Five African American leaders in the Free Methodist Church – USA gathered June 7 with the Board of Bishops for a Facebook Live conversation, “Talk, Listen & Learn Together,” which has now been viewed more than 24,000 times and shared on Facebook more than 300 times.
Bishop Linda Adams said the church is in a position to speak up about race relations and racism, and the bishops were “in a posture of listening” and “approaching this conversation with ears wide open to one another and to God.” She cited James 1:19–20, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Bishop Keith Cowart read from the 2019 Book of Discipline’s statement on racism in the “Dignity and Worth of Persons” section, which includes the commitment to “lament and repent for the ways that we have been complicit in or failed to recognize acts of racial oppression.” Cowart later noted that some of life’s most painful conversations are with family and added, “If we’re going to confront the dysfunction, we have to have the conversations, and they have to be real, and they have to be authentic.”
Bishop Matt Whitehead said the discussion was “not a one-off conversation,” and he invited everyone to make it an “ongoing conversation” in “every local church, in every Free Methodist congregation. … As Free Methodists, we want to be people who really genuinely hear and then respond.” He also requested forgiveness for the denomination not living up to “the incredible ground of equality that was planted by the founders of the Free Methodist Church.”
Amelia Cleveland-Traylor — a River Conference superintendent, medical doctor, and member of the FMCUSA Board of Administration — said she was excited but also wary of sharing because people often get offended or disconnect when discussing race.
“I am not seeking a colorblind world. I would never even suggest such a thing. Our God is so wonderful and creative that he built us in beautiful technicolor. When you see me, I want you to see the proud black woman that I actually am and say that that’s actually OK, so I’m not here today to be a doctor,” Cleveland-Traylor said. “I’m not here today to be a superintendent. I’m not here today even to be a pastor. I’m simply a black woman who happens to be a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter and hopefully a friend.”
She described the United States as “a hot mess right now” and noted that COVID-19 has infected more than 2 million Americans and claimed more lives than if the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened “35 days in a row.” Then in the midst of the pandemic, she said, “we get to watch a man chocked to death, snuffed out, in a video. We hear about Breonna Taylor dying in her own apartment, and we see Ahmaud Arbery chased down, shot and killed,” and it becomes unbearable when people view their deaths as isolated incidents.
“Jesus’ earthly ministry was marked by His care and His compassion for marginalized people. It’s funny to me how often the church forgets that,” she said. “The church is so incredibly happy and faithful to support hurting people around the globe but not around the corner.”
Michael Traylor, a River Conference superintendent and medical doctor, noted that Free Methodists often highlight the denomination’s abolitionist heritage, but, despite “pockets of isolated cultural ministry,” the denomination has rarely demonstrated an institutional backing with resources devoted to equity and opportunities for people of color.
“A history of being against slavery does not necessarily mean an environment or a culture that empowers persons of color,” said Traylor, who added that Free Methodist opposition to slavery “is something we should celebrate, but it’s significantly different than saying we want to promote people who are ethnically, culturally different and that we see them on the same plane.”
Traylor cited theologian Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ view of the “beloved community” as “a liberated people in transformed relationships coming together to make a new world.” He said that for Free Methodists to “be a liberated people, we’ve got to deal with our own racisms and sexisms and stuff. To really be free, we’ve got to deal with those things.”
Robert Marshall, the lead pastor of Los Angeles Community Church and the director of the African Heritage Network, said the network started because of “a feeling of being alone if you were a pastor of African heritage. There was a feeling of being isolated, and so coming together helped this group of people realize not just its worth but its value to the church at large.”
He said the church needs to hear a prophetic message from God that advances the conversation and results in action.
“In Christ, we are one human race. John [in 1 John 4:16–21] just points out that there happens to be a major difference, even in the church, and the difference is those who claim to love God but don’t; they actually hate their brother,” Marshall said. “Love is not lip service. Love is hard.”
Marshall took issue with some people using the “wrongful death” description for the murder of George Floyd. “It was a slaying. It was a killing in cold blood” by a “white man in authority with his knee on the neck of another man,” said Marshall, who added that he’s not surprised by the reaction of people in the world, but he’s disappointed by the reaction in the church “when my white brothers and sisters refuse to acknowledge what we see and say, ‘I don’t understand why you protest. I don’t understand why you’re so angry.’”
Charles Latchison, the lead pastor of Light & Life West Church and a superintendent of the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, viewed the “Talk, Listen & Learn Together” discussion as contributing to a spiritual breakthrough that is happening.
“If there is any picture of the Lord doing a new thing, breaking forth streams in the wilderness, this is, in fact, one of those streams,” said Latchison, referencing Isaiah 43:19. He added that now is the time for people to evaluate their hearts along with their blind spots and motives.
“To see the protests happen on a global scale like we’ve never seen it before, there is an awakening that has taken place. For us to have this conversation will help that awakening in our churches throughout our denomination,” Latchison said. “Let’s embrace this. Let’s take advantage of this conversation and let’s invite the Lord to do everything He wants to do with something like this, and there’s no doubt that we’ll find a solution.”
Fraser Venter, the lead pastor of Cucamonga Christian Fellowship and a superintendent of the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, said the church’s commitment to diversity should extend beyond celebrating diversity on Sunday and include addressing disparity on Monday.
“I think the Free Methodist Church is poised in an excellent position theologically, biblically and relationally to do a great work, but it’s going to take a deep work,” Venter said. “We need to recognize that it is not right that shepherds have not discipled their people to a depth of understanding the importance of imago dei” (the image of God).
Venter described Jesus as “a brown, homeless, poor man who came to change the world and was lynched on a tree for our behalf.” He added, “Even if I don’t know George Floyd in the flesh, I have to say he is an imago dei. … If this is not moving your heart at such a level, then you’ve got to check your heart and check your relationship with Jesus, because there is something deeply, profoundly wrong when we as a nation would just wait and say, ‘Let me figure out what the crime is before I kind of put a judgment on it.’”
Bishop Whitehead closed the discussion with a Franciscan benediction that Brenda Salter McNeil, Seattle Pacific University’s associate professor of reconciliation studies, includes in her “Roadmap to Reconciliation” book:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done to bring justice and kindness to all of God’s children and to the poor. Amen.
Visit vimeo.com/426966207 to view the video of this conversation. Visit fmcusa.org/bishops061020 to watch an additional video that Bishop Whitehead recorded to discuss racial reconciliation. Another online conversation, “Continuing the Conversation: Disarming Racial Divides in the Church,” was scheduled for June 28 after this issue’s layout deadline. Check the August issue of LIGHT + LIFE for coverage of that event.1