Response to racism:
Somebody has to risk taking the initiative

On June 10, the Holston Annual Conference participated in a "Service of Repentance and Healing" at Lake Junaluska, N.C. Holston was at least one of 14 United Methodist conferences holding services of repentance for racism this summer, in response to the 2000 General Conference's call for all the church's regional bodies to perform such acts before the 2004 assembly. Here, the Rev. Walter Willis responds to the June 10 ceremony.

It was a time of looking inward and remembering – remembering our hurts and wounds, for all of us bear scars from such experiences. Not one of us has lived untouched by slights, rudeness, prejudice, and at moments, injustice. But neither have we lived apart from grace – and it was around the theme of grace that the Service of Repentance and Healing, held during Annual Conference, found its focus and effect.

General Conference, meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2000, sought to call the whole church to take steps of reconciliation – sisters and brothers in all of the United Methodist traditions reaching out to one another in forgiveness and healing. So we gathered on the evening of June 10 to counsel and comfort each other relative to living beyond barriers of gender and race.

From the beginning to the end of our time together, the Holy Spirit seemed to hover over George R. Stuart Auditorium. We came seeking grace and we found it. The music specifically reminded us of that grace. With eloquence all her own, Grace Imathiu spoke of how God grants us the power and the will to "Sing While Weeping." Even as past hurts were remembered and confessional dialogue ensued, we kept our focus on grace. The Service of Healing allowed us opportunity to confess to God and to each other those things we needed to express and to resolve to walk in greater sensitivity and humility with each other in the days ahead. I was genuinely touched by the mood and spirit of what happened, and I believe others were touched as well.

One of the images, which came to my mind as we shared, was that of Jacob waiting to meet with Esau, his brother. The story is recorded in Genesis 32. The Bible describes the prelude to that encounter as one of darkness, when Jacob was alone. The description seems to fit Jacob's condition. It was as night in the heart of Jacob and he was alone as he wrestled with God in his soul.

God always appears in our relationships. In fact, God is best reflected in the face of the neighbor.

So we cannot escape. God appears again and again. God wrestles with us over the issue of how we treat each other. And while God is the ultimate winner of those struggles, we limp away from those encounters (like Jacob) better, if not yet whole. We are on a journey – a lifelong journey of seeking to be made perfect in love.

I have spent a good part of my life serving in cross-racial ministries, and my experience has been that people are people. Principles of good relationships apply in all settings, and so do negative ones. What we send out tends to come back (Ecclesiastes 11: 1). If we are open and sensitive to others and seek to relate to them in respectful and caring ways, the favor is usually returned. And when our lives are grounded in prayerful obedience, God adds a measure of amazing grace to the mixture.

So the initiative for reconciliation resides in each of us and whether we are willing to take the first step in the process of peace building.

Somebody has to risk taking the initiative, or healing is not possible in human relationships. Paul says in II Corinthians 5:18, that we have been given a Ministry of Reconciliation. It's our mandate. It is what Christ did and what we are expected to do. The church must take the lead in this ministry. The church, also, must be the first to confess that we haven't done that very well – thus the need for services of repentance and healing.

When we sincerely use such occasions to be honest before God, seeking and accepting God's grace anew, we will be nearer to the goal of being perfected in love, in this life.

The Rev. H. Walter Willis is a retired minister from the East Ohio Conference, now serving Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.


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