ORLANDO – They marveled at how far God has brought them in less than 50 years.
They reminded one another of how far they have to go.
Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth, chairperson of the national Black Methodists for Church Renewal, took note that the hotel ballroom where nearly 300 members from across the U.S. are expected to gather this weekend is a short distance from the neighborhood where teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead in February 2012. Later the same year, 17-year-old Jordan Davis was gunned down in Jacksonville.
The white men who ended their lives with gunshots both went on trial; one was found not guilty, the other was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder.
But violence against unarmed African-Americans, most recently by police in various parts of the U.S., has created a rallying cry for change.
“Our lives matter,” Bridgeforth told the crowd Thursday at the opening of the three-day BMCR meeting. “Our churches matter. Our caucuses matter. Our communities matter. … It’s time to take action.”
Bridgeforth’s presentation, “The State of BMCR,” followed a video that featured founders of the organization, which started in 1968 as the United Methodist black caucus approved by General Conference. Its role was to advocate for African-American Methodist interests in the wake of desegregation and the absorption of the former black conferences into annual conferences dominated by white church members.
Bridgeforth, a district superintendent in the California-Pacific Conference, said black clergy in the room had not only those founders to thank for progress in the church but even their ancestors who sang of freedom as they toiled in slavery or risked death to march for civil rights. He confessed that he once thought he had risen to success as a preacher and sought-after speaker because of his personal talents.
After attending a BMCR meeting years ago in Pittsburgh, where he was invited as a speaker, he realized that others had paved the way.
“By the time I left the room, I was soaked in tears, repentant of my arrogance,” he said.
Now he often is asked why BMCR is relevant.
“BMCR is only as relevant as you make it in your context,” he said. BMCR will call on The United Methodist Church to advocate for equal treatment of everyone, including ensuring voting rights and ending mass incarceration and violence against men and women of color, he said.
“Your involvement is needed at every level of the church,” he told the crowd.
Bridgeforth said the organization will post to its website the “Black Papers Project,” a listing of BMCR’s position on modern-day topics. Members are invited to submit positions, which will be considered by the BMCR board’s executive committee for approval as additions to the list.
He noted that BMCR was one of five ethnic caucuses in the church to participate in a video series last year called “We, Too, Are United Methodist.”
And the caucus will work with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition UMC in supporting petitions for consideration at General Conference 2016, Bridgeforth said.
He urged all attendees to visit theconvocation.net/blacklivesmatter and sign the petition there.
“We will lift that up in every session (of the meeting) … because we want to see this move forward.”
He said after his presentation that the leadership will encourage each local church in its membership to be involved in establishing an advocacy council in every annual conference and support the BMCR issues at the jurisdictional level. The congregations and conference councils will push for inclusion of historically excluded groups at all levels of the church.
BMCR also is concerned about the closing of historically black churches and the displacement of clergy or the reassignment of pastors to cross-cultural appointments without adequate preparation, Bridgeforth said.
Regarding the importance of retaining the traditional black church model, he said, “I think it’s important to retain the wisdom and legacy of the historically black church.”
However, he doesn’t envision new church plants that follow that model. To be appealing to coming generations of Americans, new churches will need to be multicultural, he said.
BMCR is interested in appealing to the growing number of people of color from the Caribbean and Africa migrating to the U.S. He noted that Florida is one of the states where that population is growing. He said BMCR is interested in reaching out for a global membership, but for now, most participants are in the U.S.
According to the BMCR website, the caucus represents more than 2,400 congregations and about half a million African-American members. Last year, the organization moved from its longtime headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., to Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
“I like to call BMCR the NAACP of The United Methodist Church,” said Rev. Harold Lewis Sr., director of Justice & Multicultural Ministries for the Florida Conference, who was unable to attend the meeting but works with the caucus. “We have a lot of work still to do with racism and prejudice.”
In 2013, the caucus announced a restructuring to strengthen partnerships with other United Methodist agencies, including the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the Commission on Religion and Race and the Board of Church and Society. Representation of several organizations at the meeting, including the Inter Ethnic Strategy Development Group (IESDG) and the Discipleship Ministries Division of Young People, gave evidence of the new approach.
Leaders of Discipleship Ministries, Church and Society, General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, United Methodist Women and the Love Your Neighbor Coalition are scheduled for a panel discussion at 10 a.m. Saturday regarding “General Conference 2016 and Racial Ethnic Ministries.” Monalisa Tui’tahi, IESDG chairperson, will serve as moderator.
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.