Do the right thing


Written by Rev. J. Michael Culbreth, Speedwell UMC, Savannah

“Creating a church for all people requires United Methodists to do the right thing.”

Bishop Melvin Talbert, who spoke those words, preached at the 2012 Multicultural Conference, held Nov. 29-Dec. 1 at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. Bishop Talbert was the closing keynote speaker at the gathering of about 130 leaders representing 13 annual conferences of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.

Those representing the South Georgia Annual Conference at this event were Rev. J. Michael Culbreth and Debbie Moore of Speedwell United Methodist Church in Savannah and the Rev. Donald Combs, pastor of Lakeside United Methodist Church in Brunswick.

The theme of the three-day conference was “Creating a Church for all people.” The purpose of the biannual conference is to help United Methodists come to terms with the importance of appreciating our diversity as God’s people.

The term “multicultural” encompasses promoting racial diversity and addressing racial concerns, as well as respecting and appreciating other’s culture, traditions and rituals. It also involves intergenerational interactions and addressing gender issues.

Bishop Talbert stressed that in order for United Methodists to do the right thing, the Church must be sincere about being in ministry with “all people.” He stressed that for this to happen the Church has to undergo a real transformation.

“We aren’t going to do much transforming out there unless we do some transforming of ourselves,” he said.

The conference participants also heard a powerful and challenging message from Bishop Linda Lee, the first African-American woman to be elected bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction. Bishop Lee stressed that The United Methodist Church has all the inherent “gifts” she needs to promote diversity including “The Book of Discipline,” special interest groups, caucuses, scripture and Wesleyan teachings.

She pointed out that The United Methodist Church as a denomination has to deal with some structures and systems in the Church that promote racism and that the structures must change. Bishop Lee said that for change to occur, people must work personally and interpersonally to transform structures and institutional identities that benefit certain people.

Those attending the conference wrestled with how to be intentional about creating a Church for all people. The plenary presenters, Bill Cruse of the Kaleidoscope Institute and Denise Trevino, the Diocese of Texas Missioner for Intercultural Development, both provided conference participants with tools to use when engaging in conversations about multiculturalism.

One way to have a meaningful conversation about multicultural issues is to utilize mutual invitation. Mutual invitation is a process in which a small group of people can have a discussion while listening to and respecting each other. During this process every person who desires to share his or her opinion is allowed to do so without being interrupted.

During the conference the various small groups also participated in a Bible study process based upon the mutual invitation concept. This Bible study process enables group members to reflect upon a passage and to respond to questions about a particular passage.

In addition to the small group dialogue, the conference attendees shared in worship that highlighted the cultural worship practices of Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and others. In the opening worship service attendees participated in the Native American Smudging Ceremony, a ceremony for spiritual cleansing.

Debbie Moore of Speedwell UMC said she was elated to attend the conference on behalf of the South Georgia Annual Conference. Moore, a Caucasian lay person, has been a member of Speedwell UMC, a historically black congregation, for about two years. Moore shared the following reflections about the conference.

“The conference was amazing,” she said. “I looked around the room at all the people from different generations, races, cultures, and ethnicities sitting together to talk and listen to each other because each person there felt a passion for this issue. The different cultural ceremonies and experiences were wonderful. Hearing more than 100 people sing together in different languages, learning each other's songs, appreciating each other's differences and the value each person added to the experience was inspiring, uplifting, and humbling. I listened to people at my table talk about their experiences in their home countries and as immigrants in the United States, and I realized how much I could learn from them. I listened in awe as Bishops Linda Lee and Melvin Talbert spoke and challenged us to address racial and cultural issues, to be willing to take a stand for justice, and to make a difference. I wish, no, I pray that someday this kind of experience will reach a national level and will be treated with the same respect and importance that it was at Lake Junaluska this year. Our nation and our churches are in dire need of this kind of listening and sharing and respecting one another.”

As a follow-up to the conference, Moore, Rev. Culbreth, and Rev. Combs will work through the Conference’s Connectional Ministries office to coordinate opportunities for dialogue about ways South Georgia United Methodists can work toward creating a church for all God’s people. If we are serious about making disciples for the transformation of the world, then we must be intentional about addressing multicultural concerns.