Racial slur turns into catalyst for shared ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Racial slur turns into catalyst for shared ministry

June 27, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0694}

NOTE: A headshot of the Rev. Sharon Austin is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

LAKELAND — The racial slur someone wrote on the marquee at Cason United Methodist Church earlier this year was intended to discourage and divide.

Instead, it helped fuel a new season of empowerment and unity for people of faith within the Delray Beach community and offered lessons for Florida Christians as a whole.

During the days before the incident, the Rev. Sharon Austin, the African-American pastor of the mostly white Cason United Methodist Church, was in Leesburg for a meeting. After returning to Delray Beach on a Sunday evening, she drove past the church to look at Cason’s marquee and make sure the spelling of an upcoming guest preacher’s name was correct. It was. Austin noticed nothing different the next day and evening and was not aware the letters had been altered to spell the word “nigga” until a reporter from The Palm Beach Post called her Tuesday morning.

Rev. Sharon Austin

She later learned a church preschool teacher had noticed the slur Monday morning, but assumed Austin had put the word on the marquee for some reason. No one called the church or stopped by to question the slur, until a passerby pulled into the parking lot that evening and told a church member he was offended by it. Austin said the member told the person nothing was ever put on the sign without the pastor’s permission.

The person who changed the marquee not only transposed some of the letters from the guest pastor’s sermon title, but used a few of his or her own letters.

“It was very well thought out,” Austin said. “These letters are not available at Wal-Mart. Every church I’ve served, when we had to replace letters, we had to order them. I think of the time and the risk someone spent to stand there and change those letters … and thought enough to bring their own letters.”

Austin said the incident was disturbing, but will not hinder the work God has called her to do. In fact, it jumpstarted a new relationship between Cason and St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, just down the street. The two churches are within walking distance from each other, but had been physically, emotionally and spiritually segregated for more than a century. Last March members of both congregations worshipped together at Cason during a Wednesday night service. Since then, they have participated in other joint endeavors.

“I think it was a practiced habit of segregation,” Austin said, reflecting on why the two churches had virtually no connection until now. “If you would have asked me if they held animosity toward one another, I would have to say no. I think it was a case of ‘that’s the way it’s always been,’ which we hear so often and hear, unfortunately, in the church.”

When asked how she responded to the incident, Cason said, “I think you have to be very careful not to engage in the kind of paranoia that might come fairly easily: was it the person who said this or did this, the person in the car who seemed to drive through the parking lot an extra couple of items, was it an inside job?”

Austin said she does believe the perpetrator might have been someone with a grudge against her or the church, someone not necessarily attending Cason.

“They think they’ll be able to create some dissention. What happened as a result of that really was an expression of ‘every round goes higher and higher,’ ” Austin said. “We’d already planned a concert event. We’d already planned to have the outgoing mayor of Delray Beach and the vice mayor to speak on a Sunday morning. They had some wonderful and challenging thoughts to share at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast; I heard them both and asked if they would be willing to share the same message at Cason.”

Austin said she has spent two and a half years engaged in racial reconciliation in Delray Beach. The mayor’s initiative on race relations had already started by the time she arrived in the summer of 2004, and Austin was later appointed to a task force. The community’s interfaith ministerial service held a prayer vigil when it learned of the racial slur. Several community colleagues worshipped at Cason the Sunday following the incident to express their support, including a former Delray mayor and his family, who are Jewish. He said, “This is the place I felt we needed to be.”

And then there was the initial joint worship service with St. Paul’s AME, whose pastor of two years, the Rev. Waymon Dixon, immediately came to Austin’s aid when he learned about the marquee incident.

“It was an ecumenical and cross-racial experience for the folks at Cason,” Austin said. “Cason was on its feet, clapping and celebrating in the aisles.”

“The members of Cason church rallied, supported and attended what we were doing by inviting churches of all denominational persuasions in a way that even exceeded my expectations,” she added. “Our church isn’t a great evening program church, but to lay claim to their openness to worship in different ways — led by different people who are also their neighbors — was a powerful witness. It witnesses to the community that the larger mission of the church of Jesus Christ is to go into the world. The world starts with going across the street.”

Dixon was one of two African-American guest preachers from the various congregations Cason invited to participate in its Lenten series on Wednesday evenings. Austin said another black preacher acknowledged he had “driven by the church for years and never thought he’d be preaching here, which was enough to take my breath away.”

In an interview with e-Review before Easter, Dixon said Cason members would be visiting his church for a service to celebrate Pentecost.

“We can find other ways beyond 11 a.m. to have worship together, which symbolizes our unity and brotherhood and sisterhood and humanity per se, being grounded in the faith in Jesus Christ,” he said. “His blood unites us all. We seek to overcome the barriers of separation and apartheid, which have existed.”

“It’s fun things; you just do fun things, and act as if the 100 years never happened,” he added. “It doesn’t have to end with separation. (We) two pastors will make sure that the future is open-ended and that God is always there in a meaningful way which brings us together.”

Dixon said, in a sense, members of both churches have known each other for years, seeing each other at shopping malls, gas stations, work.

“There’s been social contact, but now they see each other with a Methodist face,” he said. “It was sort of like a simultaneous, instantaneous blending of friendship when we had that first worship experience together. That was a new beginning for both churches. We cannot go back to before that worship service.”

Dixon says people can’t control “where the Spirit is poured.”

“It pours on everyone,” he added. “All we do is receive and become consecrated. To say that one is black or white and red or yellow … you’ve cornered the market on the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. Christ died for the world, the whole world. No ecclesiastical community can claim unique ownership of the dispensation of the Holy Spirit.”

The incident on Cason’s marquee, Dixon said, sparked the need to realize Christians face a common nemesis of racism.

“It’s still the elephant in the room that no one dares speak about,” he said. “Because of that common ground, this kind of thing tends to bring you together. There is something redemptive about unearned suffering. It tends to create community. When one suffers, in Christ, we all suffer. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ ”

On April 22, St. Paul’s also participated in a special “Celebration of Life” benefit concert at Cason, a national, interfaith event designed to assist orphans and underemployed women in Africa. St. Paul’s members served refreshments at the event, which featured soprano soloist Diana Solomon-Glover from The Riverside Church in New York City, local cantor Ann Turnoff and the Florida Atlantic University Gospel Choir.

Austin said the churches are rewriting two chapters of history by worshipping together. One includes the events of 1787, when a group of black worshippers responded to blatant discrimination by forming what eventually became the AME denomination. The second is the decision by Cason members in 1903 to essentially launch a second Methodist church in Delray Beach without giving thought to joining an established church with a Wesleyan heritage, such as St. Paul’s, which had organized six years earlier in 1897.

And the Florida Conference, Austin says, is still in the midst of growing pains concerning cross-cultural appointments. Austin was appointed to Cason in 2004, leaving some in the congregation unsettled.

“There was certainly a resentment, a bitterness, even a confusion or perplexity on the part of some of the members,” she said. “One person even asked, ‘Why did the conference do this to us?’ ”

Austin said she is certain other Cason members were asking the same question. She says it’s a question echoed in other mostly white congregations across the conference where a pastor of another race is appointed.

“It’s not just race, but also gender,” Austin added. “Parishioners can have a predetermined, cookie-cutter sense of ‘this is what my preacher looks like or who they are.’ It could be, ‘My preacher is too old’ or ‘My preacher is too young’ or ‘The preacher is not married’ or ‘The preacher is married and has a young family.’ ”

Among the challenges people feel in this age of political correctness, Austin said, is the hindrance to openly articulate the sense of being faced with not just someone who is different, “but someone for whom the church is presented with a present reality that is greatly contrasted with the historical reality.”

“If you come right down to it,” she said, “I know I’m serving as pastor to people who have absolutely no experience with an African-American woman in a position of authority. The only black folks some of them knew were folks who worked for them or their families.”

Austin said she has told conference leaders to be very serious about the work of preparing clergy to serve congregations of a different ethnicity. She said this preparation must take place before appointments are announced, when church members are already dealing with the normal feelings associated with saying goodbye to the current pastor. 

“We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “One of the reasons is because of the experiences some of us have had just because of the appointment; it may be an open itinerant system, but no one expects anyone to act on that. This is 2007, and it is high time we stop regarding this as an aberration, as the exception rather than a rule in the sense of our openness and willingness to embrace it. We’re still following some appointment system more akin to the days of the Central Jurisdiction.”


This article relates to Racial Reconciliation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.

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