Do we really have open hearts?
Forum will explore racism
By Annette Bender
The Rev. Ramon Torres hopes that by facing up to possible racism in Holston, the church will be able to "grow through it and become open to all people."
In fact, the title selected by the Religion and Race Committee for a conference-wide forum later this month is, "Conversations About Racism: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. Really?" (Download registration information-PDF)
"Of course, the title plays on the United Methodist advertisements that we are all familiar with," says Torres, referring to the Igniting Ministry campaign. "And we want to know, does that really hold true in our churches? Are we really open?"
A Nov. 20 dialogue on racism, to be held at Gray United Methodist Church in Johnson City District, will explore answers to these questions as well as invite different viewpoints on the issue. Holston clergy and laity are invited to the conference-wide event, which begins at 10 a.m. and concludes at 1 p.m. According to Torres, the Religion and Race Committee began considering a forum on racism as early as spring 2004. When Holston members reacted strongly to an August newspaper article concerning possible racism in last summer's election of bishops, the committee realized that the "time was right" to schedule a dialogue.
"My opinion is that, yes, racism exists," said Torres, chair of the Religion and Race Committee and senior pastor at Gray UMC. "However, I think the forum is to inform and explore: Does racism exist, and if so, how can we recognize it?"
Bishop James Swanson, who was elected to the episcopacy at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in July and assigned to Holston as the conference 's second African-American bishop, will serve as keynote speaker at the Nov. 20 forum.
"The church needs to have the courage to talk openly and honestly about the hurt and pain on both sides of the issue," Swanson said. "That's the only way we can be healed."
A recent report from the statistician's office reveals much about Holston's ethnic membership. Of 168,121 total members in the Holston Conference, 97.95 percent are Caucasian. African-Americans make up 1.72 percent, while .14 percent are Hispanic, and .13 percent are Asian.
Wytheville District has the highest percentage of African-American members, with 3.72 percent. Maryville District has the smallest percentage of African-American members, with .08 percent - or 10 out of 13,251 total members.
When the forum convenes on Saturday, Nov. 20, the format will follow a successful model followed by a conference-wide dialogue on war and peace at First Morristown UMC in April 2003, Torres said.
Swanson will provide the keynote address at 10 a.m. in Gray's sanctuary. Participants will then assemble into small groups, and facilitated discussions will be based on prepared questions. The small-group discussions are designed to provide opportunities for each person to speak without interruption or comment, organizers said. Facilitators will be Holston clergy and lay members.
Following the small-group discussions, participants will join to share insights from the discussions. The gathering will conclude with Holy Communion led by Swanson.
For clergy members, 0.25 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) will be offered through the Wesley Institute. In addition to the Religion and Race Committee, the event is sponsored by the Wesley Institute and Outreach Advocacy Team.
Register by calling the Wesley Institute at (423) 928-2156 or by sending an e-mail to Bonnie Cox.
Directions to Gray UMC: From Interstate 81, take exit 57A toward Johnson City (I-26 east, old I-181). Take exit 42. Turn right at end of ramp. Travel .5 mile. At the stoplight, take a left on to Old Gray Station Road. Travel .3 mile and turn left onto Gray Station Road. Take next right onto Chapel Street.
Gray UMC is on the right side of Chapel Street, where it curves to the left. You may park in front of the church on the left side of Chapel Street, or you may park in the parking lot behind the church.
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