It’s Black History Month, generally a time to recognize achievements and celebrate legends.
But last October, a diverse group of 14 representatives from the Florida United Methodist Church conference traveled to Hampton, Va., to observe history that was haunting, disturbing and sobering.
Ultimately, they hope the experience will be liberating.
Sharon Austin, the conference’s Director of Connectional and Justice Ministries, said there was obvious symbolism at the 2019 Christian Unity Gathering, which commemorated the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans at Old Point Comfort.
They gathered near the water at the exact 1619 demarcation point of the “White Lion,’’ an English privateer that transported “20 and odd’’ Africans, who had been captured from a Portuguese slave ship. Colonial officials in Virginia traded food for the slaves.
“As we stood there, I told my husband, ‘Everything we have experienced in our lives that reflects racism overtly or had racist overtones, it started right here,’ ” Austin said. “There was no mystery about it. It was an opportunity to think about what our grandparents and great-grandparents endured.’’
It was an eye-opening time for all involved.
“It’s not a fun conversation to have when you are acknowledging racism and our dark past,’’ said Alejandra Salemi, a native of Colombia, who is a social justice intern and a University of Florida graduate student.
“I can’t pretend I understand what it’s like to come from a lineage of enslaved people. I don’t know if any of us have been properly educated about the harm done to these people and the harm that still continues.’’
Geraldine McClellan, a retired elder and the first African-American woman ordained in Florida called it a “painful experience.’’
“And it’s painful to know that some unfairness still exists. At the same time, it was a renewing feeling to see that some folks haven’t forgotten,” she said. “There’s still enough work to go around for all of us if we would only be intentional. We can undo it and identify it if we’re honest and open. The dismantling of it comes easy if we’re able to do that.’’
For Mary Mitchell, pastor of Bartley Temple UMC in Gainesville, the trip was emotional.
"Just the thought of it. The whole experience was an eye-opener,” she said.
“The fact that people are ready to talk is very significant. We’re having tough conversations. Just the fact that a group took the time to put this together, to me, that’s a form of progress.
You have to talk. Talking starts the process.”
The church should have a major role in confronting racism by following the example of Christ.
“We say we love God and can embrace that. If we can’t embrace each other, how can we expect our communities to embrace if they’re not seeing it happen at the church first. But I feel that the church is behind on the issue,” Mitchell said.
“When I worked for the sheriff’s office, this was an issue we dealt with on a regular basis. We had trainings and yearly certifications. Then I come to the church and it’s something that they haven’t even touched the surface of. There’s nothing in place for that. The church should be at the forefront, but instead the secular entities are way ahead.”
Officially, the National Council of Churches called the event “Ending Racism: Confronting our Past, Revisiting our Present, and Naming God’s Preferred Future.’’
For Austin, the event was an entry point into a larger issue.
“The big takeaway picture for me was we live under the guise and the oppressive shadow of the past realities with which we have not reckoned,’’ she said. “We put a gloss over them and that makes our present reality something less than honest. We have words and phrases in the church that suggest inclusiveness, but we don’t really live that.’’
In 1939, there was formal church segregation of African Americans through the Central Jurisdiction, but that ended with the 1968 merger that created the United Methodist Church.
But Austin said racism doesn’t automatically evaporate with a merger. The UMC — and all churches — must be leaders and advocates for doing the right thing.
“The work and passion we have around the social justice ministry, please understand that this is not a boutique ministry,’’ she said. “This is not something we do in our spare time. It is at the heart of the Gospel.’’
McClellan said the church must seek real solutions, not public relations band-aids.
“We have these services of repentance and for me, they have become a joke,’’ McClellan said. “There’s no meaning there and we don’t get beyond that. It’s almost like, ‘We’ve done this (service), hopefully that will satisfy them.’
“The church ought to be the leader when it comes to racism (solutions). It should not wait on community activists or the mandate of commissioners and governors. Those who call themselves disciples of Christ — remember the words ‘When you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me’ — should be opening the doors of God to God’s people. Some people seem to think, ‘It’s all over … you’re not part of us (UMC), so what’s the problem?’ Well, the inequities are still there and it’s there for African Americans, Haitian Americans, Korean Americans, lots of cultures. They are left out.’’
Salemi said she viewed the trip to Virginia as a valuable educational experience. She also said she had a unique perspective.
“I’m not African American, but I have not identified myself as white, either,’’ Salemi said.
But even on her college campus, Salemi said she has felt discrimination and marginalization.
“I’ve had people tell me to my face that affirmative action is wrong and it’s keeping deserving white kids out of college, while suggesting I wasn’t smart enough to get into college on my own,’’ Salemi said.
“Some people assume I’m some kind of expert on Colombian culture — or Mexican culture or Brazilian culture, like we’re all lumped together. People have asked me if I speak Spanish, then they start speaking it very broken or very entry level, and I don’t need to be some show monkey and speak Spanish in front of them. It’s a very uncomfortable position. Ignorance is not an excuse to be harmful to people.’’
Salemi, a UMC member, said she would like her church to assume more leadership on racial inclusion issues.
“When I hear someone asking, ‘What should the role of the church be on racism?’ to me, it’s like asking ‘What should the role of the church be in making disciples?’ ” Salemi said. “It’s our job. The United Methodist Church is littered with a lack of inclusion and that’s another symptom of the greater issue.
“You could say that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. We’re unwilling to meet people halfway and know that we’re worshipping the same God. There are so many layers to it; education, leadership, bridging gaps in the community. Also, conversation. We have to talk about it. And these are hard conversations.’’
Austin said the trip to Virginia was more than symbolic. It was the start of a conversation.
“The purpose for this (trip) or our work is not intended to just lambast a heinous past,’’ she said. “I hope people understand how horrible it was and they can find out with a few (computer) mouse clicks. The bigger question is: Are you accepting of the status quo? Or are we in the church going to be part of what God is doing in the world?
“You want to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. That good news includes every single person and group that society often says are on the outside. While we’re pushing people away, Jesus is saying, ‘Come.’ We have to figure this out as a church. You can crack the door and say, ‘We’ll let you in.’ But if we’re really going to do the work, let the door be flung wide. There’s enough sin out there. We need everybody who wants to be part of this (church) to be part of it.’’
--Joey Johnston is a freelance writer in Tampa.