The White Echo-Chamber

I’m offering these reflections honestly, as part of my own thinking and growing, and to share what I see. I’m claiming no special awareness or insight, and I really don’t want to compare how enlightened I am to anyone else. Spoiler: not very. You probably have more non-white friends than I do, and that’s cool. My self-reflection is about what I can learn about myself, and how I can do better.  

hands children black whiteAs part of my preparation for the Board of Ordained Ministry meeting next week, I read this article, which in turn references this study, and states “in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.”

This made me curious. I used my Facebook friends list, which inflates my friends in both number and diversity, by including people who would otherwise be separated by geography. Still, it’s a sample set I could easily identify. I know it’s not a perfect or scientific exercise, but it’s a place to start.

I have about 840 friends (excluding duplicate accounts, people’s pets, and group pages)
35 people– 4%– are people who are black. An additional 41 people are non-white members of other ethnicities (5%). In total, 76 of my Facebook friends (9%) are not white.

As I reflect on this, several things come to mind.

1. My shelter and privilege– and loss– as someone who has lived primarily in 95%+ white communities. I grew up in a town of less than 1000 people. In seminary, I looked back at some demographic information from the 2000 census in the larger town nearby, the place where I went to high school. There were listed on that census “African American: 6.” Six people. In the whole town. I knew the names of all six. I don’t think that’s a good thing; homogeneous communities don’t help individuals learn about much beyond their own experiences. And while I did learn a little from the experiences of at least three of those six people– black men as close as family– nothing can undo the whiteness of my childhood. It’s not bad, per se. It just is. Compared to my friends who have lived in more populated and diverse areas, I start farther back on the line when it comes to seeing, owning, and dismantling my privilege and racism inherent in homogeneity. 

2. The tremendous gift of friends who have shared their experiences with me so I can see beyond the blinders of my social location. I’m embarrassed, looking back, by the ignorance of my questions and lack of understanding when I did venture into the wider world. In college and then again in seminary in the Boston area– my first and only daily contact with an actual city– I was a well-intentioned but largely naive white girl. I know that no one was under any obligation to be patient or loving with me as I blundered my way through that early awareness. And yet, time and time again, I’ve been met with people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds who have been patient, kind, long-suffering, and honest, people who have let me make mistakes and called me out gently but clearly. That’s not the responsibility of people of color, to educate and pull along their friends and classmates and peers. Each time, it is a vulnerable, unmerited gift. Thank you.

3. Where I see color, and where I don’t, and what that might mean. This is not something I’m proud of by any means, but it’s something I observed. Fascinatingly, as I was going through my friend list, person by person, looking at profile pictures and calling to mind friends by name, I noticed that there are some people whose ethnicity I instantly think of, while others I only was able to identify as non-white after thinking intentionally about it. Family members topped the list, followed by friends who are bi/multi-racial, and then followed by Facebook friends who I know in a particular role or function. What does this say about the times I “forget” the ethnicity of persons in my circle? That the role of family or of function is the primary category for my brain while skin color is secondary? That bi/multi-ethnic persons suffer the same erasure in my consciousness that these friends have also reported in their lived world experience? No conclusions here, but a hard thing to look at for me.

4. The choices I have made and can still make about where and how I make and keep friendships that shatter my echo chamber. Living outside Boston in a duplex instead of as a single person in an apartment downtown, trying to make friends “as a couple” with my first spouse, being immersed in the dominant cultures of the towns in which I’ve lived: these have increased the number of friends I have who look (and think and act) like me. Intentionally staying in touch with people I’ve met on travels, getting out on my own, looking for the people on the margins of my communities with whom I might actually have more in common: these are choices that have increased the diversity of my friendships in every way when and where I’ve made them. And the good news is, I get to pick how I approach the world, so I can continue to do the latter.

But number five is the beauty. 

5. The church is the place where I have broken out of my echo chamber. I realize that for some, the church is a homogenous, white, straight, middle class institution. Certainly for some, the church is less diverse than the rest of their lives. But for me, the church, The United Methodist Church, is a place where I have come in contact with and relationship with more people unlike me in every way, including ethnicity. When I look at those 76 people who are not white, nearly all of them are people I know through church— mission trips, the worldwide UMC connection, local connections and friendships that bring me into places and into the lives of people where I might not otherwise go. The church has made my life richer and fuller, given me colleagues and friends that I would not otherwise I have met, and opened to me a world of connection and grace that would never have been possible for me without it.

For all its faults, the church has given me the extraordinary gift of a life that is broader than my own context. It’s incomplete, but that’s a beautiful kin-dom.

D.C.-Bound

washington light on hillThis week, I am heading for Washington, D.C., to the United Methodist Building. Did you know that The United Methodist Church owns a building next door to the Supreme Court? We do, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s the home of The UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, and there I will be receiving some training for my role as the Chairperson of the Annual (regional) Conference version of that same body, and then attending a Consultation on the Social Principles.

It’s that latter part of the trip that has me very excited.

The UMC’s Social Principles are not church law, but rather the denomination’s statements of reflection and position on issues of social justice or concern in the world. The United Methodist Church, a global denomination, struggles to agree upon and live out such important statements in a widely diverse and multi-cultural global context. Recognizing this, the 2012 General Conference entrusted the Board of Church and Society to develop a process and a set of recommendations for reimagining the Social Principles in a 21st-century, global context. These consultations, held all over the world, are bringing together members of The UMC to pray, discern, reflect, and dialogue together about how we might live into that calling in this time.

I’m excited and honored to be a part of this conversation. I think it is a hopeful and necessary step in our denomination’s role as a vital and relevant denomination today. If we are to continue as a church, we must be connected to the justice concerns of our time, in a way that is sustainable, contextually relevant, and grounded in our heritage and theology as United Methodists.

But it’s more than that. I believe that conversations along these lines hold some of the answers to the debates within the denomination. My experience at the 2012 General Conference on the reproductive rights subcommittee taught me something amazing: when people of diverse opinions gather, hear one another, share deeply, and then turn their hearts to what they can agree upon on a very controversial issue, God’s work is done. We found, every time we tried to proscribe local, contextual action about abortion, that we were unable to agree. But every time we articulated what we values and believed about human life, parents, babies, families, and so on, we could agree. Around the world, across the political divides, we were united in our convictions and principles, but divided on how those played out. And if our polity (church governance) structure allowed us to live in this way, I believe we could be both more united as a body, and more contextually nimble and relevant to carry out ministry in all times and places.

This week, I am praying for vision for The United Methodist Church, and for new hope and connection as we gather and dream and discuss and discern. In invite you to join in that prayer.

An Invitation from the New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church

Here is the full text of the motion I made, as amended and adopted by the 2014 session of the New England Annual Conference:

An Invitation

The New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church strives to be an inclusive conference that celebrates, develops, and affirms God-given gifts for lay and ordained ministry. We commend our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry in their work of discerning wisely, fairly, and prayerfully the readiness and effectiveness of those seeking to be accepted as candidates, commissioned as provisional members, and ordained as deacon or elder.

Whereas, we oppose all forms of personal bias and discrimination, including institutionalized discrimination written into our Book of Discipline, as criteria in evaluating potential clergy members, even as we confess our complicity in systems of exclusion;

Therefore, be it resolved, that the New England Annual Conference affirms the following statement:

We believe God calls all persons to lay, and sometimes LLP, Associate Member and ordained ministry. We grieve instances of systemic discrimination, prejudice, and unjust practices that cloud the discernment of this call within The United Methodist Church. The New England Annual Conference extends our invitation to people who wish to explore if their call to ministry might be affirmed and/or lived out in the New England Annual Conference.

While we do not promise to accept such persons into candidacy or membership, we do promise to discern in the Spirit with justice, fairness, and consistent standards to the best of our ability, and we entrust our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry to act accordingly.

Be it further resolved, that the New England Annual Conference encourages its churches, Board of Ordained Ministry, and/or District Committees on Ordained Ministry, upon request from a candidate/potential member, or an individual inquiring on their behalf, to extend a written invitation to individual ordination candidates or potential members, inviting them to apply for membership in the New England Annual Conference, in accordance with Disciplinary and Annual Conference requirements.

In the 18+ hours since this motion was adopted, I have already been moved and amazed by the statements of relief, thanksgiving, and joy from those who have been marginalized and harmed by The United Methodist Church. I’m thankful to have been part of this action of the Conference, and hope and pray that this might be the beginning of a new chapter for New England, for those living at the margins, and for The United Methodist Church. Justice and joy, friends!  – Becca

 

A Call for In-Home Separation

house dividedPerhaps I thrive in what others call “broken homes.” Not that I’ve had a lot of choice in the matter. A child of one divorce and a participant in another, it seems that separation is just part of my life. I can rage against it or not, but it simply is.

I live in a church home that’s divided too.

The United Methodist Church, like so many others, seems on the brink of another schism, this one over questions of homosexuality: whether open and partnered gay and lesbian persons can be ordained and serve as pastors, and whether United Methodist clergy and churches can participate in the blessing of “same-sex” (whatever we eventually decide that means) weddings. Recently, 80 mostly-anonymous traditional clergy people called for an amicable separation of the denomination, citing, like any good celebrity, irreconcilable differences. Responses have included people pledging unity, recalling the importance of honoring our vows, and calls for staying together no matter what, for the sake of our children (our ministries/the people being served by ministries).

Painful as it is for me to flog to death the metaphor of marriage and divorce, having traveled that road myself, there is something that I think we can learn from couples and families who try to live in their differences together as a way of avoiding, or of discerning in the lead up to, divorce:

The value of in-home separation.

For some couples, there are just a few things that they simply cannot talk about, work out, or engage in together, yet their shared resources, family, and life together might still work well. These couples opt for an in-home separation, sometimes as a time to work on their differences and attempt to come to reconciliation together, sometimes to remain in the same space while they do something for a time (like raise children, or run a business together), and sometimes when reconciliation fails, as a stepping stone to more literal separation. This typically involves some shared space and some individual space, and a set of agreed upon guidelines.

Before we file the papers for the Great Divorce of The UMC, I’d call us to deeply consider how we might live together in one home, in the midst of our divisions. As Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck writes, “Having watched countless couples work for an amicable separation, it doesn’t look like too many can pull it off when it just involves two people, much less 11 million.” Perhaps it’s worth it to try for something less than full separation, at least at this time. I think there are several ways to accomplish this (and that’s fodder for plenty more blog posts), but to me the most promising involve the creation of an United States (or Jurisdictional) Central Conference/s, and a two-volume Book of Discipline, with the option of emending the second volume in each Central Conference. Kind of a way, I hope, of holding together those things we do well– our ministry and mission, our Social Principles (SOME of them– I’ll get to that), our ways of funding and equipping local ministries across the globe– and allowing one another the grace and space to carry out our ministries in our contexts. As Wesley would say, in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.

How and when does in-home separation work well?

  • When all parties agree to it (this could take some time to accomplish)
  • When there are agreed-upon, possibly mediated, guidelines about whose space is whose (like which powers belong to General, Central, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conferences) and how those guidelines will be respected
  • When there is the possibility to put on hold conversations or arguments that the parties know they can’t resolve now. If a couple cannot discuss sex without screaming at one another in front of the children, then they need to take a break from discussing it outside of the structured counseling/mediation setting until they grow up have some new perspective.
    THE SAME IS TRUE OF THE CHURCH. 

When is in-home separation not a good idea?

  • When abuse is present.
    And I think we need to ask ourselves if such an in-home separation is possible, because in the church, the maltreatment of LGBTQ persons is abusive and dangerous. Many persons who are LGBTQ and allies have already left the “home” to escape the abuse suffered there– in local churches, in Conference structures, in the Social Principles– and avoiding all conversation while the patterns of abuse remain unchallenged serves the abuser, not the abused. Can an in-home separation be wide enough to create space for safety? Can there still be conversation to address, call to question, and begin to change the unjust and harmful dynamics of this relationship? I hope and pray it’s not too late. I hope and pray we stop yelling long enough to find out.

What do you think? Can we children of a broken home give one another the space to live together?

What’s Next?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOne of my favorite parts of the tv show “The West Wing” that seems realistic to me is the refrain “what’s next?” Used to change the subject, to close a conversation, to carry on with work, to recommit to tasks at hand, these two words return again and again in the script as the characters move from one seemingly completed hurdle to the next one already bearing down on them.

That’s my question today: what’s next?

Much of the progressive and moderate United Methodist Church world rejoiced today as the New York Annual Conference took a bold step. Before them: the matter of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree, the scholar, theologian, elder, and father who officiated at the wedding of his son and son-in-law. In this case, however, although the matter was referred to trial, it was sent back to the counsels for the church and for Ogletree (Revs. Tim Riss and Scott Campbell, respectively), for a just resolution. That resolution was announced this morning.

In summary, as part of the resolution, Rev. Dr. Ogletree has relinquished his right to a trial by his peers, and New York Annual Conference Bishop McLee has made a statement calling for the cessation of trials. Bishop McLee will convene a forum on human sexuality, and Rev. Dr. Ogletree will attend, his health permitting. From the resolution, and as I blogged at NewWineskins (a project I’m working on with many others in the New England Conference of The UMC– you should check it out!), they said:

“As the Bishop of the New York Annual Conference, in consideration of my responsibility to provide spiritual, pastoral and temporal oversight for those committed to my care, I call for and commit to a cessation of church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies and instead offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation.” -Bishop McLee

“In recognition of Bishop Martin McLee’s publicly stated intention to approach the matter of marriage equality in a non-juridical manner, but instead to offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical reflection, I hereby relinquish my right to a trial on the charge that has been brought against me for officiating at a same gender wedding ceremony. I further agree to make myself available, health permitting, to participate in the above-mentioned Forum that Bishop McLee will convene.” -Rev. Dr. Ogletree

And there was much rejoicing.

Or was there?

As with any compromise, everyone gets a little of what they don’t want. For traditionalists, the lack of trial seems like a weak slap on the wrist or lack thereof; there will be no punitive consequences for Rev. Dr. Ogletree, and he is asked to share his opinion and expertise. For progressives, queer United Methodists and allies, and those hoping to see the church’s language overturned, this stops short of such action and returns us to the rhetoric of conversation, which has been the painful status quo for the past 40 years in the church.

And so it is a mixed bag today. A huge step forward. Charges dismissed. Relationship valued over legalism. An active Bishop joining the ranks of those calling to stop the trials. That Bishop now bound by this agreement to find just resolutions moving forward.

But. Sometimes trials push an issue that needs to be addressed. Many feel the time for talking is long gone. And the discriminatory language of the Book of Discipline remains, and with it the prohibition not only against ministry to LGBTQ persons, but the ministry of those persons. There is so much work to be done.

Until the love and ministry of all persons is recognized on an equal basis, until the Discipline does not call people sacred in one breath and incompatible in another, perhaps even until no more bodies of lesbian couples are found by dumpsters, no more teen boys take their lives for fear of embracing an identity, and a transgender person can have a life expectancy equal their cisgender peers, we have work to do.

So let me be clear: yes, charges have been dismissed against Rev. Dr. Ogletree in favor of a resolution involving more conversation. It’s a huge day in the UMC, and a big step forward. AND there is still work to be done. Conversation about 40 years of discrimination is not enough; stopping trials for people who officiate (while trials are pending for people accused of being homosexual) is not enough; maintaining discriminatory and dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline is not acceptable. There is joy, and there is work to be done.

Alleluia. And, what’s next?

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