By Gilbert Caldwell, Special Contributor…
The Nov. 6 election expressed how we in the United States intend “to live our lives together.” I use this language because in the Episcopal Greetings in the Book of Discipline it is said, “This is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.”
How do we as United Methodists in the U.S. allow the decision of the electorate to complement and contribute to the ways we agree to live our lives together?
1. The UMC as we came into being in 1968 reflected and was committed to embracing the rich and diverse racial demographics present in the “new” denomination. We understood in 1968 what some in the nation are just beginning to understand in 2012. We, without arrogance, can say to those who are just discovering the richness of our nation’s racial diversity, “We United Methodists have been there and done that.” But, after claiming that we were early for racial diversity, we must ask, “What difference has this racial diversity made in our ‘life together’?”
2. The Democratic Party has been re-shaped and “born again” because of its embrace of racial diversity. And, its success in the election proves that a majority of voters endorse a political party that values the history, heritage and hope of persons who in the minds of some are not traditional Americans. The re-election of the nation’s first African American president is only one of the steps the Democratic Party has made that have been endorsed by a majority of voters. What do we as UMs identify as steps “forward” that the UMC has made because of the racial diversity of which we boast?
3. We as a denomination must ask: “What place and role do younger people have as we ‘live together’?” Regardless of one’s party affiliation or presidential choice, we all must have been impressed by the participation of younger people in the Nov. 6 election. Is there a parallel as we make decisions in the United Methodist Church? If not, why not?
4. Some of us contend that one reason the United Methodist Church birthed in 1968 has not become all it might is a legislative action the General Conference took in 1972. The denomination, after deciding to merge the racially-segregated Central Jurisdiction in 1968, decided in 1972 that the practice of homosexuality is at variance with Christian teaching.
Thus, after structurally embracing African Americans who had been previously structurally segregated, the General Conference focused on gays and lesbians as a class who should be singled out and limited because of their sexual orientation.
5. The Nov. 6 election proved that INCLUSION rather than EXCLUSION represents the future of the Democratic Party and of the nation in the 21st century. Martin Luther King asked, “Why is the church (so often) the tail light rather than the headlight” on inclusion and justice? My hope is that the UMC will not wait until General Conference 2016 to discover ways it can “live together” in and for the 21st century, rather than acting as though a replication of centuries past is what God expects.
The right ‘learnings’
On Oct. 28, I turned 79. In August 2000, while I was pastor of Park Hill UMC in Denver, CT scans and MRIs determined I had a brain tumor. Two operations followed and as a result I prematurely retired at the 2001 session of the Rocky Mountain Conference.
Over the years I have thought of myself, because of my racial journey as an African-American southerner (North Carolina and Texas) whose ministry was lived out in the Northeastern and for a short time in the Western Jurisdiction, as a manifestation of Henri Nouwen’s “Wounded Healer.” I have sought to allow the wounds that are mine because of race to guide me to be a healer of wounds present within the denomination I love. I have tried to be forthright, but gentle, and sometimes have had to be provocative. My small efforts alongside the more profound efforts of others have, I believe, made a difference. But, lo and behold, after the UMC stepped up to the plate and hit homeruns on matters of racial inclusivity, it has since 1972 struck out because of our position regarding homosexuality.
Since the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, I have sought to be an outspoken voice on matters of justice for LGBTQ persons and same-sex couples, and the right of UMC clergy to perform same-sex unions and marriages. I believe more than ever the words of Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
My prayer is that the “learnings” we may derive from the recent election will encourage all of us as United Methodists to understand that, both for the nation and the denomination, we must not be held back by efforts to replicate the past. It is neither liberalism nor conservatism that must guide us. Rather, it is the God whom Charles Tindley wrote about in “Stand by Me.”
My wife Grace and I, as we have remained in our condo in Asbury Park, N.J., a block from the Atlantic Ocean, have been comforted by the first stanza of that hymn: “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.”
Grace and I have daily offered prayers for those who have known deaths and devastation from Hurricane Sandy. Our inconveniences are insignificant compared to what others have experienced. We have discovered after 55 years of marriage that, regardless of storms, a sense of the omnipresence of God is always a source of comfort and strength. May the United States of America and the United Methodist Church accept change, not as something to fear, but as a gift from God.
The Rev. Caldwell is a retired UM elder, one of the founders of Black Methodists for Church Renewal and a former staff member of the General Commission on Religion and Race.