For three days in early August, a group of 200 United Methodist clergy gathered in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to tackle racism and religion and the role that they – and their rural North Carolina congregations – can play.
As frequent storms darkened the outside skies, participants sang hymns, discussed issues, and listened in intent silence as guest speakers tested and inspired them. Workshops provided ideas and resources; worship and fellowship allowed time for focus.
“I leave here as a changed person with a challenge,” said the Rev. Jim Folks as he prepared to return to his church in Siler City. “Now it’s up to me to have the courage and faith to walk forward.”
Chance to Reflect, Restore
The Convocation on the Rural Church has been an annual event since 2004. Sponsored by The Duke Endowment, the gathering brings together clergy from rural United Methodist churches in North Carolina. The Endowment helps plan each year’s schedule with Duke Divinity School, and makes it more affordable for participants.
“To be in service to others, we need opportunities to step away for reflection and learning,” says the Rev. Brad Thie, director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity. “But when life is hectic, it’s hard to carve those moments into our daily routine.”
The Convocation gives clergy a rare time for rejuvenation, reflection and education.
“As pastor of a small church, I’m pretty much ‘on’ every day,” said one participant. “This helps me return to my congregation feeling renewed. And it’s nice to be with people who have the same opportunities and challenges.”
Kevin Miller, the pastor of Messiah United Methodist Church in Vale, agrees. “It gives us a chance to reconnect with good friends that we went to divinity school with, and that’s something my family and I really appreciate,” he says. “As soon as it’s over, we start looking forward to the next year.”
Each year, programming provides opportunities to discuss issues that are important in transforming rural churches and communities.
For 2017, organizers wanted to focus on community and what it means in America today. Participants were challenged to think deeply and wrestle with issues of race and class.
“We sought to create a space in which we could invite reflection on difficult questions,” said Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area. “The theme of ‘Cultivating Community’ provided that opening.”
The main speakers – Robert Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute; Ruby Sales, a theologian and civil rights icon; and Michael Waters, pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in Dallas – urged their listeners to “get real.”
Sales challenged clergy to take a stand on critical issues and confront racism “as a wound in your soul that you cannot walk away from.” She explored how people divide themselves and how division creates a kind of spiritual disease. Sales pointed to the Bible as a way to heal the divide, but noted that the work of renewal will not be easy.
Jones shared insights from his latest book, “The End of White Christian America.” Where it once shaped our national policy and American ideals, white Christian America has steadily lost influence, Jones said. He showed that the proportion of white Christians in the country has slipped below a majority to 47 percent, and he discussed the political and cultural consequences. His demographic work points to a future in which congregations must embrace inclusivity and community.
Waters invited pastors to “wade in the water” of social justice and healing, even when it disturbs parishioners and church leadership. Fighting racism and forging a path toward reconciliation is hard, lonely work. “But we cannot afford merely to part the waters,” he said. “We must be willing to become immersed. The waters are dangerous, but this is not shoreline work.”
His prayer, he said, was that the pastors felt empowered to serve their parishes with courage, armed with the conviction “that with the presence of God we can do all things together.”
Starting the Conversation
Back home in western North Carolina, Pastor Miller said he left Myrtle Beach with a renewed calling to “be bold” in his ministry.
After events in Charlottesville, Va., prompted a national dialogue about racial reconciliation, he summoned words from Convocation to frame a message to his congregation about the violence. When he joined a group of local clergy to pray together and take a stand against racism and hate, he thought of conversations he had in Myrtle Beach.
“It wasn’t so much that I heard something at Convocation I didn’t already know or believe in,” he says. “But I left with a stronger idea that the kingdom of God is largely about unity – about laying aside our own interests for the sake of one another.”
He hopes this is just the beginning of a dialogue that will continue in his church and beyond.
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church