By Neill Caldwell
For United Methodist News Service
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. – Leaders in the Southeastern Jurisdiction took up the challenge of churches that struggle with inclusiveness and welcoming during a conference that tried to bring the region’s varied ethnic groups from diversity into community.
At the “Embracing God’s Diversity” convocation Dec. 13-15 at the United Methodist retreat center here, there was a sense of urgency to jump-start years of talk into action, and for the Southeast to take on more of a proactive role across the denomination.
“Across the SEJ we’re tired of talking about a more diverse and inclusive church,” said the Rev. Dr. Carl Arrington, the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s Director of African-American Ministries and one of the organizers of the conference. “We want people of all backgrounds to know they are welcome in The United Methodist Church as equal children of God.”
About 350 people participated in the three-day event, including almost every bishop in the jurisdiction and cabinet members from each conference. Some credited the surprisingly high attendance to the strong support that SEJ bishops provided to the gathering.
“SEJ bishops want to lead this struggle to become a community, and some of us have done some arm-twisting to get many people here who would not normally come to this kind of event,” said Bishop James Swanson of the Holston Conference. “We’re concerned that diversity hasn’t come, and where it has come, community hasn’t come.”
Suanne Ware-Diaz, the Associate General Secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race, spoke directly to the whites who attended the event. “We know that we’re 92 percent white in The United Methodist Church, so we can’t go forward in a ministry of reconciliation without your support.”
Woodie White, bishop in residence at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and former bishop of the Indianapolis Area, said he believed there had “never been a gathering as racially or ethnically inclusive” at Lake Junaluska. The retreat center was for whites only into the 1960s. “I remember what it was so I can give thanks for what it’s become,” White said.
Attendees broke into small groups to participate in “facilitated dialogue” sessions where people had equal time to respond to questions. Listening was the critical factor in the groups, which were formed to be racially and geographically diverse.
“People will change when we get to a place when we open ourselves up to understanding who (our neighbors) are,” said Herb Walters of Rural Southern Voice for Peace, a Burnsville, N.C.-based conflict resolution organization. As an example, Walters said his group has successfully connected with conservative evangelical church members in the area who share a “love for these mountains and want to take better care of God’s creation.”
Walters encouraged participants to conduct similar listening sessions in their local churches and communities. “We need some rednecks in these groups,” Walters joked. “We want them all. But the people we need to reach don’t come. Words like ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ scare those people away.”
In a sermon, Bishop White reminded participants that the church came into being in a totally diverse setting. “How did we miss it (in Acts 2)?,” White asked. “The context is utterly diverse, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic… God said ‘this is the setting… this is how I want it to be.’ In the midst of that diversity something happened. The Holy Spirit came among them and broke down the barriers.
“Heaven will be integrated,” White continued. “I know Hell will be integrated. This (earthly life) is a trial run… if you can’t get it together here you’ll be miserable in eternity. Whichever way you go.”
Representatives of several ministries spoke of their experiences. The Rev. Sylvia Collins, a Native American pastor in the Rockingham District of the North Carolina Conference, said she knew early on that there was a place for her to answer a call to ministry in The United Methodist Church. “The Lord brought me out of the tobacco fields and planted me in a place that is rich with love,” she said.
“At Sunday morning worship I see every pew filled and every pew diverse because of what we believe,” said the Rev. Laura Early in celebrating her congregation, All God’s Children United Methodist Church, a new start near Ahoskie, N.C., that has an equal black and white membership.
Silvia Peterson, director of Centre Latino in Mitchell County in western North Carolina, said that the Hispanic immigrant population will continue to come to the U.S. despite immigration crackdowns because “we all have a dream when we come to this country that this is a land of endless possibilities.” She added that she wishes “we will all listen to the words we say in church and try harder to live out what they mean.”
Bishop Swanson said the struggle for racial equality has continued throughout his lifetime and that he’s concluded that he probably won’t see it happen in his lifetime. “But because I’m a person of hope, even if I won’t get there it’s no excuse to try and make it happen. We are a people who believe in transformation. … When people say that we’re fighting a losing battle tell them they have no choice, because we are children of Christ.”
Neill Caldwell is editor of The Virginia United Methodist Advocate.
View photos of the event here.
Cherokee Bo Taylor leads participants in a dance line during the SEJ's multicultural celebration at Lake Junaluaka, N.C.
Dancer, singer and storyteller Regina LaRoche from Minnesota was one of the worship leaders at the event.