For the last two years before I moved from the Chicago area to Indianapolis, I attended the St. Charles Free Methodist Church (now known as Main Street Church) that was founded in 1860 as one of the first Free Methodist congregations. An 1878 church photo reveals the congregation had multiple African American members at a time when most U.S. churches were segregated.
This is the photo I would like to reflect the history of Free Methodism. After all, the Free Methodist Church (which publishes this magazine) launched shortly before the Civil War with freedom from slavery as one of its key principles, and the St. Charles photo captured a commitment to multiracial inclusion.
Of course, diversity in the church isn’t just a matter of black and white. Four women began discussing their faith with Asian immigrants in the early 1900s, and their ministry led to the denomination’s Pacific Coast Japanese Conference that is now a multiethnic movement known as the PCJC Network. Today our denominational Board of Administration is the most racially and ethnically diverse it has ever been, and we have several African American superintendents along with the African Heritage Network and the Red Latina (Latin Network).
However, to quote the Board of Bishops-endorsed “Racial Unity” position paper in this issue of LIGHT + LIFE, “the Free Methodist Church regrettably recognizes equality and unity have not always been prioritized or attained by Free Methodists.”
When I look at photos of Free Methodist annual conferences and other regional and national gatherings from past decades, almost everyone has my pasty skin tone, and I wonder what happened during the decades following the St. Charles photo.
As a boy in southern Illinois, I knew only one African American family in a Free Methodist Church — Gene and Patrean Alston and their son, Paul. I knew that Gene was an administrator in the Alton School District and an assistant pastor at the Alton FMC (the next closest FM congregation to the church my family attended). I didn’t know at the time that Gene Alston was the first African American graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary or that he was not offered a lead pastor position in the Free Methodist Church following his 1961 graduation.
Alston, who died in 2005, is celebrated now as a beloved figure in our denomination’s history. He became a Christian as a boy at a Free Methodist mission in Washington, D.C, and the Peach Orchard Christian Retreat Center and Campground in Maryland is now home to the Dr. Gene R. Alston Memorial Camp Museum. Howard Olver, Alston’s friend and fellow pastor, wrote, “He endured discrimination at the hands of his own church and denomination without bitterness or resentment. In fact, he loved the Free Methodist Church and gave everything of himself that the church would accept.” (Visit fmchr.ch/hsnewsletter to read more from Olver and others about Alston’s legacy.)
What would have happened if the Free Methodist Church fully recognized and utilized the same leadership gifts in Alston that brought him success as an educator in the public school system? How can we ensure that “endured discrimination” won’t be a description of what happens now and in the future within the Free Methodist Church – USA?
Along with the position paper running as our Focal Point article, this issue also offers the wisdom of Bishop Keith Cowart and his pastoral successor, Derrick Shields. African Heritage Network Director Robert Marshall looks at what the book of Jeremiah reveals about “God’s comprehensive plan for us.” Pastors Soo Ji and Joe Alvarez share their perspective as a Korean-Canadian and Mexican-American couple doing ministry amid the diversity of Riverside, California.
I’m thankful for a local church (John Wesley FMC in Indianapolis) that welcomes people of many ethnicities. Together we’re currently mourning that COVID-19 claimed the earthly life of a wonderful saint, Mary Singleton, one of the congregation’s first African American members and the grandmother of Senior Pastor Myisha Uni Cunningham who leads Raven-Brook Recovery Church in Jackson, Michigan. I’d like to dedicate this issue to all Free Methodists past and present who have worked to open the church to people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9) while living “in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16).
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined LIGHT + LIFE in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media.