By the Rev. Amiri Hooker
Black church leaders gathered in Richmond, Virginia, Oct. 13-15 for the 53rd Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of Black Methodists for Church Renewal Inc.
Under new and changing leadership, the SEJ-BMCR worked to transform the historic organization into a future-ready movement that sustained historic responsibilities but also helped the organization engage the new/now church.
The mission of BMCR is still to raise up prophetic and spiritual leaders who will be advocates for the unique needs of Black people in The United Methodist Church.
Yet this year SEJ-BMCR has had to come to grasp with the fact that the church is experiencing something new. Grounded in the rich and sustaining history of the Black church in the United States and attentive to liberatory movements formed in faith orientations sometimes transcending church bounds, the intergenerational Black church following the COVID-19 pandemic and the American 1619 tri-pandemic looks different, worships different and serves the community differently.
The 2020 killings of three African Americans—George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who died at the hands of police, and Ahmaud Arbery, chased and shot to death by two individuals—sparked a national outcry against White supremacy and institutional racism, a protest that has now spread globally.
And this year SEJ-BMCR understood it had to deal with and respond to the energy of emerging Blackness in the Black Church and Black United Methodist Church.
Bishop L. Jonathan Holston of the South Carolina Conference served as the annual meeting’s keynote speaker. Holston detailed past injustices while also highlighting the loyalty of Black church members.
“In 1939, the Methodist Church, North and South, gathered to unite and promptly segregated its Black laity and clergy,” Holston pointed out. “Then in 1968, the Methodist Church gathered to unite with the Evangelical United Brethren Church and integrate, and the Black church was set in a downward spiral of financial disintegration.”
This is why many in the Methodist Church today that are Black wonder now—as The United Methodist Church seeks to gather to separate—if the Black church should be fearful that any decision made will lead to annihilation of Black expressions in United Methodism. As many, including Holston, have pointed out, “Our extreme loyalty and unrelenting belief that The United Methodist Church has the best interest of its Black constituency at its heart should not be taken for granted.”
The annual meeting asked the annual conferences to support the work of dismantling racism by sending an additional $1,500 per annual conference to provide leadership in those efforts.
The UMC has mounted a denomination wide campaign, “United Against Racism,” that urges its members not only to pray, but to educate themselves and have conversations about the subject and to work actively for civil and human rights. BMCR hopes to resource this platform to engage in dialogue about this most important work from a BMCR perspective.
With all the reports given and the voting and election of officers done, the highlights of the meeting were the worship services and the “church hall” discussion.
The church hall theme was “A Woke Black Church: Reminiscent, Intergenerational and Resilient.” We spent time probing into the concept for a conversation on intergenerational black church growth and development. With the leadership of the Rev. Albert Shuler (facilitator) and the help of the Rev. Vance Ross, the Rev. Nathalie Nelson, laity Mollie Stewart and Dr. Walter Strawther, we also looked at the question, “Are Black Millennials leaving the Black church in search of a practice that is overtly inclusive of our sexuality, ancestral practices and race, both in who we see or interact with in the congregation, as well as the pictorial representation in worship spaces?”
Dr. Byron Thomas facilitated the second church hall as we focused on what the Black church looks like now into the future from a Pan-Methodist perspective. This time was also supported by panelist Dr. Michael Bowie (UMC clergy), the Rev. Kevin Agee (Christian Methodist Episcopal clergy) and the Rev. Scot Moore (African Methodist Episcopal Zion clergy).
The third church hall was also effectual with leadership by the Rev. James Friday and panelist Bishop James Swanson, resident bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference; Bishop Sharma Lewis, resident bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference; Albert Weal, United Methodist Men Virginia Conference president; and the Rev. Millie Nelson Smith, South Carolina director of Connectional Ministries. The primary focus was discussing what creating racial healing circles, anti-racist conversations and jurisdictional conference strategies looks like in current realities.
The SEJ-BMCR seems successful even as the numbers from South Carolina were fewer and many of the participants were already looking to the SEJ Conference coming up a few weeks later.
Hank Dozer and the Rev. Amiri B. Hooker were reelected as vice coordinator and coordinator. The work of ministry was performed, and registrants took something home with them that was life-changing and discipleship-affirming.