In 2000, United Methodists top legislative body, the General Conference, adopted the “Act of Repentance for Racism,” pledging to heal scars left by racism.
Now, as the 2004 General Conference draws near, the United Mehodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, which sponsored the Act of Repentence, is encouraging the denomination’s annual conferences to remain faithful to the pledge.
The two main action items from the Act are the call for local congregations to engage in study sessions and for each annual conference to hold a liturgical act of repentance.
Actual participation by conferences "varies from those who have done practically nothing to those who are taking it very seriously," according to Ruth Daugherty, a former commission member who is serving as a consultant for the project.
By the end of 2002, 31 annual conferences already had held an Act of Repentance worship service. Another 29 have scheduled such services for their yearly gatherings this spring and summer, and at least two are planning services for 2004. Only two conferences have not yet indicated when they will have the service, Daugherty said
She added that “some of the conferences have really been astounding in their plans.” For example, the New England Conference will present a policy statement at its annual conference in June “which would give steps for various organizations and groupings in the conference to continue work for reconciliation.”
Executive of the Commission on Christina Unity, Anne Marshall, said she encourages conferences and local churches to use the study guide before having the worship service when possible.
The purpose of the study guide, Steps Toward Wholeness: Learning and Repentance, is to acknowledge how church structures have perpetuated racism and to learn to build bridges of trust and understanding among people of various cultures. Ideally, groups of six to 12 people each meet for six sessions for study and discussion. The end result is to make "a commitment to continue the journey toward wholeness" and determine what actions can facilitate that goal.
The 2000 resolution, "Act of Repentance for Racism," points out that the United Methodist Church and its predecessors "have perpetuated the sin of racism" for years and need to make amends for that institutionalized racism, particularly against African Americans.
It was racism, for example, that drove African Americans from Methodist churches as long ago as 1787 and led them to form the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal denominations. Even those who stayed were segregated further through the establishment of the Central Jurisdiction in 1939, a non-geographic jurisdiction that was abolished in 1968.
Many conferences have featured speakers from the historic black denominations as part of their liturgical act of repentance for racism. In the Desert Southwest Conference, for example, the Rev. Benjamin Thomas, pastor of Tanner Chapel AME Church in Phoenix, dared everyone present to "take this evening beyond this room." The Northwest Texas and Florida conferences also featured the history of American Methodism and of African-American members in their worship services.
In North Alabama, Bishop Robert Fannin told the Act of Repentance worship participants how the event's planning team, meeting in the conference center cabinet room, had noticed that none of the African-American Central Jurisdiction bishops were included among the pictures of bishops who had served in the conference. Since then, pictures of four of those bishops have been added to the room.
During the service itself, video accounts of the racist past of both Alabama and the United Methodist Church were shown; testimonies were given by African-American church members; and strips of sackcloth were draped over the shoulders of participants.
By Albert H. Lee