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Learning to Embrace All

4 years ago written by
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One night, desperation over her son kept Mary from sleeping. She took a walk in her neighborhood. She walked past the Santa Ana (California) Free Methodist Church and heard singing and praying despite the late hour. Mary stepped inside and discovered women praying in Spanish.

Although they did not speak her language, the women somehow understood her problem and prayed for her. Regardless of the language barrier, a peace filled her whole being. She testifies, “I will never forget that moment in my life. I did not understand, but it was a rejuvenating experience that changed my life forever.”

Historically a Latino congregation, Santa Ana began providing parking on Wednesdays when neighbors had to move their cars for street cleaning. Associate Pastor Mike Arganda greeted neighbors with coffee and doughnuts. He met Mary, an African-American neighbor who felt comfortable enough later to stop in the church to pray. Now, Mary’s family and another African-American family attend the English service.

Martin Luther King Jr. called 11 a.m. Sunday the most segregated hour in America. This situation hasn’t changed much since his 1960s statement. In the United States in 1998, 7.4 percent of congregations were racially mixed, the rest homogenous. The rate increased to 13.7 percent by 2010 (fmchr.ch/yalerace). Even attendees of racially diverse churches are often of the same economic class.

Christy Mesaros-Winckles, an Embrace All team member, did her dissertation on early Free Methodist women in ministry. People often ask her about the Free Methodist Church. She loves to tell people the FMC was founded with an intentional social justice ministry, including opposition to slavery and insistence on free pews.

But she says free pews means more than free seats. B.T. Roberts and the early Free Methodists who ministered in cities like Buffalo, New York, were concerned that the new Methodist Episcopal Church buildings were too ornate and the practice of paying for the best pews excluded the poor, those who were not the “right color” or anyone who wasn’t the “right type.” Even if there was space in the back of the church for them to sit or stand, they would never be truly welcome. This is why the idea of free pews and churches where all would be embraced was essential.

How are we doing today? Are our pews still available to the least of these? Of course, we want them to be, but what is the reality?

The bishops’ vision for the Embrace All team states: “We will improve our reach to the poor and disenfranchised and create a normalcy for multicultural ministry by rewarding and celebrating churches that minister to the hurting, broken and people unlike themselves.”

This vision includes anyone being ostracized by society: people of other races, at various socioeconomic statuses, with different marital statuses, with different abilities and disabilities. The team goal includes providing strategies that any church can use to reach out to its own community.

Team practitioners include Dukens Boliere, church planter in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who will introduce the first session on the biblical and historical basis for Embrace All. Joanna DeWolf from Lansing (Michigan) Central Free Methodist Church will focus on the individual response to these issues. Refugio Sanchez of the Santa Ana FMC will concentrate on the church’s response. As the team facilitator, I will guide a session on society’s response and social justice issues.

Team members have interviewed pastors and individuals to learn of their experiences so we can share a wide breadth of possibilities with General Conference 2015 attendees.

Embracing all in our churches doesn’t mean removing anything that may make someone uncomfortable. To really embrace all, to truly make people comfortable, requires accommodation by the majority. For everyone to feel comfortable part of the time, everyone must experience some discomfort part of the time. A Spanish song, for example, helps Latinos feel included in a primarily Anglo service, and may be slightly uncomfortable for the majority of attendees. Similarly, a gospel (not just contemporary Christian) song can help African-Americans feel comfortable in a mostly white church.

Leadership creates a primary model. Diversity in worship leadership speaks volumes to the congregation. To help everyone feel welcome, the morning service should include all of the people the church is reaching — both genders, those of different races, and people with disabilities.

GC15 sessions will include strategies to enable churches and individuals to live up to our heritage of inclusion and social justice. Feedback from attendees will be incorporated into resources we provide for our churches to move forward in truly embracing all.

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