This might come as a shocker, but the truth is, families don’t always get along. Someone has said, “Remember Winston Churchill’s immortal words at the beginning of World War II—‘We shall fight on beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills’—that sounds like our family vacation!” Sometimes it also sounds like the Church.
Let me bring it to a place closer, and perhaps more uncomfortable, to home. The most segregated hour of the week is 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.
For nearly 30 years in full-time ministry, I have been blessed to serve on the local, annual, national and global levels of The United Methodist Church. I am gratified to see the progress we have made in overcoming divisions within the church family around race. We have come a long way. Yet I am still continually surprised by the surprise of people who learn that racism is still alive and active in the church family. I continue to be surprised when people are surprised to learn that I, an African American woman, personally still experience instances of racism in everyday life—and also as a pastor in the church.
While serving as an associate pastor in a predominately White congregation, one of the pillars of that church was diagnosed with cancer. One of my roles as a pastor was hospital visitation. The senior pastor told me that gentleman specifically asked that I would NOT come to visit him. While he may have objected to the fact I was a woman pastor (as a woman of color, I find sexism often accompanies racism), the lead pastor and I both knew his primary resistance was because I was Black.
A few weeks later, we were having Communion. In that particular church, people came up to the kneeling rail to receive the bread, and then dipped it in the cup. The senior pastor would go before me, breaking the bread and placing it in the waiting hands of the person kneeling. I would follow with the cup.
I did not know the fellow who had refused my hospital visit was back in church that Sunday. I did not see him kneeling to receive Communion until I was almost upon him. “This is my body, broken for you,” the lead pastor said as he placed the piece of bread in the man’s hands. The gentleman would not look at me. I noticed he was trembling. I could see his eyes were brimming with tears.
As I looked more intently, I could tell this was a man who knew he had done wrong. He knew what had been in his heart was wrong. From the slump in his slight, frail shoulders, and the way his head was bowed, I could tell he was ashamed, and he was sorry.
I also discerned I was more hurt and angry by his rejection than I realized. In that instant, it occurred to me I could easily walk right past him without offering the cup. I could pass him by without sharing “the blood of Christ shed for him.” I could deny this brother the sacrament that he so clearly wanted and needed. No one would notice or be the wiser except him, me—and God.
“The blood of Christ shed for you,” I said. He looked up at me then. Our eyes met and the brimming tears spilled over. He dipped his bread into the cup and I walked on past to the next kneeler.
I believe in that moment, my brother and his sister, Edie, both received some new life. Through that mystery of the broken bread and the cup, that broken place between sister and brother, which had divided, was transformed by Christ. Our kinship as family had been made new.
Racism has been described as America’s “original sin.” Our Methodist history has its share of the less-than-positive when it comes to racism. While we can—and should—celebrate racial progress, we cannot remain silent about the negative attitudes and actions around race, which are alive and well, if more subtle and sophisticated.
Racism is insidious. Racism is an elephant in our collective local church’s living room which we are still reluctant to talk about. As disciples of Jesus Christ called United Methodists, we are uniquely positioned to demonstrate to one another, and to the world, the true oneness proclaimed in Galatians 3:28. Thanks be to God.