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Ohio West Area Bishop Gregory Palmer makes a motion urging the Council of Bishops to write a letter addressing racism during the council's meeting May 1 in Berlin. The letter was completed on May 7, 2015.

Photo by Kay Panovec.

Ohio West Area Bishop Gregory Palmer makes a motion urging the Council of Bishops to write a letter addressing racism during the council's meeting May 1 in Berlin. The letter was completed on May 7, 2015.

A protest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, held at a Baltimore Police Department precinct on April 25.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A protest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, held at a Baltimore Police Department precinct on April 25.

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Bishops: Work to end racism and welcome the stranger

By Heather Hahn
May 7, 2015 | BERLIN (UMNS)

United Methodist bishops are committing to work for toward a church “that is anti-racist and pro-humanity.”

In a unanimously adopted pastoral letter, the Council of Bishops affirmed that “all lives are sacred and that a world free of racism and xenophobia is not only conceivable, but worthy of our pursuit.”

Resources for further study

“A New Dawn in Beloved Community: Stories with the Power to Transform Us,” Linda Lee, ed., Abingdon Press, 2012

Pan-Methodist Statement on Racism from the 72nd Consultation of Methodist Bishops

“Understanding and Dismantling Racism: the Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America,” Joseph Barndt, Fortress Press, 2007

The active bishops approved the letter on the last day of the council’s weeklong spring meeting in Berlin, which happened to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust of Jews and others in Europe.

The bishops met in a city that also has special significance for many African United Methodists. It was the site of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, where European imperial powers formally divided the continent of Africa, exploiting its resources and leaving a legacy of strife that still exists in some countries today. No Africans were present at that conference.

“The people of our world are hurting, as injustice, violence and racism abound,” the bishops’ letter said. “Our witness to the dignity of all human life and the reign of God is needed now more than ever.”

The letter came after San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., the council’s president and a Baltimore native, gave an emotional address about the racial tumult in his hometown.

Parts of Baltimore, including Brown’s childhood neighborhood, erupted in looting and violence after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in police custody. Gray’s death followed other multiple cases where unarmed African-Americans and other young men of color have died at the hands of police and others.

As Brown’s noted in his address, the United States is not the only place stained by racial strife and fear of the stranger.

“After the rich discussion and prayerful reflection in this meeting, I hope we will take home a serious commitment to join the work of breaking down the walls that divide our communities and move to build relationships,” Brown told United Methodist News Service.

He joined the letter’s call “to work against racism and abuses of privileges in all our contexts.”

Racism’s global reach

The far-reaching statement draws attention to problems of racial and ethnic animosity in various regions of the world:

  • Migrant people being attacked and burned in the streets of South Africa.
  • Jews who are fleeing Europe after spikes in anti-Semitic violence.
  • The plight of Mediterranean refugees who are fleeing war and poverty.
  • Racially charged protests and riots in cities across the United States “that remind us that systems are broken and racism continues.”

Retired Bishop Linda Lee, who helped draft the bishops’ earlier 2010 pastoral letter on racism, said she felt “God had really moved” when bishops asked her to convene the team who wrote the current letter.

“I’d like to commend us for taking this step of publicly speaking out on the violence that has resulted from racism, xenophobia, tribalism and other abuses,” she said. “I am also grateful because often silence is understood to mean consent.”

She pointed out the Bible was a main resource in developing the letter. Specifically, the letter cites 1 John 4: 21: “This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”

Ohio West Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer made the motion for the bishops to speak out as a group on racism. He said he was pleased with the statement and the conversations it had already provoked among the bishops. He added that he hoped bishops would invite people to engage further.

Called to do more

Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster challenged his fellow bishops to “do more than simply publish the letter and walk away.” He suggested bishops could model for the church how to hold the difficult conversations around issues of racism.

Mozambique Area Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala urged the bishops to report on the results of their commitment.

“What we are dealing with is something that is deep-rooted and longstanding and often not visible to people who are not people of color,” Lee said. “It’s not a quick fix.”

But the words of the Bible offer hope for the journey ahead.

“Scriptures tell us not to grow weary with well-doing,” she said citing Galatians 6:9. “Because if we continue, in due season, we will reap."

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