Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

Why can't we talk about race?

9/3/2019

Delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2020 pose for a photo after the conclusion of the 2019 Oklahoma Annual Conference. Photo by Meagan Ewton.
By Meagan Ewton

In early June 2019, the General Commission on Religion and Race published an article titled, “VBS is Not Immune to Racism.” The article focused on Vacation Bible School curriculum from Group Publishing called Roar! Life is Wild, God is Good.

The article stated, “individual and institutional biases, blind spots, and lack of intercultural competency” contributed to creating a curriculum that perpetuated racist ideas and sanitized slavery. The author was blunt and direct in their comments, ending the article with the phrase, “Roar! is, frankly, racist.”

The curriculum created a buzz in religious news cycles. News outlets such as Mother Jones, World Religion News, HuffPost, and several local newspapers throughout the country examined its problematic components and identified blind spots in the publishing process. Knowing several Oklahoma Conference churches had already purchased and advertised the curriculum, and realizing it was unlikely that any church would be able to purchase new curriculum at the last minute, I was curious to know how VBS leaders using Roar! would respond.

I decided to write an article for the Contact to explore not only how churches in Oklahoma were responding, but also how the GCORR article’s timing made it nearly impossible for any church, regardless of desire or ability, to change curriculum at the last minute.

With a coworker’s help, I identified churches of various sizes throughout the state that were using or had already used the Roar! curriculum and asked if they would be willing to talk about it. I recognized the challenges this kind of conversation might pose to church leaders, so I invited folks to contact me if they had any concerns having a conversation about a sensitive subject. Two weeks after the GCORR article was published, I reached out to five churches.

Nobody was willing to talk with me.

The Communications Ministry sent out a survey to clergy and Oklahoma Conference staff during the last week of August. The survey asked ministry leaders about perspectives and comfort levels relating to discussions about race. Out of 144 responses:

  • 81.3 percent strongly agreed it’s important for ministry leaders to be able to discuss issues related to race;
  • 95.1 percent said being able to discuss race is important in every ministry context;
  • 72.9 percent disagreed (50.7 percent) or strongly disagreed (22.2 percent) that the Oklahoma Conference prepares ministry leaders to discuss race-related topics;
  • 75.7 percent agreed (45.8 percent) or strongly agreed (29.9 percent) that they felt prepared to discuss topics related to race;
  • 91 percent said the Oklahoma Conference can do more to prepare leaders to discuss race-related topics.

If the vast majority of respondents affirm that discussing race-related issues is important and that they feel prepared to do so, why were church leaders unwilling to answer questions about VBS curriculum? In other words, why was it so hard to talk about race?

 

It’s not a new question. Authors, scholars, artists and theologians have explored this question in much more depth than can be described here. In most cases, a common pattern emerges: white people, especially in America, feel uncomfortable talking about race, so they don’t, which leads to continued discomfort when the next race-related conversation comes along.

Rev. Dr. Joe Harris said discomfort from conversations about race can come from feelings of guilt, assumed accusation, or an uncertainty about how to respond.

“I think it’s difficult to talk about tough issues in the church; we want to talk about love,” Harris said. “We think we’re going back to a conversation we’ve already had, and why should we resurface it? But issues of racism are an ongoing conversation because the issue still affects too many people.”

Harris, who was named the first African American district superintendent in the Oklahoma Conference in 1989, believes Christ calls his followers to reconcile with each other in order to reflect the best the kingdom of God has to offer.

“If something related to race or immigration appears in the news, we may have a short conversation about race, but then we get off it quickly,” Harris said. “The church is required to talk about things that might not be comfortable for us. Christ requires this of us so we can learn to deal with issues in a redemptive way.”

Race is a skin-deep concept that becomes a touchy subject because people have so many differences and perspectives, according to Rev. Tae Won Son, pastor at Korean UMC in Tulsa. He believes racism is faceless but exists everywhere.

“Racism is not just hostility or inhospitality but also fear and nescience,” Son said. “We can’t talk about someone’s race without their social and cultural background. First generation immigrants have language barriers that cause racial misconceptions or prejudice. It’s important in every ministry context because we’re all involved, whether we like it or not.”

Rev. Jennifer Ahrens-Sims, who serves as an associate pastor at St. Stephen’s UMC in Norman, said people can be hesitant to talk about racism because they don’t want to critically examine their own stereotypes or biases.

Margaret Johnson, district superintendent over the Northern District in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, holds up a poster of Ida Beard, an indigenous woman missing from El Reno. Photo by Meagan Ewton.

“I think some people avoid talking about race and racism because they are afraid they will be labeled as a racist. On the contrary, discussions about race and racism should begin with people telling their own stories about encountering difference,” Ahrens-Sims said. “When we begin to tell our own stories, it is the beginning of opening our hearts and minds to consider why we think and feel the way we do. Even if someone does have prejudices, it does not mean they are racist. Telling our stories is the beginning of understanding where those prejudices come from.”

Another potential cause for discomfort is fear of the unknown, according to Rev. David Player, pastor at Guymon Victory Memorial UMC. Player, who came to the United States from South Africa, said he has had people respond to discussions about race with volatility and slanderous comments.

“There’s a whole apprehension from some people because they’re not sure about what is different or foreign or perceived as threatening,” Player said. “Things have changed so rapidly that where we are now is so different from 10 or 15 years ago. There’s a grief or sense of loss that things now are different from what they were before.”

There’s at least one conversation related to race or diversity at Player’s church every week. In one recent conversation, he emphasized the need to offer more than friendliness to people from different cultures.

“Friendly is nice, but people are looking for friends, they’re looking for community, and we have to find that together,” Player said. “We speak different languages, and we come from different backgrounds, but we have to do this together. These are not race-focused discussions, but they’re about getting past skin color or culture or fear of the unknown and instead caring for each other.”

A heightened awareness of racial tensions in the United States has created plenty of fodder and frequent opportunities to start conversations related to race and racism, according to Rev. Valerie Steele, pastor at Highland Park UMC in Stillwater. She believes it is important for leaders in every ministry context to know how to effectively communicate about race-related issues.

“Most of us function in multi-cultural/multi-racial-ethnic settings in much of our everyday life except for in the church,” Steele said. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, ‘eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours.’ He said that in 1965. And, 54 years later not a whole lot has changed. Dr. King called it shameful. We still have much work to do.”

Rev. Twila Gibbens agrees that changing inequalities and addressing race takes intention and repeated effort.

“I want to know where racism is in me, in public life, in systems and be able to listen, or witness when I know of it,” Gibbens said. “The more we engage in conversations about race, the more we will be aware when our ministry context has neglected to consider a racial component.”

Rev. Brett Thomasson, who serves Pawhuska UMC, thinks pastors need to prepare themselves for race-related discussions.

“In Oklahoma, many of our everyday encounters with other people will cross some racial or ethnic lines,” Thomasson said. “Whether or not we meet people of different races in church, we meet them elsewhere and should think about the ways we show Christ in those encounters.”

There is speculation that the racial demographics of the United Methodist denomination make it ill equipped to connect with diverse communities. In 1998, the denomination reported 87 percent of its members were white. By 2008, that number had increased to 90 percent. UMNews reported the dismay expressed by Erin Hawkins, top executive at the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race in 2010: “How relevant is a 90 percent white denomination to a nation that’s rapidly becoming less white?” (From “Church lacks racial diversity, officials say,” published by UMNews on Sept. 20, 2010).

Years of efforts to engage in multiethnic ministry have not yet closed demographic gaps in the denomination. The General Commission on Finance and Administration’s 2017 Membership by Ethnicity and Gender report lists white membership at 89.683—or roughly 90—percent. The same report shows Oklahoma at 92 percent.

For Rev. Carlos Ramirez, the data demonstrates an urgent need for the Oklahoma Conference to address cross cultural competency among its leaders.

“I think conference districts should have strategic plans already, ASAP,” Ramirez said. “We’re already late in engaging these changing demographics. We can be right on time with this, if we start now. Right now.”

Rev. Andre Contino (front) asks a question during a meeting of Hispanic/ Latino Ministries as Rev. Carlos Ramirez (rear) holds a flyer submitted to the board. Both Contino and Ramirez believe the OKUMC should do more to prepare ministry leaders to engage in race-related discussions and cross-cultural ministry. Photo by Meagan Ewton.

When appointed to the conference office, Ramirez promoted the use of demographic tools to help ministry leaders understand their community’s cultural contexts. He also led the cabinet in taking an Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), which identifies actual and perceived intercultural competence in a person or organization. As the pastor for Putnam City UMC in Oklahoma City, he’s helping the church engage in ministries that focus on the well-being of the community.

“Where diversity is booming, especially in metro areas, I think district mission strategy teams should have strategies by now because one way or another, this change is going to reach the churches,” Ramirez said. “Whether you live in Edmond or Norman, change is coming. While you have the power – the people power, the money power, the resource power – you should get ready. Otherwise, it’s going to be too late. Millennials are the most diverse generation ever. If we’re aiming to reach them, we as a conference cannot be only white as we are right now.”

Chris Tiger, the director of New Faith Communities, said the IDI is a good awareness test and can help leaders prepare to have race-related discussions. Though he doesn’t think race-related issues need to be addressed in every ministry context, he does believe they need to be discussed in more contexts than those involving primarily racial or ethnic minorities. He said New Faith Communities takes multiethnic outreach seriously, and the ministry’s two most recent church planting efforts have been focused on multiethnic ministry.

“The thing that I became more aware of is just the blindness that we have in a majority race. You just don’t know what you don’t know,” Tiger said.

Rev. Thomas Hoffman said he started to be more forthright about race-related issues at Hope UMC in Tulsa because those conversations were critical to the church’s neighborhood outreach. He said two families have left the predominately white church because of their discomfort with the conversations, and other families have expressed discomfort as well.

“Many church members still wonder why persons of color do not come back when they visit us, or do not visit at all when we invite them,” Hoffman said. “I suggest that the greatest barrier may be us – not because we necessarily harbor a strong explicit racism, but rather because we’re unwilling to talk about race and about our own biases and assumptions that put up walls to keep others out.”

Rev. Dr. Elaine Robinson believes a lot of good-hearted people shut down conversations about race with the phrase, “I’m not a racist, I love everyone.”

She added that refusing to participate in conversations about individual attitudes and behaviors prevents people from seeing systemic aspects of racism.

“If you think that your ministry context will never encounter any kind of racial or ethnic person, then you are not outside the walls of your church,” Robinson said. “If you look at demographics of this country, you recognize that in the next 20 years the white population will no longer be the majority population in the country. You add to that the gospel imperative to go to all peoples, and we’re not equipped to do that. It’s as simple as that. We cannot stay in our enclaves anymore.”

Robinson co-pastors Village UMC in Oklahoma City with Jay Williams. Williams said he was taught from a young age to work the discomfort of conversations about race, but that desire must be shared by everyone in the conversation. He thinks there are congregations that aren’t yet ready to have those conversations.

“I’m an African American pastor at a predominately white church, so the conversation comes up literally every time I preach. Me being there is a conversation about race, if I’m honest,” Williams said. “I think so many people see multicultural ministry as a sub-sect of ministry when actually, if we are truly seeking to diversify our churches, and if we truly want to bring in brown and black people, we have to be having these conversations every day.”

Conversations around race can start with depictions of Jesus. Jay Williams intentionally uses images that highlight a range of races and ethnicities as a way to engage his congregation in race-related subjects. Photos by Meagan Ewton.

One race-related conversation Williams has noticed is the seemingly limited opportunities for pastors of color in Oklahoma churches. The subject was broached during an April 2018 event organized by race-related conference committees and featuring Bishop James Nunn, who listened to dozens of questions and concerns voiced by attendees of diverse race and ethnicities. Days later, the bishop announced Rev. Victor McCullough, who had served Quayle UMC for 10 years, would be the next Heartland District Superintendent.

“It’s concerning that we don’t have African American or Latino pastors at many large congregations, and what’s that doing for those other congregations? They’re missing out on a whole level of culture that’s beneficial,” Williams said. “I’m concerned about that, especially being a young person of color in the conference. Churches like Quayle UMC are great, but I don’t like that we’re limited in a way that our white siblings aren’t.”

Conference leaders like Rev. Derrek Belase, the director of connectional ministry, recognize the need for church leaders and laity alike to be able to engage multiethnic communities. He said many churches he’s worked with have demographics that don't reflect the diversity in their communities.  

“If we go to the local school or go to a basketball game or a theatre presentation, we realize our communities have a tremendous amount of diversity that we just can’t see when we’re inside our churches,” Belase said. “For a church to say, ‘I don’t need to talk about issues of race or ethnicity,’ actually says just the opposite. We do need to talk about it because race is present in all of our communities across our state.”

Belase said the ways the Oklahoma Conference has engaged in race-related discussions has ebbed and flowed over the years. He said he is excited for the work he sees taking place among pastors and lay leaders working to address race-related issues.

“We are working with a group of committed leaders who are helping the conference see a new way of organizing our racial and ethnic ministry committees and ministries in a new and innovative way,” Belase said. “This will assist leaders in these conversations… I believe we are moving in the right direction.”

Rev. David Wilson, who leads the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, said he encounters race and racism in conversations so often that not much surprises him anymore. He believes the most productive way to engage those topics is to build real relationships with people of different ethnic groups. He said genuine relationships make conversations less combative, which in turn makes those conversations more comfortable.

“I have been most pleased with the way in which leaders from both conferences engage in meaningful relationships and conversations,” Wilson said. “That has only been productive because of the intentional time and energy that we have put into creating and developing relationships that have built both trust and the ability for us to really talk about issues of race and racism. It has not always been that way, and it has taken years of intentionality to make this happen.”

Wilson cautions against trying to reach diverse communities for the sake of having diversity. No cookie cutter option will work for every context, so he encourages honest discussion using resources that will be helpful for all involved. One small group study he recommended was “Who is My Neighbor,” which examines the history and impact of Native American Methodism in Oklahoma.

“We talked about the importance of OIMC in being the Mother Church of Methodism and how the rest of Methodism in Oklahoma came as a result of that,” Wilson said. “We were in a safe place to ask poignant questions and I appreciated how much the class was engaged in the conversations. The study guide and video would be a great way for folks to start those conversations.”

For Harris, the ability to talk about race and racism translates to an ability to engage a variety of hard discussions, including human sexuality.

Rev. Joe Harris is recognized during the Oklahoma Annual Conference for his service at the 2019 Special Called Session of General Conference. Harris was elected as the legislative chair by 51 percent of delegates. Photo by Meagan Ewton.

“I think for me the question is, how do we deal with controversy in the church, no matter what the subject is? That’s always difficult in a church that wants to love one another but wants to avoid tough subjects,” Harris said.

Harris, who chaired the legislative committee during this year’s Special Called Session of General Conference, believes the ability to have hard conversations with Christian love was what John Wesley was describing with the phrase “holy conferencing.”

“These aren’t issues we can’t resolve, but it’s hard for me to be in a church that claims we love everybody and that we have a redemptive answer for everybody, but not be able to deal with hard subjects,” Harris said. “That doesn’t mean we have to convince everybody of the same thing, but we do have to be able to have the conversations, even if we don’t agree on the solutions.”

Even in the absence of ethnic or racial minorities, ministry leaders have to know how to engage in hard conversations, according to Rev. Travis Ewton. He believes the ability to engage cross-cultural boundaries is a gospel issue rooted in seeing the image of God in others.

“Even if your community is completely homogeneous when it comes to race, it is not monocultural,” Ewton said. “You cannot expect, especially today, that a 15-year-old and an 80-year-old come from the same culture, even if they have the same skin. They have vastly different experiences, vastly different influences, and vastly different access to the outside world. Learning to engage race helps us learn to engage other cultures.”

Many pastors believe the Oklahoma Conference can or should do more to prepare leaders to engage in cross-cultural conversations or ministry. Rev. Andre Contino believes connecting with others across cultural differences to show the love of God is central to the gospel and to the survival of the church. He emphasizes that conversations alone are not enough; they must be accompanied by meaningful action.

“It goes beyond race. Whenever you are in a minority group and people let you talk about it, what you see, what you experience, it’s not just enough to talk about it,” Contino said. “The truth is, after the discussions, the realities stay the same. Then it feels a little worse than before, because now people don’t have the excuse of not knowing.”

In the end, the data shows that Oklahoma’s ministry leaders feel prepared to engage conversations about race and recognize that Oklahoma ministry leaders need to improve how they engage race-related subjects at the church, district, and conference levels. However, experience demonstrates conversation alone is not enough. Until pastors and laity alike are ready to have discussions that go beyond the hypothetical – until people can talk about something simple like VBS curriculum – there will be little opportunity for the conference or denomination to meaningfully engage in ministries related to race. §

 

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