A few months before General Conference 2008 in Fort Worth, Texas, I was a speaker at Living Faith Seeking Justice, a General Board of Church and Society International symposium on a multitude of social justice issues. As I had just days before completed the 2007 Dallas Komen 3-Day Walk and was hobbling around the Fort Worth Hilton in pink. I also had numerous buttons and sundry swag from both events.
On Saturday morning, I headed downstairs in running clothes (for comfort, as I could barely walk), complete with the aforementioned swag, as well as my nametag attached to a lanyard hanging from my neck, clearly marked with the UMC logos and a ribbon stating that I was a speaker. As I waited for the valet to bring my car so I might head to a pharmacy to pick up a prescription…WAIT, I must digress, there is something wrong with this picture that I can’t let go by without comment. A social justice symposium with valet parking, $200.00/night rooms is just wrong!
As I waited for my car, a brand new Cadillac, with the dealer paper tag still attached, pulled up. A woman got out of the car, wearing her nametag for the same event. She looked around, spotted me, and came to me and handed me her keys, assuming/mistaking me for the valet attendant. I was dumbfounded, I was speechless! How could this woman, attending the same social justice event as myself, possibly be so blind as to not see my clothing, my buttons, my nametag, even missing the speaker ribbon? Apparently, she only saw my brown skin.
Now, that brown Hispanic skin I wear is generally pretty thick, but her actions cut me deeply. I bit my tongue and went about my business nonetheless.
About a year later, I told this story at a Jurisdictional meeting of Conference CORR Chairs in Oklahoma City. As I looked out at the attendees (who were sitting in segregated groups), the black, Native Americans and Hispanics had looks of shock on their faces. The white attendees laughed.
Here, at these two events, presumably attended by progressive thinking folks, the specter of racism raised its ugly head where one would least expect it. But more than racism, an even more insidious problem became evident…that of the Church’s failure to seek cultural competence.
This is an issue that is not grounded in dogma nor written in doctrine. It is etched in the very heart of Christ. Equity does not stop at race or gender. Equity demands ending all the “isms” and phobias we carry throughout our lives.
The question is not “What would Jesus do?” Rather, we should ask ourselves “What would Jesus have you do?”
How can we treat one another as equals if we can’t see each other as equals? I think Jesus was quite clear on this issue when he said “Love your neighbor.” He didn’t say some of them. He didn’t say only those like you. He didn’t say only straight neighbors. He didn’t say only physically, emotionally and mentally healthy neighbors.
Until we can get past the biases and prejudices in our pews, the term United Methodist is a bit of an oxymoron. Let’s work on making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the CHURCH, as well as the World.