ALCOA, Tenn. -- The work is hard. Sometimes it leads to confession and tears.
Every Monday afternoon, Bishop Dindy Taylor and her top leaders meet to work on a sometimes emotional self-examination process they hope will lead to permanent change for United Methodists throughout Holston Conference.
Since October 2020, the Extended Cabinet has committed to reading books on racism and then meeting by Zoom to learn more about white privilege and how to dismantle systems that still bind people of color.
Leading the cabinet through the process is the Rev. Leah Burns, an educator on racism and pastor at Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church in Knoxville.
“We make this time a very sacred and confidential place,” Burns said of the Monday afternoon meetings, “with the goal that the cabinet will take the lead on dismantling racism in their districts and throughout the conference.”
The cabinet’s commitment to personally tackle their individual racism before expanding the effort into Holston stems from a denomination-wide campaign announced in June 2020.
The program, “Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom," is a multi-agency effort that includes the Commission on Religion and Race, the Council of Bishops, United Methodist Women, Discipleship Ministries, the Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Communications.
At the virtual Holston Annual Conference on June 27, 2020, Bishop Taylor spoke of the brutal, public death of George Floyd and expressed her own desire to “do more. I want you to do more to make justice and righteousness a reality for all God’s children in every way.”
Haunted by a visit to a memorial to enslaved Black people, the Rev. Mike Sluder saw an opportunity to help make a difference in Holston. He followed up Taylor’s comments at Annual Conference by introducing Burns and a commitment for the cabinet to begin educating themselves about racism.
“We really thought it needed to start at the cabinet level to get their buy-in,” said Sluder.
Sluder, who is Holston’s director of connectional ministries and a cabinet member, said his January 2020 visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, has weighed heavily on him for over a year. He took photos of several memorials with names of Black people lynched in Tennessee and Virginia counties within Holston.
“Some people don’t want to see those pictures because it’s too painful,” Sluder said. “I’ve been thankful for the honesty of the cabinet in their self-examination, to not just look at others and say, ‘They need to work on that,’ but to look at themselves and say, ‘This is where we need to start.’”
The cabinet has read four books together so far, said Burns, including:
- White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
- How to be an Antiracist
- The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
- I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist.
The conversations that follow the readings are at times difficult, said the Rev. Lauri Jo Cranford, Three Rivers District superintendent, based in Johnson City, Tennessee.
“What has been hardest has been the different reminders of the privilege that I have that I haven’t always been aware of,” Cranford said. “We’re trying to be aware of our privilege so we can change things instead of just saying, ‘Eh, that’s just how it is.’”
The “American dream” of always having a path to success through hard work is not a reality for everyone, especially people of color facing barriers white people can’t see, Cranford noted. “It’s been very eye-opening to see the rose-colored glasses image of the American dream versus what so many people live and how being white plays into that.”
White people are often unaware of racism, especially in Holston Conference where some communities don't have people of color as residents, said the Rev. Angela Hardy Cross, a cabinet member and superintendent of the Mountain View District, based in Morristown, Tennessee.
“The pastors and the people tell me, ‘Well, we don’t have that problem because we don’t have to deal with people of color,’” she said.
As the only Black person on the 15-member Holston extended cabinet and a minority among Holston clergy, Cross said the cabinet has a lot of work to do before change can take place in the districts.
“You can put the information out there, but people have got to want to change,” she said. “I can’t make people love me. I can’t make people love anybody, but I can continue to preach Jesus ... and if you call yourself a Christian, well, there are some expectations.”
Like her Black colleagues, Cross has stories to tell about being harassed while driving on back roads or having church members say to her when she speaks from authority, “You’re getting out of your place.”
Burns also has personal stories to tell about experiencing racism in the past and present. However, she said she finds great hope in the cabinet’s insistence at continuing their self-examination -- an especially fitting study for the Lenten season.
Plans are also underway to educate Holston United Methodists throughout the next year through conversations, stories, podcasts, and videos. Two districts, including Mountain View and Tennessee Valley, have already offered “Sacred Conversations on Race” sessions through Zoom.
“This requires a lot of work and a lot of heartache,” Burns said of helping to educate the cabinet and others about racism.
“If I didn’t love it so much -- if I didn’t love the United Methodist Church and what it seeks to do -- there’s no way I would do this. But this is truly my understanding of what it means to be United Methodist. And because of that, we will lead with love.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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