By Erica West
I am the 1%. According to the Pew Research Center “Religious Landscape Survey” of 2015, within the United Methodist Church 94% of Methodists identify as white, and among the remaining 6%, 1% identify as black. While this of course does not account for the rapid growth of the UMC in Africa (about 30% of the 864 delegates at this year’s General Conference come from the continent), it does place Black American United Methodists in a unique minority position within the Church.
As a black and queer person within the UMC, that demographic gets even smaller as the historical tensions underlying our relationship with the Church increase. The relationship between the Black community in the United States and the United Methodist Church is long and fraught with tension - combined with the intersection of queerness it becomes even more complex.
The history of the United Methodist Church and Black Methodists is best defined as one of separation and reconciliation, largely over the issue of slavery. While I am not here to pen a historical treatise on the issue, the Church's internal struggle between white abolitionists, white slaveowners and sympathizers historically drove a wedge between black people and the Church (known then as the Methodist Episcopal Church). This is even more perplexing considering the opinion held by Church founder John Wesley against slavery, which he considered “barbarous.” Despite this, black people were treated as lesser in Methodist Churches across the country. Blacks were not allowed to hold leadership positions in the Church; were subject in some areas of the country to pro-slavery scriptural interpretation; and even had to worship separately from whites within the same church service. The reaction by black religious leaders was to leave the Church and form their own denominations (i.e; the American Methodist Episcopal church (AME) and the American Methodist Episcopal- Zion church (AME-Z)) rather than be treated as second-class citizens. This is living proof of the resiliency of the black spirit to full and equal access to the Spirit.
The issue of slavery and the Church's stance on it went up for debate a number of times at General Conference, the largest policy making body in the United Methodist Church, and the same conference I am currently attending. Black Methodists were made into "issues" and talking points rather than human beings of sacred worth, similar for me to the treatment that LGBTQ people face in the Church today. We will continue to face this at this year's General Conference, and will go on to face it in the years to come (or at least for another four years) unless there is a radical change.
Although the horrors of slavery and the persecution experienced by LGBTQ people are certainly not the same, the ongoing discourse within the church regarding the full affirmation and inclusion of LGBTQ Methodists in many ways parallels its struggle to denounce slavery and encourage the full participation of Black Methodists. Affirmation of LGBTQ Methodists has been an issue raised within the Church since General Conference of 1972 and 1976 (also held in Portland, Oregon). General Conferences 2000 and 2012 were perhaps the most contentious years. During the former, over 200 people were arrested following demonstrations against homophobic policies, and during the latter, the continuation of these policies led to a shut down of the entire conference on the last day. There were talks of schisms over ideological and theological divides during the days of slavery - so too, is there talk of schism for largely the same reasons today.
As I reflect on this history entering into General Conference 2016, I contemplate: What does it mean to be queer, black and United Methodist? To be continuously reconciling multiple parts of your identity? To know there is affirmation out there - in law, to a degree; in a majority of Western society; in other denominations; even in other conferences within the Church - but to choose to abide where that affirmation may not reside? To know the place your spirit has found spiritual refuge is also the place it can find spiritual violence - in a world which is already disproportionately violent towards your physical body? To know where you see progress in full inclusion, some of your brothers and sisters only see division and regression? To see echoes of the past still insidiously lingering on to shape the future?
I attend General Conference as a minority within a minority (not accounting for other aspects of my identity, like my youth). I am the (less than) 1%. I hope to come out of General Conference, as only one percentage: 100%. In full communion with my God, my siblings in Christ, and the doctrine of my denomination which I pray will not force me to divide myself in order to fit in.
The United Methodist Church is not perfect, but it has grown since the days of whites and blacks being forced to worship in separate pews. Perhaps, during this year's General Conference and in the demanding days ahead, some of those lessons learned will be transferred to those marginalized for their queerness. No one is free until we all are free, and we are all free in Christ Jesus. #ItsTime