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Issues of race aren't just black and white, leaders say

Issues of race aren't just black and white, leaders say

The Florida Conference is taking a closer look at race relations within the walls of the church on both the conference and local church level.

The Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan, chairwoman of the conference Committee on Religion and Race, said a task team was formed following the 2010 Florida Annual Conference Event to take a more in-depth look at the role race plays in the life of the annual conference.

Worshippers of all ages engage their faith in community at the recent Black Church Symposium. Photo by J.A. Buchholz.
“What is racism? Racism is a sin,” said McClellan, who is also senior pastor at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Gainesville. “We need to address the issues of white privilege, the lack of ethnic leadership on conference staff, racial harassment and multicultural appointments.”

It’s not that the conference is unaware of racism, McClellan said, but it has “become a dirty word that no one wants to talk about.”  “There is still deep pain, and it must be dealt with,” she said.   
The task team’s work is based on a 2003 annual review conducted by the denomination’s General Commission on Religion and Race and will focus on the following recommendations, along with those of the conference Commission on Religion and Race:

    • Developing policies regarding racial inclusiveness in conference activities (such as the annual conference session; camps, conferences and retreats; and campus ministries);
    • Developing and recommending a training plan on diversity, anti-racism and white privilege;
    • Developing a recommendation for training congregations and pastors open to cross-cultural appointments;
    • Exploring the possibility of a racial harassment personnel policy addition for the conference;
    • Developing a recommendation for principles and practices related to shared space between Anglo churches and smaller ethnic congregations; 
    • Creating opportunities for dialogue throughout the conference between groups; 
    • Nurturing the involvement of conference leadership throughout the process at the highest level; and
    • Working in coalition with the offices of Black and Hispanic Congregational Excellence and Clergy Excellence to provide a status report on the recruitment, compensation and appointments of ethnic clergy.

The goal, McClellan said in a report to the 2010 Annual Conference about the task team’s work, is “to seek new and creative ways to narrow the gap of racism in congregations and the hierarchy of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church and to move toward inclusiveness for all of God’s people.”

McClellan said much progress has been made since the general commission’s review, but there is “much work to be done,” and she does not believe the answers will come easily once the team begins delving into the subject of race.

The Rev. Will Clark said he doesn’t know if the origins of racism can be identified.

Clark, who serves as senior pastor at Orange Park United Methodist in Orange Park and helped form the task team, said, historically, problems of inclusiveness have had their origins in geography. But today, he said, racism toward individuals has grown to include a much broader group of people from a variety of countries.

Clark encourages churches to “look at who we are as Christians” when helping families who have come to the church for help, but who may not represent the demographic composition of the church. He said many times such families are invited to church services, but wonder if the invitations are genuine.

“I think we have a tendency to separate the people we’re helping based on tradition,” Clark said. “I think we do it because things have always been that way. By that way I mean black or white, rich or poor, farm workers or city workers and the haves and have-nots. We are going to work to make things like this better. We want to work on solutions.”

A group or groups will come together at some point to work on those solutions, McClellan said, and that’s when hard, honest dialogue will take place.

“We will open the cans (of worms) that have been closed for so long,” she said. “It will be a relief that people who have been shut off or shut up for so long will not be afraid to express how they feel. It will allow us to move forward as an annual conference and as a church to truly be God’s people.”

While dealing with those issues may be difficult, it’s work that has to be done, according to the Rev. Dr. Carl Arrington, director of African-American Ministries for the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.

Arrington said the church has a responsibility to address racism, as well as other social dilemmas. Not only is it the right thing to do, he said, but the Gospel mandates that the church be inclusive.

The election of President Barack Obama has not erased America’s storied past with race relations, he said, but instead has brought race issues beneath the surface to the forefront.

“What we have to realize as members of the church is that the same people who fight immigration outside the church are the same people who are fostering exclusion inside the church,” he said. “Church members have to take a stand against divisiveness.”

Arrington said scripture calls the people of God to reach out to everyone.

“There are so many people who are not aware how severe this problem is,” he said. “It is important to understand the impact this is having on the church. We have got to work on ways of eradicating this.”

While Clark said he wants an end to racism, he is realistic that a social ill that has been with the church and society for so long will not be easily erased.

“This is a centuries-old dilemma,” Clark said. “We are just getting started, but we are starting.”

Arrington said creating a task team is an undertaking each annual conference should embrace.

“We, as a church community, are all about people from different lands coming together to be loved and respected,” he said. “We are not supposed to just preach to some.”

News media contact: Gretchen Hastings, 800-282-8011,, Lakeland
*Hastings is executive editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.