Race, racism and the UMC

Two of the authors of I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist. talk about the importance of confronting racism both within the Church and throughout society. They share stories of their experiences as United Methodist pastors and differences they have noticed in the ways we talk about and process racial injustice.

The Rev. Rudy Rasmus, senior pastor of St. Johns United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, and the Rev. Jevon Caldwell-Gross, teaching pastor at St Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, talk with Joe about the state of the Church, our politics and societal ills. Along the way, they encourage us to look deeply at our congregations and communities.

I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist.

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Get Your Spirit in Shape features conversations to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Logo by Sara Schork, United Methodist Communications.

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This episode posted on February 19, 2021.


Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

For today’s episode, we are going to jump right into the episode.

Conversation

Joe: My guests today are two of the authors of an important book called I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist. I want to welcome the Rev. Dr. Rudy Rasmus, the senior pastor of St. Johns United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, the editor of the book. Hi, Rudy.

Rudy: Hey. How’s it going, Joe?

Joe: Also, the Rev. Dr. Jevon Caldwell-Gross, teaching pastor at St Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, who wrote one of the chapters. Welcome Jevon.

Jevon: Thanks, Joe.

Joe: It’s really good. I really appreciate your guys’ time today to have this what I think of as really important conversation. I want to start with the book. So, Rudy, I just want to ask you as the editor of I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist. what do you see as the primary message of the book? What do hope the reader’s takeaway is?

Rudy: You know, Joe…. First of all, thank you for having us on today. It’s really an honor to be here. And…when I originally thought about this book it was in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I’m thinking in that moment, what is the church going to say about what’s happening in the world right now. And in that one thought was the thread that ultimately compelled me to call nine of my colleagues to join me in writing this effort.

Joe: Is there a particular audience that you want to read this book? Is there something that you want them to take away from it?

Rudy: Yeah, there’s a specific audience I want to read this book. And that specific audience is human beings. [Laughter]

Joe: I had a feeling you were going someplace with me, Rudy.

Rudy: At the end of the day, Joe, what we know right now is, we are a more divided world than I think we have been in a long time.

You know, and you have to ask the question, the one question is: what’s different now that wasn’t present before? And when I really think about that question I’m compelled to confront the fact that maybe all along we were feeling this way in our individual, collective…and collective silos. But now I’m thinking, Wow, so that’s what you really thought, or that’s how we were really feeling about life and one another.

And I tell you, it really also became evident as we moved through the last election cycle I’m going to tell you, Joe, I’m not only bilingual and trilingual…. (That means I can talk to anybody from the board room to the ‘hood.) …not only that, but my friends who had a more conservative leaning began to like confess to me. I mean, like confession. Like I’m a priest or something. You know what I mean? And they began to say, Well, you know Rudy, I’m a Trump supporter. And I said, You are? And I had one close friend, really wealthy guy, who has helped me in the past,  Joe, he told me this on Election Day. He said, Rudy, I decided to vote my wallet instead of my conscience. I said, Oh, hell. We were having lunch. I leaned forward and I said, So, have you always felt that way?

Jevon: But I want to piggyback off of that as well, because as Pastor Rudy talked about this book being a response…. So one of the unique experiences I had was being in a predominantly black congregation during some of these instances as well, and then being in a predominantly white congregation and seeing the different responses. Seeing not only the different responses, but seeing the available information. And again, I think our congregation here at St. Lukes, we’re trying to become an anti-racist congregation, supporting minority business incubators. We’re trying to have that conversation.

But when George Floyd initially happened there was a lot of conversations within this congregation around how did this happen? It’s a pretty progressive congregation. But it was coming in at the back end of the congregation.

And I remember pastoring black congregation where these things were on the forefront, you know, because these were life and death issues. I had mothers who were afraid when their sons went out at night to go to parties and would drive back home. I think sometimes we politicize people’s survival. It was, okay, my son is about  to drop his girlfriend off, and you better text me as soon as you get some place safe. I mean, these things were….

Again, it was an eye-opening experience ‘cause it dawned on me…. I mean, these were in the same denomination, but it’s almost like we’re having very different conversations. And I think sometimes we always talk about, you know, white evangelical churches, you know…. I think we really need to consider our own denomination and about how we have healthy conversations around race and racism.

Joe: You said something at the beginning there about having different information. Can you say more about that?

Jevon: if I’m in a predominantly black congregation and I’m looking and I’m having a conversation around police brutality, I don’t have to start off the conversation with proving that police brutality happens. You know? I’m not proving to the audience that this exists. And I’ve found that in certain circles, depending on your audience, you can’t even begin with the facts because everybody receives them very differently. The problem is no longer how to deal with police brutality, but it’s even trying to convince people that police brutality is a real thing and that because we’re addressing police brutality that is not an assault again police officers, but as black individuals when we get pulled over we just don’t want to be shot. That’s not too much to ask,.

And so I just found… just the information available, how information is perceived. Again, it’s a progressive congregation there are people who are really far along in the journey, but then you know…. We just had some really tough conversations. And then it dawned on me, you know, we are…we are coming at this from completely different angles within the same denomination.

Joe: Yeah. That’s an interesting way to frame it, about how we approach…. It can be the same information. Sometimes it’s not. But it can be the same information but we receive it differently. I like that framing. That’s really helpful for me.

Jevon, I want to talk a little bit about your chapter because there was something in there that I really enjoyed, in the way that you framed your conversation around the voice. How it was God’s voice speaks creation; it’s Jesus’ voice that’s a challenge to the leaders because he teaches with authority; and then you talk about the churches that you serve feeling like they had to compromise their voice. Can you say more about that?

Jevon: When Dr. Rudy asked me to write this, he gave some stipulations. He said if you can’t be authentic don’t do this because, , the work hinges on people really being able to tell their story authentically. And he didn’t know it at the time, but he has sort of unmasked a place where I had been that I didn’t articulate yet. And that was just this idea that even as a pastor of this congregation in some ways I had lost my own voice. And this…really this project really helped me to get it back.

And I think that it’s so important because even for…especially for the congregations I serve, and they were predominantly black congregations in urban areas. And yet within both of those congregations the white normative gaze was a sign of spirituality; it was a sign of success. And it was almost as though we were afraid to speak to our own people in cultural expressions that they could understand.

In some ways we were so hell-bent on trying to be Methodist for someone else, and yet our community were dying, as I was telling you beforehand. We had no grocery stores. When I was in Atlantic City, no grocery stores. Seventy-five percent of the people at elementary schools were reading below their grade level. And we’re giving people worship that just doesn’t connect. You know, sooner or later we’ve got to have a gospel that is less concerned about traditional white normative gaze faith-expressions and really speak to the people that God has called us to serve.

And I’m tell you, we’ve got so many dying churches of urban areas where people are moving, where growth is happening and we’re closing churches. And I believe a part of that is, I think it’s…especially for a lot of our ethnic congregations, the freedom to really speak not only prophetically, but authentically. Authentically in their own communities, there’s such a huge gap. And I don’t think we can be witnesses into those communities until we really own our voices, you know.

What a shame that God calls us individually and collectively and then we get into these communities that need their voice, and then we’re trying to speak in another language that I don’t…we don’t even understand.

Joe: That was one of the really eye-opening pieces of the book for me was this idea…. And I think Jevon you may not say as overtly as some others. But there seems to be this undercurrent that Methodism is white. You said it earlier about trying to…you were trying to be Methodist for someone else. Maybe I’m reading something into that, but I was wondering if that’s what you mean. And I heard some other authors kind of go there as well. I don’t know if I have a question there. I’m really wrestling with that because …. Obviously…. Well, I shouldn’t say that.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey. I’m a white guy. Went to predominantly white churches, but I…. Again, because it’s white normative, I never made that connection.  Is this what you feel? Rudy, feel free to jump in as well. Is this what the typical black Methodist feels? And how can we…how can we do better than that?

Rudy: Let’s make your statement a question.

Joe: Okay.

Rudy: This is like Jeopardy. Right? Is the Methodist Church predominantly white?

Joe: Yes.

Rudy: Has it benefited from being predominantly white? And the answer is also yes. And  I would say, when we…when we think about United Methodism in its pure form currently, now less than 10% of the total denomination are black people in the U.S. Less than 10. That means in the biggest scheme of things, the 1968 experiment of merger either didn’t work or its intended purpose was something other than growing black congregations into what would appear ultimately as a racially mixed denomination. So either the merger of 1968 achieved its goal or we really didn’t know what the intent was from that merging.

If you look at Dr. Ross’s chapter and Dr. Smith, Lillian Smith’s chapters, both of them are historic Methodists. And both of them speak really poignantly to what happened in ’68 during the so-called merger. And the question I think that rests in them is was the intent a very forward-thinking land grab? Or was intent really to placate racial tension during the height of the Civil Rights movement?

We take a couple of steps back from that and we have to…we get honest, we have to say, Man, most of the churches that merged are dead and dying, are gone already. And the ones that are remaining are now located in communities that have been heavily gentrified and now…. And

I’m going to tell you, Joe. I’ve been saying this for about 15 years. I would speak to black audiences, and I would say, Hey, y’all, I want you to know your property is more valuable to your annual conference, to your leadership…your conference leadership, than the people inside of the building. And they would look at me like, Rudy, what the hell are you talking about?

And now here we are 15 years later. And all of those quaint, little black churches are now in neighborhoods close to the central business districts in most of our cities, located with hipster gentrifying movements, coffee shops, restaurants, bars. And now we’re finding that, if we take the value of this asset then maybe we could roll those resources into the coffers of the general church.

Jevon: If you look at what Pastor Rudy just said, and Dr. Ross did this in his chapter. He set off an alarm that I don’t think most people will pay attention to. They went through some larger black cities where there’s a large demographic of African Americans, whether it’s Orlando, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and again you know a great historian and really talked about this idea that in all of those major cities there’s not a black church that has over 200 people in attendance. Now, you’re talking about millions and millions and millions of black folk. And we can hardly get a church of 200 people…. I mean there’s a huge disconnect there. 

Now, and if we look at how many churches that have closed…. And again, I think Pastor Rudy is right on it. If you think about the number of churches that have closed, how much those churches have been worth, how those monies have been re-invested or not re-invested. I think in some ways we are seeing the close of the Black Methodist churches right before our eyes. And so, if we think about now…how we….

So now there is no voice Methodist voice or Methodist presence within a lot of these major cities. If it’s a Cleveland…like all of these places now where, again, tons of people are moving, they are great ministry possibilities. But as a Methodist Church…and you ask is it a white denomination? Well, absolutely. Because we have not been intentional and it has not been a priority to really reach those communities of color in really meaningful ways. I mean, we’ve talked about….

I remember when I was in New Jersey we did a…you know, revitalization, revitalized churches, all those other things, and it was wait a minute, if we just reach the people in our own communities? I mean, it’s not hard science. I mean, If we stopped using the white, a white normative gaze to define successful ministry and what ministry looks like in Orlando or Cleveland, L.A. and Detroit, I mean, we might actually have a great Methodist presence, , a great way to spread the gospel and just do relevant ministry. But I don’t think we can do that because I don’t think we take ministry sometimes seriously when it comes to being in those communities of color.

Joe: Rudy, you write a little bit about what the church could be. And there’s a piece of a sentence that you write, you say, “I’m Christian because I believe a combination of love and resistance can make a difference.” Is that what we’re talking about here?

Rudy: Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about. So, I’m a Jesus guy. As a matter of fact I think I’m more of a red letter Christian than I am a theologian, per se, because my formation in and around Christianity really began with an appreciation for the words and the associated actions of Jesus that were recorded in the Greek New Testament scriptures. So it was out of those words and those actions that I saw one person’s resistance and the impact of that resistance 2,000 years later.

Imagine this: If Jesus hadn’t defied Roman rule in that moment, and if Jesus had gone the way of the rabbi, which would have been embracing the institutional ideology, not challenging the institutional understandings of gender equality, then we probably would be having very different conversations right now around religiosity and a movement associated with that religiosity. If we were all Jewish at this point. Or some version of Judaism. We ultimately ended up with, a version of that Judaism, I guess with a little more revolutionary bent with the appearance and the arrival of the Messiah.

My mama would tell you from the time I could speak I was an embodiment of love and resistance. [Laughter]

Joe: How do we reclaim that because I get a sense that there’s two different understandings, right, of even who Jesus is. One is this empire-defending Jesus that we hear about in some places, that’s looking for power in the system, and then this other that is totally outside of the system, that I think I hear you describing, Rudy. It’s the way you understand who Jesus is. Is there a way to get back to it? Is that just two stories? Help me, somebody.

Rudy: There are always two stories.

Jevon: So, we were looking at this the other day actually. And we were looking at this idea…we’ve been talking about invitation recently. We were looking at this idea that Jesus was really radical in his movements in life and ministry because most of the people he hung around with were tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, and that had political implications. Right?

We did a sermon series called Justice or Just Us. And we got a lot of responses from people’s assertion that you can’t mix faith and politics,. And we’ve got to keep both of those things apart. Now mind you, we were really just talking about treating people fairly. I mean, this is like basic human rights. I mean, treating people fairly and kindly as human beings, shouldn’t be a political issue. And I think so often we have politicized very clear instructions and the life of ministry of Jesus Christ we have politicized.

I mean, something as simple as…. I remember I was watching a comedian and he was talking about how have we gone wrong with Black Lives Matter? You know, just the statement alone. It’s not saying black lives are superior. It’s just like they matter. You know. It’s just like the bare minimum that people are just asking. And yet that has political implications. I mean, think about it for a second. The affirmation of your worth has become politicized.

Again, this is somebody who somebody like Jesus who spent his ministry being present in the lives of the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes because their lives mattered. He said, Prostitutes, your lives matter. Gentiles, your lives matter. Those who were lame, your lives matter. Now we’ve come to a place in Christian circles where the affirmation of your dignity has become politicized.

So I would even say, in order to get back to that… And you know, when Pastor Rudy talked about being this somebody who is sort of this red letter Christian, I think we’ve got to take the life and ministry of Jesus very seriously. Because a lot of the stuff and a lot of the crap we talk about that does not embody the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. And I think we’ve got to begin to call that when we see it.

That’s really our own…with our own insecurities and our own dysfunctional theology that’s based off of a lot of misinformation. And we’ve made that to be the gospel.

That’s why I think our role as pastors and leaders and people who lead podcasts and as many ways as we can give people some really great information and great dialog. I think we’ve got to reclaim who Jesus was. Because sometimes people describe Jes…. I’m like, that’s not the Jesus I read about. ‘Cause what you say is it ain’t political, I mean, that’s why the guy died. Because there were political implications of him hanging out with the prostitutes, the sinners, the tax collectors.

Joe: And going directly against the system. I mean, that’s the other thing that I don’t think we kind of understand. All that Sabbath breaking was a huge deal. I mean, that was right in the face of the system that you were dealing with. But the idea that people’s lives mattered and that was a message of Jesus, if not THE message of Jesus is powerful. Rudy, you looked like you were ready to jump in.

Rudy: Man, I just want to say I’m going to amend my answer and I think there are 3 sides to everything. [Laughter] Yeah. Mine, yours and theirs.

Jevon: Yeah. Sure.

Joe: And it’s pretty safe, to a certain extent, to make it about my own personal… pathway to heaven or my salvation, however you want to characterize that, and not talk so much about how it’s affecting the people around us, which for me…. I’m a John Wesley guy. The whole idea that how we live our lives matters is what attracts me to Methodism more than anything, that it’s not just about my ticket to the other side. It’s about how I’m going to live in the world around me and how I can care for the people around me.

Jevon: Joe, once we de-politicize Jesus it gives us permission to no longer embody his life and life and ministry. When we no longer assert that actions have political implications it gives us an out. I can now reframe my faith to meet my own needs without any sort of implications or accountability. And I think that’s where we become really dangerous.

I mean, we’ve got a church, another denomination, who has come out and said, hey, seminaries and churches we’re not supporting any critical race theory. I mean, these are grown individuals, who have sat around and thought this is a good decision. But if I de-politicize Jesus I no longer have to look at the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Now I can begin to shape…. You know, Pastor Rudy talked about there are 3 stories. Now I can sort of pick and choose which ones I want to do.

Faith has become dangerous and we’ve been given a great example. I don’t know of all the ways that we really live up to it.

Rudy: The one thing I have learned throughout my lifetime about religion is that, man, it is such a powerful drug. And if I tell you that power can be corrupted so easily that, you might even be compelled to think if you stand in front of a church and hold a Bible in your hand then you just might be mistaken for one of those people. [Laughter]

Joe: You’re trying to get me in trouble. I think. [Laughter]

Rudy: Joe, you were in trouble when you scheduled this interview. [Laughter]

Joe: I have something serious about that. Let me pull this back a little bit for a second. Because one of my concerns, as we sit here in February of 2021 and we have new leadership in the White House a more diverse leadership. And it seems like things are getting better, my concern is we white Christians, I think, we get complacent. Like, all right, that’s…we’re moving forward. Everything’s headed in the right direction.

Jevon: That’s where I think the problem lies because let’s not forget Pastor Rudy began by saying that one of his close friends said, I’m choosing to vote with my pockets instead of my conscience. And unfortunately there are a lot of individuals who choose other things over their conscience. Just think about this for a second.It’s not about voting, But it was the idea that there was no longer anything in place to hold him accountable. I mean, there’s one thing to say I voted, I supported. But let’s also hold each other accountable. And I think that’s where it becomes dangerous.

I mean, think about this for a second. There was attacks to a capitol building and yet there were still some of our elected officials who still went in and voted it was a rigged election. After her… you know, people had broken in. There’s just no accountability. So it doesn’t matter who’s president.

I did a mobile message on this and I did get some emails about this. Because what I said was what scared me was that many of those same individuals who stormed the capitol, these are not just people who are hiding out at a bunker somewhere. But they go back and they’re school teachers, they’re pastors, they’re police officers. And then they are infusing our daily lives because there is no accountability. And so I think that that’s just really frightening.

It doesn’t matter who the president is. If we can’t agree on facts, if we can’t make decisions with our conscience, This is like basic stuff we’re talking about. These are like grown individuals…. Again, these were grown individuals who stormed the capitol. We’re talking about real life people you see every day of our lives.

So… I’ll leave it there.

Rudy: I want to push my co-author just a little.Accountability is a relative term. I believe accountability is to the mind and the heart of the beholder.

So when we think accountability from a perspective of white privilege and even white supremacy, I think that person who is embodying that framework is saying, What are you talking about accountability? I’m only stating what I know to be fact. And then we start wading off into the weeds because what’s accountable to one person is the sheer basis for existence for another human being, especially if you happen to have been white in this country unchecked for 400 years.

We use the term… being woke—w-o-k-e. Well, woke depends on the person who is embodying the experience. I’ll tell you why.

I have a cousin…my cousin Jeff. I grew up with him. I used to live with him and his aunt and his family. And he and I shared a room. I used to watch Jeff, my cousin Jeff, wake up in the middle of the night and go to the refrigerator and eat, come back to bed, go to sleep. Wake up the next morning, I say, Jeff, what were you eating last night? He said, Man, I haven’t eaten nothing. I didn’t…what you talking about? Because he wasn’t woke. [Laughter]

So, this is what I’m saying, Joe. Really America has been sleep walking, eating out of the refrigerator of privilege for 400 years. Every now and then somebody will say, You ate my sandwich. And they’ll say, I didn’t eat your damn sandwich; what you talking about? How could I because I was asleep.

And what I’m finding is, it’s really convenient to be asleep when you are benefiting nutritionally from that simple state of being. And now every now and then when something happens and then, something happens like a book I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist. and people are saying, Wow, I didn’t realize that was a perspective. And the answer is, Yes, that’s a perspective. And not only a perspective, but it’s a lived experience for most people I have known as Methodists. I didn’t grow up Methodist and black. I grew up Baptist and black, and my black Baptist orientation didn’t lend for some of the nuances I’ve experienced as a black Methodist. And along the way I think we all have an opportunity now to claim wokeness.

Joe: I think that’s a great place for me to begin to wrap this up because one of the things I wanted to bring…

Rudy: Joe, we’re not going to let you go. We’re not going to let you go. We’re going to keep you.

Joe: I would love to keep doing this. You have no idea. But I want people to be aware that one of the beautiful things about I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist. is that it’s individual people’s stories. And I like…. Jevon, you mentioned how Rudy encouraged you to be honest and open about it. And it is 10 stories of people’s experience. And I would even say, maybe 11 because Bishop Palmer has that introduction that’s really good

I want to encourage everybody who listens to this to get the book, to read it, to talk to people about it. I will guarantee you it will make you uncomfortable. It will not be the easiest thing you’ve read. But it will be very important, and will be fodder for some amazing conversations. And so in addition to thanking you guys for this book, I want to thank you for this time and for your openness and honesty with me and just this conversation that we were able to have.

Thank you so much, you guys. I really appreciated this time we’ve had together.

Rudy: Joe, I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Joe: Thanks, you guys. Epilogue

Joe: That was the Rev. Dr. Rudy Rasmus and the Rev. Dr. Jevon Caldwell-Gross two of the authors of an important book called, I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist. As I said to them in the conversation, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

To learn more about them and about the book, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. We’ve put some helpful links on the page. Also on that page, is a link to my email address so that you can send me your thoughts about Get Your Spirit in Shape and maybe guests and topics of conversation you would like to see us cover.

Thank you so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.

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