Some who read this commentary may have seen a CBS-TV segment about efforts by a class of fifth-graders and their teacher to address an incident of discrimination that happened in 1957. The ‘On the Road’ story aired the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
My wife, Grace, and I told the class at Bear Tavern Elementary in Titusville, New Jersey, about how we were turned away from a lodge in the Poconos on our honeymoon because of our race.
The children responded.
They wrote letters to an executive of the resort built on the location of the lodge that had refused us. The lodge that refused us no longer exists, but the students asked the Mount Airy Resort’s executive to invite us to stay there for our 60th wedding anniversary. His answer was ‘yes,’ and Grace and I enjoyed our three days there.
The fifth-graders responded, not because of their politics, or anything else, but because they felt what had happened was unfair. ‘Fairness’ motivated them to do what they did.
United Methodist Church ‘Un-Fairness’ history informs this Black History Month commentary.
We boast of the early baptism of Blacks in our Methodist history and their membership in St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and John Street Methodist Church in New York.
But it was because of the ‘unfair’ treatment they received in those churches, they left to form their own Black Methodist denomin-ations. They withdrew from St. George’s to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, and from John Street to form the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1821.
Race-based unfairness was at the center of the reasons why the Methodist Episcopal Church South split off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. Debates about the owning of Black slaves prompted the split into northern and southern factions.
Those factions reunited in 1939 at the so-called ‘Unification Conference’ held in Kansas City. That conference revealed Methodism had not come close to doing away with the unfairness of slavery. Rather than creating a denomination that rejoiced in moving Blacks and Methodism from slavery to freedom, it moved Blacks and the denomination from slavery to racial segregation!
Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court declared public school segregation invalid and illegal in 1954, structural racial segregation did not end in the Methodist Church until 1968, when The United Methodist Church was founded through the merger between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
So during Black History Month 2018, as the church observes the 50th anniversary of that merger, where does The United Methodist Church go from here?
First: The United Methodist Church and the United States of America are challenged to move from ‘freedom symbol’ to ‘freedom substance.’ We as United Methodists have in our hymnal a hymn (that if discussed and sung) would make the debates about ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ historically meaningful.
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ No. 519, has been described as the ‘Negro/African American National Ant-hem.’ It was written and is sung to communicate that Black history/ experience is not fully captured in ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ addresses the unaddressed Black history of the national anthem. Every United Methodist church that has the hymnal has an opportunity to have a Black history teaching and learning moment, when it embraces this hymn.
Second: The United Methodist Hymnal has another resource that offers every church an opportunity to explore and learn from black history. William Farley Smith, now deceased, once music director and organist at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Harlem, has arranged 44 African American spirituals that are in the hymnal. Baldwin’s book title was drawn from the words of No. 251: “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”
The theology/ Christology of liberation that is expressed in African American spirituals could be embraced by every United Methodist church in this time when oppression rather than liberation seems to be front-and-center.
Third: The fifth-graders in Titusville, New Jersey, were moved to tears by the rejection that Grace and I experienced 60 years ago. And their tears caused us to cry. If that could happen to fifth-graders, how can the unfairness of discrimination fail to affect United Metho-dist adults that way?
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I believe the fifth-graders as 11 and 12 year olds understood that.
May United Methodists understand it as basic to being a person of faith.
(Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is co-author of Faith At The Intersections: A Collection Of Writings On Justice For Black And LGBTQ Communities In And Beyond The United Methodist Church, and co-producer of the film, From Selma to Stonewall – Are We There Yet?)