Marchers carrying banner lead the way as 15,000 parade in Harlem, 1965.
A few weeks ago, Bill Mefford of the General Board of Church and Society gave out an interesting “assignment.” He asked United Methodists all over the country to arrange a group viewing of the movie Selma. Then, on February 2, he invited all those who had seen the movie to join a group phone call to discuss the issues raised by the film and how The United Methodist Church and its members can continue and expand the work for racial justice. The film Selma chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.
For over an hour, callers from across the country took part in a lively, and at times profoundly honest, discussion on the topics of race, racial justice, Selma, and what the church can do next. Representatives from various organizations of The United Methodist Church were also on hand, including Sophia Agtarap (United Methodist Communications), Kristin Kumpf (General Board of Church and Societies), and Barbara Michelman and Jeehye Pak from the General Commission on Religion and Race. The call was hosted and moderated by Bill Mefford, Director of Civil & Human Rights at the General Board of Church & Society.
Using their own words, the callers gave true insight into what they and other members are experiencing in terms of racial justice, what their concerns are, and what concrete steps they would like to see taken — and they themselves would like to take. The callers' voices acted as a clarion call for action – both big and small — against all racial injustice. Here is what some of the participants had to say.
In Their Own Words
One of the first callers to speak remembers the march to Selma personally. She herself had marched to Washington, D.C. to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. The movie took her back to that time, and, sadly, she feels that history has “not changed substantially. As an African American, I often feel I am still treated the same way, if not as openly.”
Another caller, from Alabama, also left the movie with an ache. “I left disturbed; I have been to the Edmund Pettus Bridge ... we have so much longer to go to build Dr. King’s beloved community.”
The discussion soon turned to what could be done toward ending racial injustice. On a local level, one group is holding a seminar on the Charter for Racial Justice, with a number of conferences joining. Others called for a larger, national conversation headed by the church, while at the same time addressing national and local systemic racism.
Several participants addressed the institutionalized racism that those unaffected may not see. “A lot of the people in my local church don’t think there is a problem. Institutional racism – a lot of people in my church don’t see it. They don’t realize that other people have different experiences.” Those who are affected by current immigration laws are also impacted: ”There are challenges they face that others are not aware of,” said another caller.
Change on a local level was an ongoing topic during the call. One young woman from South Carolina spoke of the Confederate flag that is still flying at her state capital, and how after seeing the movie this really made an impact on her. Her taking action in her community would be one example of change on a local level.
Another caller spoke about a book club of African-American teenagers that went to see the movie on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the discussion that followed. Her hope for change rests with younger people: “I want to focus on the generation coming up. And my emphasis with them is on the issue of voting.”
Bill Mefford pointed out how local action was a major theme in Selma. The march, he said, “was the culmination of months and years of work on the local level. The then unsung heroes ... did the work of building the relationships, the coalitions.” We, too, must emphasize local outreach and action. “I believe the local church is the focus for transformation in the world,” he said.
The United Methodist Church is committed to making this transformation toward a more just society. One of its many resources is Rethink Church, a ministry of United Methodist Communications that supplies churches, conference and districts with tools to help them "think outside the box." Other United Methodist resources include the General Commission on Religion and Race, which is committed to attracting more diverse people to the Methodist faith, the General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Women, and many more.
Bill Mefford and everyone who participated from The United Methodist Church are immensely grateful to the callers for the enlightening and thoughtful discussion. Concrete steps are already being taken as a result of this conversation. May the movement continue to grow.