My grandparents, Julius and Lucile Pryor, and parents, John and Marybelle Pryor Trimble, were members of Old Ship African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church in Montgomery, Ala. My mother, who is 96 years old, still remains connected to, and shares a part of her tithe with, Old Ship AME Zion. Established in 1852, Old Ship AME Zion Church is listed as the oldest black church in Montgomery, Alabama. This historic church was served by white ministers until 1862. Its original building was given to the congregation by the Court Street Methodist Church which is now First United Methodist of Cloverdale, Alabama.
When my parents were married and moved to Chicago, they chose the nearest Methodist church within walking distance as our family had grown and, at the time, my parents were raising six children. Christ Methodist Church, now Christ United Methodist Church, a community-based church on the Southside of Chicago became our home. It was out of Christ Church that I was confirmed and became active in MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). It was at Christ Church I was able to attend Methodist camps and participate in Young Life urban ministries such as going camping in Boulder, Colorado. It was at Christ Church that the Bible came alive and peace and justice were never divorced from evangelistic efforts aimed at becoming disciples of Jesus, bringing others to Jesus, and professing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
While shooting pool at Africa University with students this past October, I was able to share that it was at my church where I first learned to play ping pong and shoot pool. The church was a place of belonging and affirmation, and out of this inner-city Chicago church over 25 men and women expressed a call to ministry – some of us remain connected today.
The early disputes, I remember, in our church were related to the addition of a Gospel Choir and drums in the church, pastoral authority, and how welcoming we would be to outside groups who wanted to use the church building. Over the course of 25 years, even after I had left the church for college and seminary, there were several chapters in the life of the church when a handful of people would leave for a more popular church, a safer neighborhood, a senior choir dispute, the length of worship service, or the proverbial “I’m not getting fed the Word” excuse. My mother never left. She never stopped tithing and she never stopped praying for whoever the pastor assigned to our church was. After being widowed in 1969, it was the church that walked with my mother and our family in grief. It was the church that helped this public school teacher raise six children, sending five off to college.
Our church was not perfect and we did not always get the welcoming piece right. Like many churches, we became comfortable with the people we knew and the ministries we supported.
People moved away to different communities, young people went off to college and the military in the church would decline in number, rebound and decline again. Some people stayed and served meals in one of the largest feeding programs in that part of Chicago based in the church. Some continued to support children and youth who often came without parents. And some stayed committed to weekly prayer and Bible study, and the ministry of encouragement.
My mother was and is one of those persons. On the matter of getting spiritually-fed, she has always believed that we each have a responsibility to read the Bible and participate in Bible study. “When I go to church on Sunday I have already had breakfast, prayed, and read daily devotions.” She, to this day, writes and sends notes and letters of prayer support and encouragement all over the country to family and friends, including to those who share with her the experience of losing their spouse to death.
My mother would be considered in our current debate on the way forward, a Traditionalist with progressive beliefs about full inclusion. For her, it is God who judges and we who have the opportunity and responsibility to love God and others. Her roots are too deep to leave the church.
People did not leave the Church even though they were slaves in 1852, and Methodists were slave owners. The Church remained segregated until 1968 and people stayed committed to the mission. People did not leave the Church even though God was calling women to preach and the Church did not have open doors, minds, or encouragement. People did not leave the Church even though some believe the death penalty does not honor the commandments in the Bible and is denounced in the Book of Discipline while other United Methodists believe that the death penalty is an appropriate dispensation of justice for those convicted of capital offenses.
The Judicial Council has ruled on the three main proposals and their constitutional legality, giving more direction for those who will deliberate and vote next February.
What should we do? Let us commit to “Praying Our Way Forward.”
No prayer no power, little prayer little power, much prayer much power!
The 2016 General Conference authorized the Council of Bishops to help our church remain united in mission and find a way forward out of our long-standing conflict over human sexuality and inclusion. Lost in much of the debate around Biblical authority, and justice and inclusion is the keyword associated with the Commission established to propose options for us to stop fighting and re-engage in our public mission of evangelism and world transformation.
The Commission on A Way Forward was established with a focus on a new horizon for The United Methodist Church. Lost in the translation of Christian Conferencing Guidelines and protracted debates about language in our book of Discipline is the compelling call for a more helpful and fresh Wesleyan movement to frame our passion for grace and growth.
“A way forward.” As an adverb, forward means “to or toward what is ahead or in front.”
As a verb … “to promote or help onward; advance, cultivate, encourage, fasten, further, incubate, innovate, nourish, nurture.”
When I left the Council of Bishops meeting after having received the last update from the Commission on A Way Forward I discerned that the conversation to lead us out of the present conundrum was centered on “a way forward.”
Not a way back. Not a way out. Not a way to create winners and losers, insiders and outsiders.
Not a way to devour or destroy. Not a way to divide, or to quit. Not a way to sugar coat new forms of segregation or redefine the denomination.
As the Hymn writer puts it;
“Not alone we conquer, not alone we fall,
in each loss or triumph, lose or conquer all.
Bound by God’s far purpose in one living whole,
move we on together to the shining goal.
Forward through the ages!”
(The United Methodist Hymnal Number 555)
I’m not leaving regardless of what proposal or plans are passed. You don’t have to leave either.
Stay true to the primary mission of making disciples of Jesus and sharing the love of Jesus with one another as commanded in John 13:34-35:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (NRSV)
Remember dearly beloved, we are not voted into the Church, we are baptized into the Church.
Bishop Julius C. Trimble