoped the bishops’ statement would challenge other leadership in the church including General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body.  

After bishops agreed to work on a joint letter, Brown offered some parting words.

“A just society cannot be built on violence,” he said. “Anger and distrust will not lead us to a beloved community. Reconciliation can occur, however, when we tell the truth and we take responsibility for our actions.”

He then quoted the Rev. F. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring Church in Ferguson: “Who is going to become a model for dealing with reconciling and truth? That is the role of the church.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.