When Rev. Michael Beck learned of the A.C.T. to End Racism Rally in Washington, he knew immediately what he had to do.
“My response was automatic,” he said. “I would do anything I had to do to clear my schedule so I could be there. We tend to believe racism is behind us, and as Caucasian people it’s easy to dismiss the fact it still exists. It is real.
|Florida pastors joined in the A.C.T. to End Racism Rally in Washington, D.C., on April 4, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.|
“I think we have a fear of speaking out about that. As clergy, we try not to disturb our congregation and community with talk about that. Sometimes, we have to take a stand against the powers that be. We need to bring truth to power.”
Beck is the pastor at Wildwood United Methodist Church, which has a diverse congregation. He joined with other members of the Florida Conference during the April 3-5 rally that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
They were in Washington on a mission to remember, learn and reinforce the message back home that racism in any form is a sin the Church must strongly and visibly oppose.
The A.C.T. rally says it all: Awaken, Confront, Transform.
“I would say that awakening or acknowledging racism exists is a major problem that like cancer grows and affects the health of this country. It is toxic and, to some, not an issue, not a major issue or is something relegated to a bygone era,” Florida Conference Director of Connectional Ministries Sharon Austin said.
“If we refrain from admitting how we came to the present, then we will never heal for the future.”
That past, Austin said, dates to the early days of this country. It includes slavery, land theft and the forced migration of the rightful owners. The treatment of African-Americans as second-class citizens or worse led to the civil rights era of the 1960s and Dr. King’s leadership.
As Christians and United Methodists, what should our response be?
Beck said following the example of Jesus is a great place to start. Jesus showed love to all, including many who were considered the least among society.
He challenged the status quo of the day, where authority figures used economic and sometimes physical persecution to maintain their hold over society. He elevated women, he added.
“We have domesticated our understanding of Jesus,” Beck said. “We domesticated Dr. King. He was a radical who preached subversive non-compliance.”
A half-century has passed since Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, but the racism he sought to erase remains a major social issue.
It falls to the church to fill its moral role and lead by example and word. That starts by confronting truths about itself.
The UMC has a racist history that it must own. The history is mentioned in a certain context by leaders but appears to be unknown to some laypersons, according to Austin.
“This is one of the reasons why when the history or issues of race are mentioned in our churches, one of the first rejoinders is to refrain from mentioning the issue, as if it will go away. Reality has deemed that racism exists; our hard work and Christ-like love will determine if it is here to stay.”
There are steps churches and the Florida Conference should take now as leaders in the fight against racism. Training can make people aware of racist tendencies they have but may not realize.
Cross-racial and cross-cultural clergy appointments can have a major impact toward making all understand that the church cannot allow prejudice to interfere with the work of God.
“I believe that all clergy should be required to undergo a cultural competency assessment,” Austin said. “As the U.S. catches up with the world, we will reckon with the growth of populations of people of color but will be increasingly ill-prepared to serve them.
|From left, Florida Conference pastors John Baldwin, Mary Mitchell, Michael Beck and Sharon Austin pause at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial during the End Racism Rally in Washington, D.C.|
"We need clear expectations toward measurable goals to determine the progress of the fruits of the work of anti-racism and inclusivity.”
Beck is part of a team, including Austin and pastors Mary Mitchell and John Baldwin, that is working toward the goal of confronting and eradicating racism.
“This is something I’m really passionate about,” Beck said.
The trip to Washington helped add fuel to that passion.
“For me, it’s like a spiritual pilgrimage,” he said.
Austin called it “amazing” and “inspiring” and something more.
“We are not in this work alone,” she said. “We are surrounded by allies of faith. We could openly decry the heinous presence of racism.
“People of color who were present did not have to live with the chronic trauma which comes from re-victimization of the victims, by the need to remain silent or minimize the reality, lest we make it uncomfortable for others.”
Beck was asked what he would consider a “win” going forward from the rally.
“For people to get pro-active about confronting racism,” he said. “That would be the win.”