By Gilbert H. Caldwell, Special Contributor…
As I read the Reporter article titled “Kind words, hugs and pain at event for Bishop Bledsoe,” I had two immediate reactions:
First, I was deeply moved at the expressions of love and appreciation at this North Texas Conference farewell reception for Bishop Earl Bledsoe, who was involuntarily retired.
Too often in the church, we allow our disagreements to keep us from being the people of faith we claim to be. We seem to sometimes believe that differences are compromised when we allow “tender loving care” to come forth.
Second, I believe that the involuntary retirement of Bishop Bledsoe, approved by the South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee and by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference, offers an opportunity to put into motion what I sought to say in my Aug. 17 United Methodist News Service commentary titled: “Church history requires we discuss racism.”
Years ago I began to use various versions of the following: “The discordant music of legal/structural racial segregation may have ended, but the ‘painful melody’ lingers on.” Bishop Earl Bledsoe has not claimed that race or racism was responsible for his involuntary retirement, and because of that, we as a denomination have an opportunity to explore in a variety of ways if race or racism had some role in the decision. We should do this because our denominational history, heritage and hope for the future depend upon it.
Our history as Methodists includes debates and divisions shaped by slavery; by the departure, due to racial discrimination, of African Americans who formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; by the “unification” of 1939 of three branches of Methodism made possible by the compromise creating the segregated Central Jurisdiction; and by the racial struggles that resulted in the integrated United Methodist Church in 1968.
This is a history that must never be forgotten and certainly not denied or revised. But it also makes it necessary for us to ask: “Was the decision made about Bishop Bledsoe racist, race-related or not at all related to race?”
Even though in 2012 we wish that we could honestly say the decision was not at all related to race, our history and current realities do not allow us to make that claim. We have learned in some painful ways that we have not yet arrived at a post-racial/racist time. Thus, all of the church must explore questions related to race and/or racism.
The Letter of James asks this question: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (Chapter 2:1). “Kind words, hugs and pain” ought not be limited to describing the event held for Bishop Bledsoe; they should be front-and-center for all of us as the United Methodist Church seeks “to be the church,” not just in the North Texas Conference, the South Central Jurisdiction or at the meeting of the Judicial Council that will decide his appeal of the involuntary retirement.
Most United Methodists, like myself, have not met Earl Bledsoe, but we know that if our “connectionalism” is faith-based, then all of us are connected to him, and to those who have judged and will judge him. It is in moments like these that we through our attitudes and our actions, our words and our deeds, reflect what we have seen and experienced in the life, message, mission and legacy of Jesus.
We must admit that it took judicial decisions, legislative actions and executive orders—all from secular authorities—to create the environment in which the UMC finally moved from racial segregation. Is it not time for us to be led by the Jesus of history, the Christ of our faith and the mission of the United Methodist Church as we honestly and prayerfully confront and expel the demons of racism that exist within us individually and collectively?
I believe with every fiber of my being that the United Methodist Church, because of our racial history and present circumstances, has a unique ministry “for such a time as this.” I am sure that the committee members and jurisdictional delegates, and Bishop Bledsoe himself, did not anticipate or want all the fallout that has resulted from the involuntary retirement decision. But since it is now “in our hands”—as the staff was in the hands of Moses—let us use the situation for the glory of God by candidly exploring questions of race and racism in our church.
Mr. Caldwell is a retired UM elder in the Rocky Mountain Conference, one of the founders of Black Methodists for Church Renewal and a former staff member of the General Commission on Religion and Race.