This year, “Transforming the World by Living as Peacemakers” was Bishop Timothy Whitaker’s central theme for the Florida Annual Conference at the Tampa Convention Center. Prior to the start of the Conference, a series of workshops was offered for those wishing to explore exactly what peacemaking might mean in the day-to-day lives of United Methodists.
Two of the six workshops offered a glimpse into how peacemaking can be carried out in terms of deliberate inclusive relationships.
“Becoming Beloved: Toward a Discipleship of Anti-Racism and Inclusiveness” was led by the Rev. Victor Cyrus-Franklin, assistant pastor at the interracial East Point (Ga.) First Mallalieu Church. His vision for ministry has emerged from life experiences that associate peacemaking with the principles of integration and inclusivity.
“How about we actually get to know the people we’re sharing space with?” Cyrus-Franklin suggested.
|The Rev. Victor Cyrus-Franklin leads a workshop on peacemaking. (Photo by Cindy Skop)
The original thrust that merged the East Point congregation he serves – one white, one African-American – was economic. But the result is a community of believers who share the same space.
But peacemakers don’t stop at desegregation, Cyrus-Franklin observed, they move into integration.
“Desegregation,” he said, “is a short-term goal, kind of like justifying grace. But integration is beyond an event, it’s an ongoing process. Integration is more like sanctification. Integration is a creative process that involves building relationships that become transformative.”
For Cyrus-Franklin, the ultimate fruit of transformed relationships is “becoming the Beloved Community.” He is concerned that even so-called progressive ideas such as declarations of “color-blindness” contribute to the problem because they can suggest that race doesn’t matter.
“When we ignore our differences by creating inauthentic diversity it can be like painting by numbers,” he said. “Instead we can make the effort to dismantle racism through a shared struggle, working together to address pain wherever we see it because we are one Body of Christ.”
Cyrus-Franklin said he believes the church is in a good place to reach the emerging, more diverse, generation. “America is increasingly more diverse,” he said, “but our communities still tend to be homogeneous.”
The Rev. Dan Johnson, senior pastor at Gainesville’s Trinity UMC, led a workshop based on his experience as a peacemaker titled “A Gathering for Peace: A Response to Hate.”
Last summer, Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center, Trinity’s near neighbor, announced plans to publicly burn the Koran on the anniversary of the 9-11 bombings. Johnson’s impetus may have been to deal with the crisis, but the result has been and continues to be ongoing and potentially transformational.
|The Rev. Dan Johnson discusses his church's response to the threat of a neighboring pastor to burn the Koran. (Photo by Cindy Skop)
“When Terry Jones put out signs announcing ‘International Burn the Koran Day,’ our feeling was ‘Let’s ignore this and it will go away,’” Johnson said. “We didn’t want to generate undue publicity.”
However, when members reported children wearing “Islam is the Devil” T-shirts to school and the news media picked up the story, Johnson felt compelled to respond.
“So I preached about loving Jesus and our Muslim friends,” Johnson said. “Then I met a delightful Muslim couple – physicians from Pakistan – and a friendship began. We formed the Gainesville Interfaith Forum for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and others.”
Eventually the story was picked up by CNN and Dove’s “International Burn the Koran Day” became a news juggernaut that would not go away.
Johnson drafted a press release that became a collective statement endorsed by the Trinity Church council. It eventually became an “Interfaith Gathering” hosted by Trinity the day before the scheduled 9-11 burning.
“I felt like my senior minister role led us into a community thing,” he said.
Trinity’s September 10 event, “A Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope”, brought people of all faiths into Trinity’s sanctuary. Hundreds of people and over 40 news agencies showed up, including Al-Jazeera.
“We centered the gathering around bread,” said Deacon Monique McBride, Trinity’s minister for Christian Education. “It’s simple, basic and symbolic.”
The Rev. David Allen, Trinity’s associate pastor, saw the gathering as a release valve for community tension.
“The event gave relief to the tension brewing in Gainesville,” he said. “It was a means of peaceful protest expressed through faith and love. Prayer together with Muslims equals a peaceful protest.”
The peacemaking initiative had the effect of transforming the world at a particular place and time. And the ongoing work of the interfaith forum is committed to continue building relationships.
Trinity’s chapel director, Jim Cook, observed, “There was a frenzy in the community. But our church was a place of peace. Trinity is known in the community now as a place to come to gather with community and be who you are. That was a lovely thing.”