The Neverending Story

I had an odd experience yesterday.  I stopped off for lunch on my way to Milwaukee at a Taco Bell for a “nourishing” meal, and was waited on by a young African-American woman.  While I ate my lunch, the woman floated through the dining area handing out information so that diners could complete an online survey.  She asked if I would be interested, and I listened to her, looking her in the eye and smiling.  She paused, frowned, then said to me, “Do you know that you’re the first white person who hasn’t been rude to me today.  Most people won’t look me in the eye, and they act all annoyed.”  I asked her directly if she thought the reaction she got was racial, and she opened her eyes wide and said, “Oh, yeah!”

I confess I am so naive.  Every time I encounter racism, or sexism, or classism or any of a whole host of “isms” I am surprised.  I lived for fifteen years in Nashville, Tennessee where the racism is still very open and active, even in the office where I worked.  We were all educated, middle class people — and there was a good racial/ethnic mix — but the racism was palpable and inescapable.  Sexism, too, but to a lesser degree.  However the gulf between exempt and non-exempt — the director level and assistant level positions — was tragic in its inequality and lack of respect.  I was so relieved to be moving north of the Mason-Dixon line to “escape” such a pervasive atmosphere of prejudice.  Yeah, right.  I have encountered as much racism in Wisconsin as I did growing up in Indiana, serving in New Jersey, and living in Tennessee.  The prejudices and bigotries we hold against those who are different seldom change — and they are always defined by who holds power.

The argument goes that “we have come so far,” and there is deep truth there — a truth that makes the oppressors feel so much better.  But for anyone without power the, “…but we still have so far to go,” part of the sentiment is more important.  The young woman I spoke with (and I do not know how to spell her name correctly — a sign of my own racism?) is a graduate student at University of Wisconsin.  She told me that in her classes she is treated as an equal.  She rarely feels “different,” or that it matters that she is black or a woman.  But when she puts on her Taco Bell uniform, it is as if she becomes less of a person.  People talk to her differently.  She says many people don’t even see her at all.  She feels that people look down on her.  She said it makes her mad because it makes her feel bad about who she is for no good reason.  She ended our conversation by thanking me again, and it made me feel a little sick to my stomach.  She was thanking me just for treating her like a human being.

Knowing that something is wrong is not the same as believing in what is right.  I think this is part of our problem.  We live in a culture that has discovered that hate and prejudice is wrong.  We understand that race and gender are not good reasons to hurt, exclude, oppress, or do violence to, another human being.  We are outraged when we hear about sexual or racial violence, but it hasn’t necessarily touched the deepest value centers of our human psyche.  I think it is one of the reasons we are stuck where we are regarding human sexuality.  We have named sexism and racism as “isms” but still refer to bias based on sexual preference as a “phobia.”  In many respects, the only difference I see between “sexism” (defensible by scripture), “racism” (defensible by scripture), and “homophobia” (prohibited by scripture) is that it is still culturally acceptable to attack homosexuals in a way we no longer acceptable regarding women and minorities.  This doesn’t mean we — across our culture — are more enlightened about gender and race than human sexuality, just that we are less honest and more constrained. 

In the research I did for the General Board of Discipleship, I had the privilege of meeting and dealing with people of every educational, economic, social, racial, ethnic, and geographic group in our country.  Universally, the white middle class is so proud of the strides we have made in areas of race and gender.  We hold a strong belief that we are not racist, and definitely not sexist.  Yet, it is interesting to meet with pastors of our largest congregations in America.  Oh, yes, there are a handful of minorities, and a thimble-full of women (all associate pastors, none lead…)  But when you leave the fluffy, white, creamy center and move into the real cookie, things change dramatically.  Coast to coast, those of non-Anglo racial and ethnic cultures see things very differently.  In one conference, the white-Anglo leadership proudly crowed about their commitment to diversity.  When I met with the racial/ethnic leaders of the conference and asked them one thing they would like to change, with one voice they said, “Quit talking so much about diversity.  All it does is constantly point out how different we are, and how lucky we should feel to be included.”

The questions I ponder are these:  as a denomination we have made the right decisions — we elect women and minorities to key leadership positions, and we are intentional to strive for balance throughout our system.  But does this mean we aren’t still sexist and racist?  Because our Council of Bishops and our Boards and Agencies embrace diversity, does that mean they have eliminated institutional racism?  Are we truly modeling a changed culture, or are we doing what we believe is right without truly altering our core values?  Are our practices merely behavior modification or have we been truly transformed (or in the process of being transformed)?  Are we kidding ourselves that we have come farther than we actually have?  I don’t know.  I’m a fifty-one year-old white male with a good education and a good job.  I lack a certain objectivity.

9 replies

  1. It is all a matter of perspective. I truly doubt that a white male would have gotten a better response from patrons. People aren’t wild about filling out surveys especially when they either believe that it won’t make a difference or that it will be used for another purpose (like marketing to them).

    We are not likely to eradicate racism and sexism and all other forms of non-merit-based discrimination from either the Church or the world before the Second Coming. However, it is also true that we have come a long way. It is also true that too many leaders in racial or ethnic groups practice discrimination when they get the opportunity.

    There are also those who allege racial or sexual discrimination as the cause for not getting whatever they want. For instance, of the 1,134 churches with over 1,000 members (which hold 27.6% of our membership) there may be only 60 female pastors. However, how many of those are still on their founding pastor? Also, less than 20% of all of the elders in full connection in the UMC are female.

    The Western Jurisdiction has actually managed to “achieve” the distinction of being the first jurisdiction not to have any white male bishops. Even though only 24% of the elders in full connection are female, half the bishops are. Even though 82% of the elders in full connection are white, only a third of the bishops are. A Latina bishop was elected even though only there are only 56 Hispanic elders in full connection. She is assigned to the smallest episcopal area in the United States for the number of charges, so she has plenty of time to handle her general church and prophetic responsibilities. In fact, a male elder has a 1 in 760 chance to be a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction, but a female elder has a 1 in 230 chance. A white elder has a 1 in 1,228 chance to be a bishop while a racial/ethnic elder has a 1 in 134 chance to be a bishop. Obviously, there is no reverse discrimination there. But, the membership decline is continuing apace. At the current rate of decline, by the 2016 General Conference there will be fewer members in the whole Western Jurisdiction than there is in just the North Georgia Annual Conference.

    Across the U.S., there are eleven African-American bishops but less than 6% of the laity are African-American. We need to move away from regulatory approaches to diversity and actually bring more people into the church.

    • It would be fascinating to hear from some of our non-Anglo bishops as to their feelings about racism and sexism in The UMC and how far we’ve come…

      • What would be really fascinating is finding out whether they feel that the over-representation among our bishops and general church staff of non-European racial/ethnic persons has had any real effect on the diversity of our laity. If not, then we should finally move to a place where we elect bishops and hire people based on their character and merit rather than on what they look like.

        Setting the standard as the total eradication of racism and sexism is simply creating a reason to continue the same policies that cause time, money and effort to be spent on “diversity” (which too often means “hire me to prove that you aren’t racist/sexist) rather than on evangelism and caring for the least, the last and the lost.

  2. In one week you have characterized people as stupid, phobic, racist, and sexist for believing in the Bible.Because people find comfort and inspiration in a book you don’t like, you say that people are naive or ignorant and that pastors that allow it aren’t theologically correct. Who do you think you are? I am seminary trained, lead a large, growing church and I find nothing wrong with the theology of The Shack. I am an American and just because I don’t want to learn another language or visit certain neighborhoods doesn’t make me a racist. Maybe there are reasons other than gender that prevent women from leading our biggest churches. Maybe they don’t want the burden. It doesn’t mean we’re sexist when women don’t do all the same things that men do. That’s ridiculous. Why don’t you look at all sides of an issue instead of just focusing on the negative side?

  3. Dan writes: “Are we truly modeling a changed culture, or are we doing what we believe is right without truly altering our core values? Are our practices merely behavior modification or have we been truly transformed (or in the process of being transformed)?”

    Is it reasonable to suggest that this applies to many issues? I’m thinking now of something like kin(g)dom living: some would claim to be citizens of the kin(g)dom but continue to place loyalty to nation above loyalty to God (“of course we have to remain strong in our dealings with other nations and can’t possibly consider a different strategy in, say, Afghanistan”). Or ecumenical concerns: we’re all children of God, but we can’t seem to cooperate across lines when money is tight. Or, one of my personal/professional faults, we could join together for Good Friday…but not Easter worship! After all, enough folks turn out for Easter to produce a decent crowd….

  4. The book “Nickel and Dimed” adds another layer to the young woman at Taco Bell’s plight; how we treat the “servant class” in a entitlement environment where we believe our urgencies should be someone else’s priorities. Christians in the book are consistently the most demanding and lowest tipping diners. Do congregations place their pastors in this ‘servant class”?

  5. I read your message and agree that racism is alive and well. But I’ll add to it. I am a middle class middle age white woman who is a book keeper by trade. I have taken a second job to be able to send my teenage daughter to christian school and am cleaning my church. I can’t believe the way some people talk to me about what they need done. We don’t talk to each other that way on committees but when I’m there cleaning it makes a difference. Maybe I feel less secure about myself and take it differently, as might the girl at Taco Bell. If we could just learn that we are all God’s children and there are jobs for everyone.

  6. Dan-good post by the way-I am leaving a comment here because I could not find an email address for you. That may be because I overlooked it. Anyway, I have been following your blog for awhile and I am intrigued by your posts and you seem to have a grasp on reality in the UMC. I want to ask a question that may seem like to you the wrong question to ask, but it is the one our church is faced with right now (so any input you can give would be appreciated). How can we attract more young families to our church? We are an aging congregation in a mid-town campus that has been a destination church for years. Any thoughts about what you have seen work (and NOT work)? Thanks.

    • Not knowing what’s already been done, what I see as vitally important is to go to young families and talk to them about where they need support, help, guidance, and connection? The churches that are moving forward don’t ask, “can we or can’t we” do these things, but what things align with our mission and ministry and “how can we do them?” Young serves young. Younger family churches look, think, act and feel like young family churches. Too often, churches unintentionally ghettoize ministries for families with young children and ministries with young couples. Where the ministry priorities are focused on young adults, and young families/families with young children it is clearly evident in every aspect of church life. Also, I would note that the strongest churches in ministry to young families are also very strong multi-generational churches — they don’t ghettoize in the opposite direction, displacing older adults and singles. I wish there were a clear magic answer, but there doesn’t seem to be. Where the needs of young families are seriously addressed, the results tend to be very good.

      And the direct email is

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