I am attending the North Central Jurisdiction CORR (Commission on Religion and Race) learning event this weekend in Milwaukee. As I gather in this place with these people I notice three things about myself. First, I can breathe. I don’t feel at all constrained or worried about what others might think. The people assembled here are deeply committed Christians from every walk of life (though, just by being here, we are among the more privileged in our society) and from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. This feels like home — or more appropriately, like true community in Christ — where all are welcome and all are honored. Second, I feel hope. There are more younger people here than at most church gatherings, and the spirit and energy is positive. This is a glimpse of what our church is at its very best. Third, I feel honest. No one here is pretending that we don’t have racial, gender, age, sexuality, and faith prejudice issues. This is one of the few groups that isn’t drowning in denial. And yet, this gathering also shines revealing and embarrassing light on how far our larger church is from the kingdom of God. It is one thing to note who is here. It is another to note who is not.
When I attended the Strengthening the Black Church conference earlier this year I received the same nonplussed response I got when I told people I would be attending the Religion and Race conference: “why are you going? You’re white.” My response: “what has that got to do with anything?” Their response: “but race isn’t our issue.” Whose issue is it? The common perception to this day is that, while we claim to be a diverse and multicultural church, many well-meaning (but terribly misguided) people think that African-Americans should go to Black Church events, and that Hispanic and Latino people should go to Hispanic and Latino events, and that Asian people should go to Asian events, and Native/American Indians should attend Native/American Indian events, and that young people should go to young people’s events and that only women should attend United Methodist Women Schools of Christian Mission, and on and on. Beyond that:
- poor and marginalized? (not our issue)
- homeless? (not our issue)
- hungry? (not our issue)
- gang violence? (not our issue)
- natural disasters? (we respond a few weeks, then — not our issue)
- AIDS? (not our issue)
- drug abuse? (not our issue)
- domestic abuse? (not our issue)
- malaria? (we’ll buy a net)
- education? (not out issue)
- social justice? (not our — or Glenn Beck’s — issue)
- Islamaphobia? (not our issue)
- ecumenism? (not our issue)
- global warming/environmental concerns? (not our issue)
- sexual misconduct? (not our issue — but tell us about it anyway)
Etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. There is so much NOI (not our issue) in our church today that we really have no right to call ourselves “united” Methodists. We don’t take responsibility for one another. We have no true vision of unity. We are barely tolerant of others, let alone accepting or embracing. I have been told that events such as this one are irrelevant and wasteful because we have conquered racism in The United Methodist Church. This is apparently news to everyone but upper middle- and middle-class white people, but has become the great urban legend of our denomination. We are a far, far cry from an “open-minded, open-hearted, open-doored” inclusiveness and acceptance. We practice a selective tokenism and preen with pride, but there are a whole lot more walls, fences and barriers than bridges, gateways, and portals in our racially and ethnically diverse UMC.
So what are we doing about it? Small gatherings of deeply committed men and women come together to celebrate who we are and who we could be, and we strategize ways to get the word out. We share our passions and hopes, and we are amazed and impressed by the quality of leadership and intelligence of the people who assemble. And all the time we hold in the back of our minds the multitudes of our brothers and sisters who sit at home, content because this is “not our issue.”
When one suffers, we all suffer. Until these issues become “our” issues, we are in sad shape. Now, I am not saying that every individual has to be involved in every issue, but to deny that any issue that is important to God is not our issue is problematic. The eye can not say to the ear (the privileged white cannot say to the ethnic minority…) we have no use of you. We are not a single body with many parts, but an amalgam of dismembered body parts unrelated and disconnected and not much interested in the health and well-being of any other part. We are much too focused on “our own issues” — dividing ourselves into enclaves of “us” disconnected from “them.” We look at fifty ministries of the General Board of Global Ministries and don’t like two, so we yowl that we shouldn’t have to support them with our apportionments. We celebrate 175 ministries in our own annual conference, but disagree with one decision made by “them” and threaten to withhold our support until we get our way. We protect our turf and fight for our own territory, seeing other ministries as competition rather than collaborative efforts aimed at fulfilling a larger objective. We define ourselves in very narrow ways, disinterested in anything that is not our issue.
Heaven help us. Until we realize that we stand or fall together, we will never break the inertia that currently defines us. No campaign, no marketing ploy, no branding effort, no call to action is going to make any difference — it won’t change the world — until we conspire to change ourselves. This is OUR issue — to find a meaningful way to put “united” on the front burner of United Methodism.