Advice from a Long-time Champion for Justice

Gil Caldwell is a friend with a life-time commitment to justice and compassion. He knows firsthand the pain and suffering inflicted by hate, prejudice, and exclusion. He also knows from experience the power of the Christian gospel to transform human hearts and communities. Below is a reflection on the current challenges within The United Methodist Church.

“African United Methodists and African American United Methodists; Important To The Future of a United – Not Divided United Methodist Church”

Years ago these words have guided me as a now 84 year old Black United Methodist; “We have no permanent friends-no permanent enemies-just permanent interests”.

The separation of immigrant children from their parents in today’s immigrant struggle in the USA reminded me of another time of parent-child separation: the selling and separating of the children of African slaves in the USA.  And during racial segregation in the American south black children were separated in school buildings and classrooms that Grace and I attended; inferior to those of white children.

Black children in the USA and Africa have suffered in negative ways because they are black. The United Methodist Church many of us believe should be the world’s “Racial Justice Church”.

If we go back as James Baldwin suggested; “Go back to where you started from and tell the truth about it”. (From “Go Tell It From the Mountain”) We who are black Christians remember how a son of Ham- Simon the Cyrenian carried the cross of Jesus to the crucifixion. Countee Cullen the poet son of a Pastor of Salem Methodist Church in Harlem wrote this;

“They twisted tortured then hung from a tree
Swarth victim of a newer Calvary.

Yea-who helped Christ up Golgotha’s track
That Simon who did not deny-was Black”

My bonding as a black American with my black African brothers and sisters started early. When I was a student at all black North Carolina A. & T. College in Greensboro North Carolina 1952-55 I with other students made a class trip to Washington DC. While there we met the brilliant and gifted young Kenyan politician-Tom Mboya. Years after that he was assassinated in Kenya. It was said of him-“He was the best President Kenya never had”. Mboya’s intellect and character made an impression on me as a college student I have never forgotten.

In the summer of 1971, I with United Methodists Cornish Rogers and his family and Thelma Barnes traveled with others to Dar Es Salaam Tanzania for a Consultation of African and America American Church and Government leaders. The late Dr. James Cone was with us. We who were black from the USA were deeply impressed by how President Nyerere and his government had established Umoja Villages where persons as the Bible states; “Shared all things in common”. We from the USA said why not do the same thing in the USA?

And then the month Grace and I spent at Africa University with Dean Yemba-now Bishop Yemba and the students and faculty at Africa University was a beautiful reminder of our student days at our black colleges in the American south. Grace at Bennett College and I at NC A. & T. How sad it would be for the black United Methodist educational institutions in America and in Africa if the United Methodist Church weakened its mission and ministry by dividing!

The February 1988 Circuit Rider magazine published my article; “Courage-Confession-Creativity; Essentials for an Inclusive UMC”. At the time I was Pastor of St Daniel’s United Methodist Church in Chester Pennsylvania. The article was focused on racial inclusion; “Recognize our God-given uniqueness-and embrace our Christ-given oneness!” But the article is timely for this God-given moment in the history of our denomination.

COURAGE: We who are black United Methodists are present as members of all of the Groups that are being described by some as being traditionalist or moderate or progressive. But our experiences as black United Methodists in America-Africa or anywhere else in the world have helped us realize that in each of these groups there is recognized/unrecognized racial insensitivity-at times anti-black racial prejudice; even racism. We therefore in all of these groups pray and work for deeper understandings of the importance or racial justice. Often it takes courage for our sisters and brothers who are not black to resist racism-but many of them do. It will take a United Methodist Church to confront the racism that tragically still exists all over the world. A Divided UMC cannot do that. Only a Church that is United can.

CONFESSION: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his “Life Together” reminds us of James 5: 16- “Confess your faults one to another” My preacher father used to say; “The Church is not a Rest Home for saints. It is a Hospital for sinners”. We can be so focused on what we deem are the sins of others that we ignore our own sins. We separate/segregate those whom we view as “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Martin Luther King in his Letter From Birmingham Jail” writes this about segregation; “It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority”. A Church that would be authentically “United” understands that “The ground at the foot of the cross is level”. Bonhoeffer reminds us “The message of liberation is through truth. You can hide nothing from God”.

CREATIVITY: James Russell Lowell reminds us “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth”. A United Methodist Church for the 21st century stands on the shoulders of the Church of the past. It could not had there been no Church on whose shoulders we could stand. But we will cease to be if we seek to become the Church of the past rather than the Church for the present and the future.

Black Liberation Theology enabled me to remain in a predominantly white Methodist/United Methodist Church. It transcended the theologies that were abstract rather than concrete. It allowed me to affirm a God who through Jesus understood the particularity of Black History and Experience with its tribulations and triumphs. I spoke at both the North Carolina and Virginia Conferences in June about the need for a “Southern Liberation Theology” that addresses God’s presence amidst the tragedies of slavery-segregation-lynching and the triumphs that transcended those atrocities. Black and white southern United Methodists have a “God Story” that all of United Methodism ought embrace.

I end these words with a quotation from Janes Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”. What he writes about blacks and whites applies as well to United Methodist “traditionalists” and “progressives”.

“No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome-for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God joined together-no one can tear apart”. Amen and Amen!

Gilbert H. Caldwell

A retired member of the Mountain Sky Conference
He retired from the active ministry as Senior Pastor of Park Hill UMC
in Denver in 2001. He retired because of physical disabilities resulting from two operations to remove a non-malignant brain tumor. He says of himself: “Although I now walk with a cane sometimes a walker and drive with a left foot accelerator-I as the old folk say-each morning I “wake up in my rightful mind’ and “Write On And Write On!” We must be United Methodists rather than divided Methodists if our “permanent interest” is to “Make disciples for the transformation of the world”. Amen and Amen!

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