Jubilee Freedom Today

January 1st, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

The concept of Jubilee is drawn from the book of Leviticus, in which a year of Jubilee is celebrated every fifty years. “This fiftieth year is sacredit is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families.” (Leviticus 25:10, CEV). During the Jubilee year, social inequalities are rectified, slaves are freed, land is returned to its original owners, debts are canceled, and forgiveness and reconciliation prevail. Jubilee is Freedom that frees one from disgrace! Frees one to claim forgiveness and redemption! Frees one to embrace other cultures and races! And frees one from fear of touching and connecting with other persons who are divinely different but beautifully created in the sovereign image of God.

Since The United Methodist Church has just recently celebrated its Jubilee Year (2018), it is most befitting that we focus on this concept as we approach the 2020 General Conference. After the passage of “The Traditional Plan” at the 2019 Special Session of General Conference and with so many additional plans in the works, it is imperative that the 2020 General Conference and the entire UMC constituency hear and embrace the concerns and positions of Black United Methodists. Many Black lay persons and clergy have been in conversation to identify as many possible options for negotiating the sustainability, security, and preservation of the life and ministry of Black United Methodist Churches.

The continuity of Black Church mission and Black preaching in The United Methodist Church and in the United States stems from a central focus: Freedom! But these exhortations on freedom have had a two-pronged emphasis: freedom from sin and freedom from slavery. Black churches and their ministries continue to emphasize both conversion from sin and release from the oppression, brutality, and dehumanization that continues as a result of American slavery and its legacy of racism.

There are myriad social elements resulting from the horrific injustices of the Diaspora— a term historically used to describe the experience of the Jews who were dispersed from Judah in the sixth century and exiled in Babylonia, but now also used to define the forcible dispersal of peoples of African descent beyond the boundaries of the continent of Africa via the kidnapping and importation of Africans to the United States—and institutional slavery. Throughout the annals of history there is not to be found any institution and practice of slavery as insidious as the system of chattel slavery in America. For many enslaved blacks, the outcome of the Civil War as well as Emancipation was comprehended as a divine event of deliverance. Reconstruction predicted realization of the biblical promise of freedom. But the prediction proved to be little more than a brief glimpse.

With the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision establishing the legality of “separate but equal”, the stage was set for what became known as the Jim Crow South. This system of segregation meant white privilege and white supremacy maintained the South as an economic death zone of tenancy farming for black persons until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s opened the door to a new day. Poor whites were kept at the throats of black communities by the ever-promulgated threat of a “black take-over.” Lynching and rapes maintained a climate of terror that ensured quiet compliance. Crop prices, wage rates, seed credits, loans, tool rentals, etc. were managed by the old plantation families so that wealth and power remained largely centered in the institutions they controlled.

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Generations of such slave-generated and segregationist wealth were used by European-Americans to establish churches and legitimate business empires while disenfranchised African-Americans struggled with the paralyzing effects of legalized discrimination. Even the congressional promise of “forty acres and a mule” went largely unfulfilled. And while John Wesley abhorred the practice of slavery, these insidious acts of racism and discrimination against persons of the African Diaspora shaped and influenced Methodism’s development across the United States. 

An understanding of this early history of relationships among Black and White Methodists is important to understand the creation and elimination of what came next: The Central Jurisdiction. I will not go into detail here but will refer you to three works: Methodism’s Racial Dilemma by Bishop James Thomas; Black People in the Methodist Church by William B. McClain; and Black United Methodists by J.H. Graham with a foreword by Bishop Forrest C. Stith.

With the reunion of the Northern and Southern Methodists, joined with the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939, Blacks were set apart into The Central Jurisdiction to satisfy the prejudices of the South. This was a unique jurisdiction since, unlike the others, it was racially based rather than geographically determined. Although there were other issues, none of them rose to the importance of the question of what to do with black members.

In spite of the prevailing plague of racism and segregation there was no mass exodus from the Methodist Church. Why did Blacks stay and participate in the Church through The Central Jurisdiction in the face of the taunts from other Black churches that they were a part of a “Jim Crow” church? They believed that their presence was important. Bishop Thomas states two reasons:

  1. An “instinctive conviction” that the Church’s historic connection with Black people represented a basic intention to build brotherhood among all persons and that the membership of Blacks would help to achieve this goal.
  2. The vigor of the Church’s outreach to Blacks, beginning in slavery and continuing with the building of schools for the freedmen after the Civil War.

So even now after 81 years, this is a pivotal time in the history of Black United Methodists when some are asking the same question: Why do we stay in The United Methodist Church? There is a call for The United Methodist Church and particularly Black United Methodist Churches to contemplate a direction for our future.

Our great United Methodist Church is struggling with a number of models and structural changes to save itself. As people of freedom, though not the majority culture or color, our voice and vote must count in 2020. Before we are seduced by various factions, we need to remember what our priorities are, and how can we achieve them. This leads us to present the Jubilee Freedom Today resolution[1]:

Now, therefore, be it resolved that,

The 2020 General Conference of The United Methodist Church take action to maintain and enhance our identity as The United Methodist Church by embracing a full and diverse membership which empowers all constituents (lay and clergy), especially racial/ethnic groups seeking to establish and strengthen congregational life; engage in multicultural ministry; integrate diverse congregations and multicultural staff; and create an equitable formula for clergy appointments, including cross-racial lead pastor appointments and extension ministries appointments. This resolution will hold the church accountable to its Global Social Principles and biblical mandates regarding people of color and ministry to the poor as it goes through its transformation to become the beloved community of God all while incorporating the rich legacy, heritage and contributions of the Black Church.

Be it further resolved that regardless of which churches choose to disaffiliate, they may do so under the principles of Biblical Jubilee without penalty, retribution or harm.

In the event that Black Churches and other racial ethnic UM churches feel led to disaffiliate with The UMC, certain conditions encompassing the principle of Jubilee should be in force:

  1. The church’s property deeds be released from The UMC to be legally owned by the congregation under its property deeds as an act of repentance and reparation.
  2. All UMC National Plans and Africa University be fully funded for the next 12 years, no matter what new reconfiguration or shape the church may take to guarantee the survival and growth of remaining, existing and emerging congregations. It must be ensured that the National Plans can continue their missions and have full representation and voice in the policy making decisions of the church. Also, the church will continue to recognize and support the five Racial Ethnic Caucus groups as official entities of the church.
  3. Biblical Jubilee will become the normal practice of freedom and of celebration when every member (lay and clergy) will experience just and equal opportunities in all units and program areas of the church including parity in clergy appointments and lay staffing assignments.
  4. Debts of arrears in apportionments and benefits are canceled for small rural and urban churches that are experiencing severe financial crisis due to such current realities as gentrification, unemployment, aging demographics, etc.
  5. More intentional and consistent programs of recruitment, training and empowerment of youth and younger adults who follow their call of ordained and lay servanthood ministry should be established.
  6. We must grow into being a Global church in polity, organization and spirituality. When conferencing and allocating funds, the Church must consider our unique cultural and political differences—which affect decision making at General Conference—and fund ways to improve communications, cultural competences, global travel, clergy and lay training, and program development.

Black United Methodists continue to dream, to hope, to envision the body of Christ as truly comprised of all God’s children. This hope, born out of our grief, pain and suffering, and our belief in the eternal hope of God, is a transformative hope which takes its historical context from our desire for change. May our hope bear out Jubilee Freedom Today!

[1] The full resolution text can be found at the Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century website: https://sbc21.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/9-18-2019-Final-revised-draft-FA-2020-GC-Resolution.pdf

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