Each year, The United Methodist Church observes five history or heritage months that recognize and appreciate the ways women and people of several different races and cultures have contributed to the richness of its common life. These include Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May), Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), and Native American Heritage Month (November).
The United Methodist Church remains a predominantly white denomination (close to 90%) in the U.S. Further, most United Methodist congregations - 98% - tend to be mono-ethnic. So when most United Methodists observe a particular history or heritage month, with the exception of Women’s History Month, there may be few people, if any, in the congregation with that heritage and culture.
These realities in The United Methodist Church make the observance of history and heritage months at once rich with possibilities for significant learning and growth, but also rife with opportunities for racial or ethnic stereotyping and inappropriate and potentially racist cultural tourism or appropriation.
So how might United Methodists learn about and celebrate other people, races, and cultures in positive ways?
Here are 5 key principles to put into practice.
Seek first some ways to honor those whose history or heritage you are celebrating. Read books and articles written by people from other cultures, follow different cultural news sources and social media to gain insight into their customs, values, traditions and languages.
Ask people who identify with that culture what it means for them to be recognized and honored. When asking someone about their culture, present your questions in ways that respect the lived experience of the person being asked. Simply focusing on a practice you don’t understand, or a word or slur or salacious news story about people of that sex, race or culture could be construed as a disrespectful or harmful experience for someone else.
Also ask specifically if what you’re planning might dishonor or disrespect that culture or people. Yes, some may welcome outsiders to use some of their rituals, include some of their poetry or music in worship, or even wear some of their cultural clothing. However, others may find any of these to be disrespectful or offensive. For example, many Jewish people find Christians celebrating a Seder not hosted by a Jewish family or congregation and on Jewish terms “as an affront to Jewish tradition” (The United Methodist Book of Worship, 350).
Always ask. Never assume.
2. Build sustainable relationships.
The best way to honor people from other races and ethnicities is to build authentic and long-term relationships in which you begin to invest in the lives and ministries of one another. After some initial conversations between leaders of your congregations, you may want to ask them to identify some ways you could support them and their work during that month. Or you may ask about other places, people or programs your congregation could support to help make the relationship real.
3. Connect across distance where needed.
Admittedly, there are large swaths of the United States where racial, cultural and ethnic diversity is limited or absent. But if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s the ability to be present hundreds or even thousands of miles away via technology. If there are no congregations or people of different racial or ethnic descent near you, find a congregation that you can connect with in a meaningful way online. No need to let the distance stop you!
4. Commit to doing the work needed to become more welcoming to all people.
The fact that 98% of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. are monoethnic means we have work to do to become welcoming to all people. Building relationships with congregations of diverse races, ethnicities, and cultures provides an opportunity to ask, “What would make our congregation more welcoming to you?”
But the responsibility to answer that question cannot be only on the other congregation. Each congregation must ask the hard question, “What do we need to do to reveal biases, dismantle racism, and break down barriers in our hearts, our relationships, our policies and our practices as a congregation?” Explore and analyze barriers keeping people of other ethnicities or cultures from being involved in your congregation.
Part of the work is simply listening. When People of Color offer their stories and experiences for heritage month, they should not be invited to debate about whether or not their experience with racism are real, how they “benefited” from colonialization, or outsiders’ views of their language, history and culture. The invitation is for them to share their reality and their experience.
And part of listening is letting the other group's concerns set the terms for the conversation. Do not ask members of the heritage you celebrate to lead or participate in an anti-racism workshop you are hosting. Anti-racism is your own work to do. Do not ask them to lead your group in book studies or to field questions on their experiences of racism or xenophobia or to sit through your group’s discussion on how much you wish there was no racism. Honor your guests by honoring the conversations they want to have, then continue your own anti-racism work. If appropriate, you may invite interracial/intercultural participants and leaders to workshops and book discussion you may host at another time. In this way your heritage observances are more likely to become part of a broader effort to become anti-racism Christians.
5. Plan ahead for effective collaboration.
When you want to celebrate another group’s cultural heritage, you are taking on something that is new and often unfamiliar. It may take considerable time just to learn how best to honor people who are different from you. Think on a scale of at least several months or more as you begin to prepare and plan for a good celebration.
Sometimes white people spring an idea or invitation on People of Color without sufficient notice, yet expect them to delight in being invited to “tell their stories.” Or one group will develop an idea based on what “we” want to do, without taking the lead from the group they want to honor. Establish a calendar with plenty of lead time, and contact partner groups far enough ahead so that they can work with you in planning and presentation.
Proper planning for actual collaboration takes time. If your congregation is serious about honoring your neighbors, you will take the time needed to plan for meaningful observances that help cultivate those relationships and commit to doing the work to open doors and break down barriers.
And if you do this, in time you will no longer be observing these “focus times” one month each year. You will have built together a beloved community that celebrates the history and heritage of all every day of the year.
This FAQ was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications, in collaboration with the General Commission on Religion and Race.