The United Methodist Church has inherent “gifts” that promote diversity, including the Book of Discipline; special-interest groups and caucuses; and scripture married with Wesleyan teachings, said Bishop Linda Lee.
However, the denomination also has “challenges” locking it into structures that still diminish people of color, Lee said Nov. 30 at the Multicultural Conference held at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
“Persons of color are often assigned to conference, jurisdictional, and denominational meetings,” she said, “but they report a general sense of being disrespected.”
The United Methodist Church remains dominated by U.S. Americans of European descent, Lee said. White women make up the majority of membership, while white males dominate the leadership. Meetings are usually conducted using the U.S.-popular “Robert’s Rules of Order,” and adequate translation for non-English speakers is not always provided.
“Presence does not always automatically ensure participation,” Lee told the 130 church leaders gathered Nov. 29-Dec. 1, representing 13 conferences in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
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Persons might occupy seats in the pews or on delegations, but they are often left out of decision-making, she said. When they report that racism is the cause, the complaint is often “dismissed.”
“If we want to change, our power must be redistributed and used differently,” Lee said.
Bishop Lee was the plenary speaker for the biannual Multicultural Conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C. She is now retired after being elected the first African American female bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction in 2000.
Lee referred to two books, among others, while addressing church leaders: “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice” by Paul Kiven, and “Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America” by Joseph R. Barndt.
People often respond to racism concerns, she said, by noting that they are not responsible for atrocities of the past. “We or you may not be responsible for the past but the question is, how are we or you responsible for what’s happening now?”
For change to occur, people must work personally and interpersonally but also transform structures and institutional identities that were created by white males in leadership, Lee said.
“The country has changed since those structures were put in place,” she said, “but the structures were never changed to address the unique needs of a diverse people … Some of us continue to benefit … and some of us continue to suffer.”
Talking about the problem is important (“You are doing something risky right here, by talking about it"), she said, yet the church is also called to “rise up” against injustices of the past. She recommended a process of assessment, commitment, and accountability to effect institutional change.
“Together we can create a church for all people,” she said. “This is a work that has to be embedded in the life of the church going forward ... We are most fully human when others are fully human.”
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