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Churches respond to call to denounce racism

Posted: September 2 2020 at 08:52 AM
Author: Rev. Violet Johnicker, NIC Anti-racism task force member


United Methodist clergy gather for a prayer walk Aug. 5 around Rockford's City Hall to support a Community Accountability Board.

Four years ago at General Conference, Bishop Sally Dyck preached a powerful sermon. She challenged us with these words reflecting on our doctrine: “Why is racism not declared incompatible with Christian teaching? How does it exist within the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”

For too long, in so many of our churches and communities, racism has been willfully ignored—and even perpetuated. The Bishop's message, building on generations of antiracism work in the church, inspired the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) to formally adopt the goal of living out the conviction that racism is incompatible with Christian teaching.

In 2019, the Annual Conference Shepherding Team (ACST) established the Anti-Racism Task Force and today the task force members and Champion Team are working to implement policies and programs to move this goal from belief to practice. Anti-racism efforts are not new in churches, but they are especially urgent now as momentum continues to build for real, systemic change.

In early August 2020, pastors gathered to pray at Rockford’s City Hall, to support the local call for a Community Accountability Board, a version of a citizens review board that many cities have implemented across the country and something Rockford’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has long been advocating for. Review boards provide community oversight of police misconduct complaints and can help to build trust between police departments and residents. Many NIC churches are responding to the conference goal and are striving to live out the conviction that racism is incompatible with Christian teaching.

The Rev. Mark Harkness of Cherry Valley UMC says he regularly includes racism in sermons as an example of things offensive to God and which we need to overcome. ”For my July newsletter article, I submitted a four-page letter explaining the difference between racism, bigotry, and prejudice in order to help people understand that they don't have to be (or see themselves as) a bigot to participate in racism,” Harkness said.

The Rev. Pam Rossmiller (Grace UMC in Rockford) shared that her church has launched small groups around the theme of anti-racism to educate each other, challenge one another on our implicit biases, and unite to find our place to be a voice and partner to fight racism. “Our baptismal vows include a promise to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” said Rossmiller. “They have presented themselves in the structure in our church, our workplace, neighborhood, and families that have allowed people of color to be oppressed.We desire to know better and then to do better.”

The Rev. Uziel Hernandez Martinez (Centennial Multicultural UMC in Rockford) said that the congregation believes everyone is a beloved child of God. “As human beings, we have the right to have access to basic human rights such as freedom, healthcare, education, etc. As a church we do not support any type of oppression or racism towards any human being,” he said. “The Black Lives Matter movement has brought into light what has been happening in this country for decades, and as a church we oppose any evil structures that take the lives of people.We believe that it is our responsibility to educate ourselves, learn our history in order to create a space of growth, and participate in intentional discipleship with our hands and feet.”

In response to the NIC goal, the Rev. Cal Culpepper of Court Street UMC in Rockford succinctly shared the words of Christian podcaster Phil Vischer: “Care, Listen, Learn,” and then Culpepper went on to say, “and I am adding, “Respond Responsibly.”

Lay Leader Brent Holman-Gomez of Berry UMC in Chicago said his church has used its weekly newsletter to promote anti-racist trainings and the experience of its pastor on the Task Force. “Located in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, the church has participated in civil disobedience during worship in the name of Black lives by blocking a street, publicly calling for justice for Laquan McDonald's murder, and it uses its church sign to witness that Black Lives Matter,” said Holman-Gomez. “The Anchors Covenant Group, made of up former and current members of Berry UMC, is using its meetings (which have shifted from in-person to Zoom), Facebook group, and email for awareness-raising, and establishing specific resources for members to watch, read, and listen, then discuss as a group.”

It is important to educate ourselves about racism, injustice, and our complicity in systems that perpetuate these evils, but the common theme among many NIC churches right now is taking action.We can read all the anti-racism books in the world, but unless we change our actions, programs, budgets, and policies to reflect that wisdom and the testimony of United Methodists of color who have been sharing their lived experiences and calling for change, we are not living out our calling to do justice.

The Anti-Racism Task Force would love to hear from you: what is your congregation doing to be actively anti-racist? Send us an email at to share your story.

*Rev. Violet Johnicker is the senior pastor at Brooke Road United Methodist Church in Rockford, Ill.

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