On Human Relations Sunday over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, 30 United Methodist clergy in the greater Cincinnati, Ohio area swapped pulpits to promote diversity and spark dialogue. The pulpit swap was just one outcome of a Circles of Grace conversation, Come to the Table, taking place across this West Ohio district.
Circles of Grace was borne from an invitation by West Ohio Bishop Gregory V. Palmer for West Ohio congregations to engage the broken chaos of our world with the love of Jesus Christ. In a letter to constituents he asserted that we gather in Circles of Grace for in-depth, substantive conversations about the things that divide us as United Methodists.
After the controversial grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, preachers in the Ohio River Valley district noticed polarized responses in their congregations and they began to meet regularly to discuss the developing tension. One African American minister reported harassment from another driver on his way to one of the meetings. Another, whose congregation includes several police officers and public services, shared how these congregants felt misjudged by recent news events. Superintendent Rev. Brian Brown encouraged engaging in Circles of Grace conversations across the district around the issue of racial justice and diversity.
Rev. Peter Matthews (Eden Chapel UMC) and the Lindenwald UMC congregation take a selfie on the Sunday Rev. Matthews preached.
The pulpit swap grew out of recognition that this tension provided an opportunity for growth and transformation. Each guest preacher shared a special message about the ministry of reconciliation as outlined in chapter five of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. “For the love of Christ urges us on...Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” The special message opened with the video How Long, during which the song by Mark Miller repeats the biblical lamentation “How Long, O Lord?” as images of the civil rights movement are juxtaposed with images of protests in Ferguson.
One hope for the pulpit swap was that it would help people of varied perspectives to find common ground. The guest preachers asked listeners to consider different images with common threads: an African American parent worrying that their child might lose their life; a police officer's spouse nervously waiting for them to come home. At Christ's table, everyone's life matters.
Rev. Brian Brown, Ohio River Valley District Superintendent, preaching at Epiphany UMC.
The guest preachers then asked the congregations to imagine a line with numbers one through ten, representing polarized perspectives between police support and police criticism. What number would they identify with along the line? And, for every position on the number line, could they name a person with that viewpoint in their circle of influence?
"As the Church, we have the opportunity to move from the number line of private polarizing opinions and transform it into a table of public inclusive dialogue," says Brown. "It is at the table we learn to unleash the power of diversity, so that all can live out their purpose in partnership with God and one another."
Other events are taking place, such as a nonviolent sit-in at a showing of the movie "Selma" and plans to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march. In addition, a series of four Circles of Grace training sessions called Come to the Table is underway, each led by Matthew Freeman, a diversity specialist and Dr. David Campt, a senior policy advisor for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race.
At the first of four Come to the Table sessions, the 144 clergy and laity in attendance were provided an electronic keypad for anonymous voting on questions designed to spark conversations. The audience – about 66% white and 34% people of color – came to the table after voting and discussed their varying perceptions.
The voting revealed some enlightening differences in perceptions and experiences. For instance, 67% of people of color witnessed racially problematic acts weekly or daily, compared to 23% of whites. There were similar differences across ethnicity in perception of law enforcement. Nearly half of respondents discussed race frequently in personal life, yet only 22% had those conversations frequently in church. The sessions will continue through Lent after which participants will take what they have learned back to their congregations and lead their own Circles of Grace conversations.
“Christ has given all of us the ministry of reconciliation to all,” conference Bishop Gregory Palmer said at the first training session. “It is a ministry that is given to all the body, and to every member of the body. And by God's grace, we can make a difference in our church and in our world.”
For more information about Come to the Table and the pulpit swap, contact rbrown [at] wocumc.org (Rev. Brian Brown) at the Ohio River Valley district office. For information about West Ohio's Circles of Grace initiative, contact dstickley [at] wocumc.org (Rev. Dee Stickley-Miner) or htay [at] wocumc.org (Mr. Harris Tay).
By: Nick Federinko, Communications Specialist with the Ohio River Valley District
Editor: Lisa Streight, West Ohio Conference Communications