Blacks In The UMC and The USA: "(We) are invisible understand, simply, because people refuse to see (us)” (Ralph Ellison/Invisible Man)

Kendrick Lamar, in a NY Times interview, (3/22/15) says, "For many fans, I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have". And about his, "To Pimp a Butterfly" recording, "It's a record full of strength and courage and honesty”. I, Gil Caldwell, AM a preacher. Here is my effort to talk about black folk, with "strength, courage and honesty."

1. One of my first nationally published articles, "Black Folk in White Churches”, appeared in The Christian Century in February of 1969. At the time, I was the first black United Methodist District Superintendent in New England. I wrote it soon after the United Methodist Church and Black Methodists for Church Renewal came into being, recognizing that the "new" denomination, much like today's first black president, "would not launch a post racial/racist era.” These words represent my sequel to an article written 46 years ago!

2. I have believed and continue to believe that The United Methodist Church, more than any denomination or other institution, because of the downs and ups of black history in the nation and the denomination, has a leading role to play in confronting and transforming the “American Dilemma" (Myrdal) and "America's Original Sin; Racism" (Sojourners Magazine).

3. Sojourner Truth, as she was being ignored by men and some white women, asked for history to hear; "Ain't I a woman?". Amidst the legitimate and needed attention given to the lives of gays and women in these moments, I hear my black brothers and sisters saying in a multiplicity of ways; "Ain't we in need of recognition and justice as well?"

4. Unlike Kendrick Lamar, the musician, whose music attracts attention, much that I write gets filed in trash cans of one sort or another (smile). Last year I wrote about "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates that was a cover story in the June, 2014, ATLANTIC magazine. I suggested that every United Methodist Church ought to spend at least a few discussion moments in response to the listing of race-based challenges black folk have had to deal with, from the "git go" to this moment in our history. If anybody has no understanding of the cumulative collection of injustices blacks have experienced in the USA, Coates' article is a "must read".

5. There are moments as I now observe United Methodism from the sidelines as a retired, old, less-than-able, black United Methodist preacher, I wonder if the UMC is more comfortable with Clarence Thomas-like black UM's, than Thurgood Marshall-like UM's? And in asking this, I write not of the conservatism of Thomas, nor the liberal perspective of Marshall. Some of the most conservative black UM colleagues I have known are bold, brave, and bodacious on matters of race, whereas some whom I have known who are liberal are as quiet as mice, vis-à-vis race.

6. There are some people who are reading this who may ask, "Where is Gil Caldwell coming from as he writes this? I thought he had 'sold his soul' to the gay rights movement and left the black rights movement". My response: ”Forgive them God, for they do not know what they are talking about!" (Another smile). My fear is that black persons like myself who are unashamed and unapologetic about our commitment to gay rights are "scapegoats" for some who use us to "cover" their less-than-bold, black rights activism in the UMC and the USA.

70032862786018symbol7. What do I suggest black folk and all folk do to begin again the unfinished journey to black justice? Recognize that, as is true of all justice struggles, “It takes the complete village to achieve justice". But it is foolhardy to expect folk who are not black to give more energy to the achievement of black justice than the energy we who are black expend. Therefore, black persons and majority black organizations are challenged to challenge ourselves as much or more than we challenge those who are not black. I have, over the years, observed an unrecognized capitulation to the existence of white power and privilege. It is to assume that if white people had the will to do what is right re: black justice, they would. This is a false assumption about, and an irrational acceptance of, white supremacy. I believe, paraphrasing the words from the song in South Pacific, "White people have to be carefully taught, the things to do, and the things not to do, in participating in the journey to black justice." "Teaching" is a cooperative enterprise that requires self confidence in the teacher, love of and patience with the student, and a recognition that, as it was true of Rome, the creation of an understanding of and commitment to transforming apathy and/or resistance to the achievement of black justice does not happen in a day. We began in 1968 with the formation of a United Methodist Church without a race-based Central Jurisdiction, to confront and transform the residuals left by a Methodist history of black slavery and segregation. But the presence of blacks in the UM Council of Bishops and throughout the denomination has seduced black UM's and those who are not to believe that the UMC is post racial/racist, and it is not. The question is not who will be the black UM Bishops elected in 2016, but how "bold about blackness" will the black women and men elected be? 

8. The election and presidency of Barack Obama has opened a window on the continuing presence of overt and covert anti-blackness in the Church and the nation. The "sound of silence" by the Church in response to the subtle and not-so-subtle race-based criticisms of President Obama and his family will be described by historians of this era as being a reflection of the same old anti-black racism that has plagued the nation from its beginnings. We are told that to mention race is to play the "race card", but there seems not to be restrictions on open articulation about the reality of the inequality of the presence and power of women. Is not the absence of blacks in leadership in the industries of Silicon Valley, or as CEO’s, or on Wall Street, or in corporate board rooms, worthy of conversation and correction? Could it be that black presence in sports and other forms of entertainment as performers is so prevalent and successful that presence in other places is an afterthought?

9. My beloved south and southwest! I was born in North Carolina, "grew up" in Texas, and spent a limited time in South Carolina. I have expressed the thought that the south and southwest could provide leadership on matters of race if it let loose those white persons who have been "born again" in reaction to the history and culture of racism. I have found these persons, because of their conversion experience, to have an authenticity not found in those who have not had the experience. But as I look at the statistics of white support for President Obama and his administration in the south (The UMC Southeastern Jurisdiction), I wonder if it is their conservatism, their allegiance to the Republican Party, or the residuals of southern race-based prejudice and bias that makes them anti-President Obama? The SEJ is our largest Jurisdiction. It has made enormous strides racially. I pray that it is not succumbing to a 2015 hesitation about "blacks going too far, and getting too big". 

10. Martin Luther King's last justice vision was called the "Poor People's Campaign.” I remember going to Washington in the month of May following his assassination in April 1968 to visit the tent city established in Washington in the mud caused by rain. The March on Washington was for jobs and freedom. The PPC was a response to the economic inequalities in this most affluent of all nations. Why cannot United Methodists in the USA and the world take the Bible seriously and not literally, and pray about and act upon what the Bible shares re: no interest on loans, a Sabbath Year and a Jubilee Year, as found in Exodus 21 and 22, and Leviticus 25? There is an "Authority" in Scripture in relation to economics and economic life that ought bring together the divisions in the UMC to be in mission and ministry to the economic ills of the 21st century.  If our United Methodist "Parish is the world" (Wesley), we are compelled to practice/teach/preach, economic justice.

Our oldest son Dale has written lyrics for hymns to familiar tunes and books about "The Fruit of the Spirit" words in Galatians 5: 22, 23. This writing was nourished and nurtured by the King James Version of "The Fruit". May these words and their meaning be embraced by all who read, share and seek to implement them: "Love, Joy, Peace, Longsuffering, Gentleness, Goodness, Faith, Meekness, Temperance."


Gil Caldwell Asbury Park, New Jersey A retired African American United Methodist Minister March 21, 2015