Why I am ashamed to be a United Methodist.

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Posted on November 15th, 2010 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Featured, Intra-Faith, Leadership, Learning, News, Social Issues, Theology
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First let me make something perfectly clear -- I love my denomination.

The United Methodist Church's theology is historically grounded in a movement attentive to the holistic character of human existence. Emphasis on social justice is not separate from personal piety,  nor corporate worship from individual devotion, justification by faith is not separate from the process of sanctification, nor personal faith from manifestations of and participation in God's Kingdom in this world. And yet...

You get this sign posted last week on a freeway somewhere between North Carolina and Virginia that says:

IF YOU CAN READ THIS

THANK A TEACHER

IF YOU CAN READ IN ENGLISH

THANK A SOLDIER

This sign was on the grounds of a United Methodist Church... Closer to the road than the sign announcing worship...  AND across the street from una tienda Latina (a Latino/Hispanic convenience store).

Honestly, I am not even sure what this sign means: "If you can read in English thank a soldier"?

At the moment the United Methodist Church, once a vibrant movement that swept across this country, is in decline. The changing demographics of the United States has not affected the make-up of this majority-white denomination, and the church as a whole does not raise a voice against xenophobic and racist language and laws used against immigrants and people of color in this country.  I am interested in the discourses and disciplines that fund this reality. What readings of Christian scripture and theology allow for many Methodists to be comfortable (or at least comfortable enough not to fight them) with current laws that make it criminal to give water to “illegal aliens” dying in the desert or give them rides to the hospital?

Since when is it ok for Methodists to assign dignity and worth based on what language someone speaks? Since when is it ok for Methodists to praise military forces for making sure things stay the way they are?

Something is broken in my denomination, when this sign is allowed to stand uncontested. But just because it is broken, I do not plan to walk away. Instead, although ashamed, I remain a member of this broken manifestation of Christ's body in the world. For as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his sermon "A Knock at Midnight" the church, no matter how sick and twisted, contains bread of life. For example, it is possible that just this morning, said church with the sign (along with thousands of churches across the country) read these words from Isaiah 65 (one of the first text selections for today's Revised Common Lectionary weekly readings):

(21) They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  (22) They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  (23) They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.  (24) Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

So while this church with its sign proudly upholds the status quo as praiseworthy, perhaps the pastor preached about God's vision of a new heaven and a new earth... perhaps someone thought about those to whom this passage might be addressed to in our day and age... the people who labor to provide many of us shelter and food, whose labor often is in vain and whose families fear the calamity of deportation and separation.

Most did not think twice about the text.

But... there is always a chance, and that potential is a hope for this denomination.  Thus, my interest is in studying current multicultural ministries in the United Methodist Church here in the United States. Although few in number, they offer a counter to current Methodist culture, and a sign that transformation is possible. I hope through ethnography and pragmatics to tease out relationships between scripture, theology and lived practice. I want to study this phenomenon thoroughly -- its potential solutions for our brokenness as well as whatever problematic tendencies come to light...

I am happy to report that the picture you see here was taken by a United Methodist pastor. A letter to the pastor of the congregation with the sign should be on its way now. If I get my hands on it, I will share with you... Also I must admit after all my noble and commitment-ty-type language that, although I have not walked away from my denomination, right now I am worshiping in an Episcopal church - more on that later.

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32 Responses to “Why I am ashamed to be a United Methodist.”

  1. Transformation is possible! Though reluctantly (or maybe not so), I left my denomination that chose me since birth, for another one of my own choosing that would allow for more ecumenical possibilities– more on my story later. I’m encouraged by your post and look forward to learning more about your work with multicultural ministries as I definitely see it as part of my own personal calling. Thanks!

    • Hi Marvin. I do believe in miracles, so in that sense I also believe transformation is possible :) Plus I have seen it happen with my own eyes. I look forward to hearing about your story, and I look forward to future dialogues about multicultural ministries. Peace, Kelly

      • Kane says:

        seeing god speak through you is what gives me a 19 year old college student hope that one day my generation, if we work like we say we believe, can make the church into what it should be. a place where anyone is welcome to worship and politics stay outside of the front door to the church, where people are as loving to any race as they are to their own children where i can be proud to call myself first a christain and secound a methodist.

  2. Ramfis Marquez says:

    Very well written the saddest part is that soldiers don’t fight and give their life to make sure that people speak English, they fight so we can have a free country, were diversity and multiculturalism are accepted, respected and cherished. Sometimes I read and hear things like this and wonder if this country has gone crazy; is like all of the sudden is ok to be a bigot, xenophobic, discriminate and be plain out racist. People that still have some sense need to stand up and say; NO THIS IS NOT OK!

  3. Lydia Munoz says:

    Another response as a United Methodist. Egads! I have been having an existencial battle with my denomination for several years now and yet I am in the process of ordination, go figure. It is appalling to me that we are such a wishy-washy denomination on so many things and we let a bunch of yahoo’s who don’t live in reality speak in representation of the whole denomination, like the yahoo who put up that sign. I want to believe, but Lord help my unbelief. There are moments when my denomination really feels, sounds and acts like a true vision of the kingdom of God, but then we let things happen and we miss the opportunity to be on the edge pushing up against the gates of hell instead of being pushed by it. Can’t wait to hear more!

  4. Br. Larry says:

    Speaking as a former United Methodist, I applaud you and others who are willing to stick it out and work for change from within. My own final break with the UMC came with the defrocking of Beth Stroud several years ago. And that was after growing up in a multiracial UMC! Two steps forward, three steps back…

  5. Anthony Fatta says:

    I am glad to know that there are other Methodists who are sticking it out! I currently work for Reconciling Ministries Network, organizing 3 conferences to help pass a full inclusion clause at General Conference in 2012. It is HARD work. The way it has been explained to me has been a “ministry of erosion.”

  6. This is a wonderful piece, Kelly. I look forward to reading more from you soon. Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Department of Multifaith Studies, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

  7. Jeff P. says:

    Nice reflection. I’d like to think that maybe the sign is Colbert-style bloviating to illustrate a deeper truth, but sadly it is far too reflective of a prevailing dominant mindset ruled more by fear than love. I pray the word “grace” is not part of the name of the church.

  8. Becca Clark says:

    Is that reading in English as opposed to French? I’d thank a soldier who fought in the french&indian war, but they’re hard to find.

    I too struggle with the love of our denomination and the deep pain at our brokenness. I believe we have so many good things and faithful responses to God and the world and sometimes that makes the negative stuff more glaring. Thanks for your reflections– they’re some of the good stuff.

  9. Emmi Beane says:

    [I respect all the views I have read so far and just wanted to add my thoughts to the mix. I attended the UMC until I went to college. I attended the Baptist church until I was 36. I received Confirmation as an Episcopalian in 2002.]

    My thought upon reading your piece is there is nothing about which to be ashamed. The Church is not made up of perfect people. As the banner of the page says, it is about “formation.” I think that sign reflects people who have a lot of fear. Normally, at its root, it is fear that drives prejudice. As a black woman living in Virginia, I understand prejudice. (I graduated from UVA in 1987.)

    Thankfully, the folks at this church are not hiding what they think. They are putting it out there to alert others around them that they need prayer and knowledge. God’s provision in Christ is all they need. They don’t have to fear people who are different.

    The Word tells us we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces. Those of us who have overcome the spiritual battle against immigration driven prejudice have been blessed. Our brothers and sisters who have not reached that point in Christ need our support in their spiritual battle.

    It is important to speak the truth and educate but to do it not as the world does it but with the love of Christ. Ultimately, the goal is to help all within in the body of Christ to grow in their relationship with God and for those who do not know Him to come to that saving knowledge.

    Yes, we must love the stranger and those who are poor and oppressed. At the same time, we must love our neighbors even if they are not being neighborly.

    • Hi Emmi,

      Thank you for your post. You are absolutely right.

      My concern is more with how the over-all system is failing and less with the particular individuals who fail. This literal sign is just one sign of a much deeper problem that, as you alluded to, most of the time is unspoken and insidious. At least this congregation wears their prejudice on their sleeve… it is at least identifiable in this way. But something within the United Methodist Church is broken if this sign is allowed to stand on church property. The people who put the sign up not are in any less in need of God’s love, in fact they need more since they are so full of fear. But where are the leaders and the teachers who are responsible for passing on the Christian tradition? Because if leaders in our denomination are putting up signs like that then are misrepresenting the Gospel and causing others to associate this misrepresentation with Methodism and with Christianity as a whole. Those who know the Gospel, who have been taught the Gospel, especially pastors and leaders of the church, are tasked (as my seminary professor used to say) “to loose sleep at night” when passing on the faith with which we have been entrusted. So yes we must love our neighbors, especially if they are not being neighborly, but we also have to hold the leaders in our denomination to account, and confront them in Christian love about their teachings and the type of formation offered to members. And this I believe we do for the benefit of their own salvation, the community’s and ours.

      Again thank you for your thoughtful post. Let’s keep the dialogue going.
      Peace,
      Kelly

  10. Joe Miller says:

    I believe the second half of the sign is in reference to WWII when soldiers fought to stop Hitler & his plans for world conquest.

    I am curious, why did you assume the sign was an anti-Hispanic comment?

    • Hi Joe,

      Thank you for your interpretation of the sign!

      I actually have no idea what it means, nor what was the motivation behind posting it. There is no way to tell, since it is just a sign on the side of the road, so actually any interpretation or assumptions are valid. I assume the people across the street in the Hispanic store have one particular view and perhaps people who speak other languages as their first language would have other views. While people who only speak English, might see no harm at all in what the sign says.

      I do assume the following: 1. The sign portrays English as better than other languages. 2. …and that it is a good thing that the military has fought so that we are privileged enough to speak it.

      I believe the Gospel privileges no language, and for a church to do so goes against the hospitality of the incarnation. God in the flesh speaks to us in whatever language and to say otherwise alienates and misrepresents the Gospel.

      I appreciate your question; I hope I have clarified my assumptions for you…

      Peace,
      Kelly

      • Larry Eppley says:

        I have heard this expressed before as something like “thanks to our ww2 vets, or we would all be speaking german. And it may be that this was what was originally meant by the sign.

        However, even iif my church had innocently posted this, I would ask them to remove it because, in light of current tensions, it sounds like something very insensitive.

        As an Anglo, my opportunity to know and have many Hispanic friends here in North Carolina has allowed me to live a much less sheltered existence.

        Gracias por su palabras y sensibilidad!

      • David Kueker says:

        I believe that the language intended by the sign is German, as has been mentioned. What’s lacking in this post is an intent to verify the facts involved before condemning this person, and expressing shame for an entire denomination due to the action of one person.

        One of the time honored ways to unite a body of people to what is considered a worthy cause is to identify an enemy and hold them up for ridicule and moral condemnation by the public. Gaining unity by turning people against someone else is … not good.

        I have learned the hard way when I am outraged to examine my motives; I’m not always pleased with what that examination reveals to me.

        A few of the steps required for peacemaking in Matthew 18:15 were skipped in this case, and the person who put out the sign has been dehumanized. This person has lost their individuality and has been set up as symbol for what is wrong in an 8+ million member denomination, and a scapegoat to receive our frustration and negativity.

        A climate of dehumanizing criticism is more than sufficient to account for the decay of any organization. The desire to control what others think or say often has evil results.

        • Dear David,

          Again, thank you for your interpretation and for your concern about fact-checking. I have said before, by putting the sign on the side of the road it has been left up to open interpretation. There really is no reason to check what the “actual” motivation was behind the sign. It will mean different things to different people who read it out of context. If the posters of the sign were not aware that this sign might be offensive, for example, to the people across the street who might not speak English, then this speaks to a whole other issue of blindness to the “other” within our midst, which I will probably speak about in a future blog post.

          I express shame on the behalf of the whole denomination, because this is not my first experience of xenophobic and anti-immigrant tendencies; it is an open and public expression of a sickness/brokenness I have witnessed within our majority-white denomination. As I stated in a response above, I am not angry with this particular church, but with the leadership and formation in the United Methodist Church that has not been able to shape a different reality that would not include such signs as acceptable expressions of the Methodist status quo.

          In terms of peacemaking, really that is not the intention of my post. The intention of my post is to point to the brokenness in our denomination. We are no where near peace-making – I would say we are in need of conviction. We must first know we have sinned, then accept it and ask for forgiveness. My criticism is done out of love with the hope that we can begin to find new ways forward.

          Thank you for modeling your understanding of peacemaking by confronting me directly.
          Peace,
          Kelly

          • David Kueker says:

            I believe that we have both communicated clearly the concerns that we have. We still, each, have those same concerns.

            As you said, and I would wish to say the same, “My criticism is done out of love with the hope that we can begin to find new ways forward.”

            Best wishes and blessings on your path and also on your graduate research and writing on these issues.

  11. rachel morey says:

    The best – and worst – thing about the UMC, as an ordained elder in the Minnesota Annual Conference, is that there is little theological consistency from congregation to congregation. Thus, even as this church in VA posts a rather offensive sign (particularly in light of the many United Methodists worldwide who speak a wide variety of tongues, and our own denominational efforts to reach out to new immigrant populations), Brooklyn Mosaic of the northwest metro of the Twin Cities intentionally chose to make its first worship service in July a prayer service for comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform. Was it hugely attended? No – few weekday services are. But because we did that, we were able to write letters of invitation to every other non-profit and organization in the metro that serves immigrants and refugees, all saying that a United Methodist congregation cared enough about them and the people they serve to make this a priority.

    So we’ll pray for this church in VA, our brothers and sisters – not because we’re right and they’re wrong, but because that’s what you do when you disagree with people you love: you take it to God first, and plead for the Spirit to guide the conversation and bring about transformation. And we’ll hold the cross and flame banner high, embracing its imperfection and its promise.

  12. Larry Eppley says:

    I am not of the Methodist movement, but I love your comments which, of course, transcend Methodism and embrace the heart of the Galilean teacher himself. I often voice the same sentiments in my blog, and I am thankful for all those voices that can see beyond fear and anger, and in any way “offer a cup of water in Jesus’ name.”

    By the way, if the noble principles of United Methodism that you cited were gone, you would not write this article. Maybe, ironically, you actually demonstrate the very hope for the future of your denomination that you seek. May God truly bless you, for the seed of the kingdom of God is truly within you.

  13. Lisa McKinney says:

    I too love and am ashamed of the UMC. I think you are mistaken that they will read the passage you quoted. I think it is much more likely that they will read a “full armor of God” type of passage, inculcating a militaristic identity into their parishioners (or the parishioners inculcating such into their Church). I speak from experience.

    • Lisa McKinney says:

      Point being (sorry I was oblique), that these types of churches feel constrained by the “liberal” liturgical cycles of readings and they simply do not participate. It is a badge of honor that their pastors do “sermon series,” etc., and they don’t “bow” to their imaginary “Rome.” The UMC in practice has absolutely nothing to do with seminary.

  14. Marti Margrave says:

    The title threw me…and drew me in…

    i’m proud to be United Methodist. There are some UMs out there that make me shake my head; just as i’m proud to be a teacher, while there are some teachers out there that make me shake my head. (yes, i’m a teacher who uses lower case “i”…i’m sure there are other teachers who are ashamed if that. i TRY not to use them when writing notes to parents, but it’s been w/ me for so many years that sometimes i slip)(in English only, i’m ashamed to say i don’t speak any other language.) Shake my head and roll my eyes!

    Now, here’s my question: Could you e-point me in the direction of a blog where the above level of back and forth about being UM continues? I’d rather read all of the amazingly thoughtful things y’all (i’m from Tennessee) had to say than go to church this Sunday morning! Peace be with you…

  15. [...] State of Formation – Why I am ashamed to be a United Methodist.. [...]

  16. don woolley says:

    I’ve heard people say this and I think its generally a WWII reference, with German the alternative if the Nazi’s had prevailed.

    • Hi Don,

      Thank you for your interpretation. I think it is one of many. Unfortunately, even if the intention behind the sign was about German, there is no way to tell that from the plain sense of the words. The sign provides no deeper context (ie. there is no mention of WWII or Germany).

      Even if the sign were more clearly linked to the Allied defeat of German domination in WWII, I still would not think this an appropriate sign for Methodist property, because it would continue to privilege English with the added particularity of privileging our country as superior to others. So then the sign would say that people who speak English, and now more specifically who are from the United States are better than (more blessed than/more highly favored by God than)…. whoever does not speak English or who is not a person from the Untied States.

      This message is just plain un-Christian, not to mention un-Methodist. God did not send his only son Jesus to die on a cross for he so loved the English-speaking people from one particular country called the United States, but because he so loved the whole world. By putting the sign on Methodist property it certainly seems to indicate that (at least some) Methodists (with enough power to put up signs on church property) privilege certain people over others, while God does not.
      Peace,
      Kelly

  17. Kelly,

    Thank you for posting this. And thanks, too, to all who have replied. It does matter not only THAT United Methodists fulfill our baptismal vow to be in ministry with sisters and brothers of every age, race and nation and HOW we go about doing that. As a wise Episcopal woman reminded me when I was in college, “We must pray for the apostate.” That is not a reason not to do more… but starting there may give us the best clues about what to do next.

  18. [...] that there is something good that comes from all that reporting, but in general, as I shared in a previous post, I am pretty unimpressed with how the church I love, the United Methodist Church, is going beyond [...]

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Kelly West Figueroa-Ray is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Scripture, Interpretation, and Practice at the University of Virginia. She is focusing on the relationship between scripture and theology as it is lived out in communities of faith with a particular interest in multicultural Christian ministries.


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