Two senior black clergy in the United Methodist in the USA, who are also longtime civil-rights advocates, say there are striking parallels between the struggles of blacks in the 1960s and those of gays and lesbians working for full inclusion in the churches today.
At a 27 April rally held outside the Fort Worth Convention Center where the denomination's 2008 General Conference is meeting through to 2 May 2008, retired United Methodist ministers the Rev James Lawson and the Rev Gil Caldwell spoke of the connection between racism and "heterosexism."
The rally was organized by the national, pro-gay advocacy organization Soulforce to take place on the 40th anniversary of The United Methodist Church's dissolution of its Central Jurisdiction, which was defined not by geography, but race - effectively segregating black clergy and congregations.
Caldwell, former chairperson of Black Methodists for Church Renewal and former co-convener of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, recalled how his Methodist pastor father came home "with a sense of despair" from the 1939 General Conference that established the Central Jurisdiction. He remembers his father telling him, "We are exchanging slavery for segregation."
"How do we get at the fact that we have not walked our talk?" Caldwell asked. "What was the operative theology that allowed these apparent contradictions?" he asked.
Even as the denomination worked toward eliminating the Central Jurisdiction, attitudes were slow to change, Caldwell said. In 1964, United Methodist bishops - black and white together - were turned away at the door of a United Methodist church in Mississippi, he said. That church argued it was "not un-Christian" for them to remain an all-white congregation.
He sees a similarity today in attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, he said. "There is a great need for us to link the 'isms': anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and now heterosexism. They come from the same kind of place."
Lawson, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the architects of the civil rights movement, said that even though the church dissolved denominational structures of segregation in 1968, that action didn't automatically change the attitudes of some United Methodists "who proclaimed the Bible promotes racial segregation. It did not stop them from marginalizing some people in the church."
That attitude was present even among United Methodist leadership, said Lawson. "There were some bishops - and I could name them for you - who did not speak up boldly then for change and who are not standing up now against the poison of marginalizing some people within the church," he said.
They called for a change of heart and attitude among Christians, especially Methodists.
With thanks to UMNS