Sunday, 10 July 2011

Utterly, utterly shocked - a church that needs your prayers

There is a Methodist Church  where newly arrived Black people were asked to sit in some designated rows at the back. When they saw fellow white worshipers in the street the Black people were ignored. Matters came to a head when a steward - a lovely man - asked a Black man to help take the collection.

The other white stewards called a meeting and insisted that no Black person be allowed to take any part in leadership. Several Black people then left and to this day worship elsewhere if they worship at all. There is a suggestion that some of the white Methodists  may have been active in racist politics.

When did this happen? In the late 1960s.

Where did this happen? In my own church.

Why hasn't anything been said before? Because we didn't know.

How did we find out? A student from Queens did some systematic pastoral visiting and gradually uncovered the story over the last three months.

What are we going to do about it? Paul our Minister started the process this morning when he acknowledged it had happened and apologised. We believe there are about 40 elderly people out there who over 43 years later are still hurting from this racist abuse. A programme of visits is being organised by a circuit lay minister.

We always knew there was a dark shadow over the church. None of us could put our finger on it. Some thought it was a flirtation with freemasonry, others ascribed "spirits" of disappointment and so on, but we didn't know.

We also knew there was some sensitivity about race - we are a rare mixed race congregation - but no one  ever said that this had happened. Now a lot of things fall into place. We are beginning to understand why certain divisions appeared but no one helped us address these issues by explicitly saying what went on. There was a spirit of negativity which seemed beyond anyone's comprehension

Having lost many of our Black congregation - mainly newly arrived migrants from the West Indies - many of the white congregation simply joined the "white flight", leaving the area and the church. Within five or six years ofter the incident over the collection the church was on the verge of closure. Then something wonderful happened which I have described elsewhere.

When David the student from Queens first told me his findings my jaw dropped. I feel as if I want to cry. I'm broken hearted that our church is  perceived by people in those terms.  

I remember all the effort we've put in. But for nearly half a century we had been carrying this burden of which we were completely unaware.  I need as a white person to understand why at no point in my 27 year's membership I hadn't stumbled on this horrible truth. I've since discussed it other people who were in the church in the 1980s and 1990s. They too are utterly shocked that the racism was so overt and obvious.

We know that it isn't acceptable now. But it wasn't acceptable then. This was out and out racism on Methodist premises amongst a Methodist congregation with Methodist people as both perpetrators and victims.

In recent weeks we have been undertaking essential repairs to our roof, treating dry rot and removing tons of rubbish that had accumulated over many years. We have developed an "empty room" policy. If a room is not used we want the rubbish out.

That is how we feel about this terrible blot on our reputation. It has made us more determined to physically clean the building. We probably will be issuing a statement acknowledging that this happened and offering an unreserved apology.

We are not going to burden anyone by asking for their forgiveness, nor are we asking anyone to forget. Far from it, we need to understand that Methodism and the Christianity of which it is part is not immune from the various evil spirits, including racism.

Every single white person involved in these incidents have long since left the church, the area or died. I just hope that this was just one incident and was not repeated in other Methodist churches.

However they have left behind a terrible legacy of which we have only just become aware. We now need to take this forward. We need to pray for healing. We need your prayers.

Thank you for reading this.


Robert said...

I've heard lots of stories which are just as bad; this one isn't the first from this circuit. It's horrifying, and similar attitudes were still around in the late 1980's; I saw and heard things which went on than, and which got me interested in what had been going on since the 1950's. We can only hope we really have put it behind us now, and try to ensure that nobody with a racist attitude gets appointed to office again.

Fat Prophet said...

will be supporting you in prayer as you look to God to move this forward.

Anonymous said...

To anyone who's had any kind of engagement with Black British theology (much of which comes out of Queens), this isn't news. I'm a youngish black Methodist who's read about this, and had discussions with some of the older ones who came here in the 50s/60s...

Stories of black churchgoers who were told to 'go to your own church', or who were just ignored are fairly commonplace. I suppose many were allowed to stay on condition that they didn't 'get above themselves'.

It's often been said that the growth of black majority churches in Britain was partly due to the lack of welcome for many West Indians in the mainstream denominations.

I'm very impressed that your church is now planning to deal with this unfortunate legacy.

PamBG said...

I'm unclear whether I'm welcome to comment here, but when I served as a student minister in the almost entirely black church in London (I was one of 3 white people), the folk who had come to Britain from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s all told similar stories.

Many who had been stalwart Methodists back home - class leaders and stewards, etc. - were told that they were not welcome in white Methodist churches. You would not have guessed it from the way I was warmly welcomed into that congregation.

I hope that your congregation will be able to build bridges to the past and ask and receive the forgiveness which God is always ready to give. And well done to everyone for being honest and seeking to bring about healing.

Kobina A Otabil said...

The sad thing is that racism in the church is still happening. I know of churches where some white folks left the church for the simple reason that there are too many blacks. This did not happen in the 70's or 80's. This happened just 7-8 yrs ago.
I have been on this Methodistbloggers for a while and I am following some bloggers. Though not a frequent blogger, I do post from time to time. Do you know the number of my posts that have appeared on this stream? None. I wrote to ask if I have not met the requirement. I am still waiting for the response.

Methodist Preacher said...

I cant think of any Methodist Bloggers who would withhold your comments - we are well pleased to find that someone actually reads our stuff! One or two dot take comments. Sorry to hear of your recent experience

Robert said...

I've seen white people drift away as well- it's common enough - but as far as I'm concerned it's good riddance to them. If they don't want to be around people with a bit more skin pigment than themselves, then they're not going to do the church much good until they sort themselves out! Either everyone in the church treats everyone else with respect, or it falls apart.

CBJ said...

This is a very interesting story - back in the 50's-60's our church (a Pentecostal in Smethwick) accepted and welcomed in the migrating West-Indies people - but it was the local churches that excluded us as we had welcomed these "blacks" not only into our church but into serving positions.

The church really has alot to answer for!

Ian G said...

The point of the story is that the white people at CRMC, at the time David is writing about, DID NOT HAVE A CLUE about this history. David didn't and neither did I, and we were in different camps although both trying hard to bridge the gap. The young whites left because every action of theirs was misinterpreted through the lens of this legacy. They did not leave, as Robert wrongly insinuates, because they were racist but because they were not and were sick of being wrongly accused.

Blacks also left. They were trying to heal the rift and were called 'coconuts' and 'Uncle Toms'. I don't think that they knew about this history, but they were trying to leave it behind.

Some people did know, but for their own reasons said nothing. The whites who knew weren't racist against blacks. I can't speak for anyone else.

I disagree with David over one thing, forgiveness is necessary. There are blacks (and whites) who judged all whites as racist because of this and whites (and blacks) who have been left with deep wounds and mistrust that they did not want.

In the late 1960s most of the activists at CRMC in the late 70s and through the 80s were IN THEIR TEENS AND ELSEWHERE when this horrible incident took place. Nevertheless, we had to live with its aftermath and to do so in complete ignorance of what was going on. The loss of these people was not good riddance. It was an avoidable tragedy if only those who knew had told us about it.

Ian G said...

David a whole comment has just been swallowed by your system.

Methodist Preacher said...

Ian I think we have got your comment back. Thanks for all the comments. We are trying to take this thing forward and feel that the physical work on the building is giving a new focus for our energies. We still have a long way to go.

Ian, I don't think that I said I didn't feel "forgiveness is necessary". What I think we will avoid doing is insisting that people do forgive. That is something that I would hope will happen as people develope a new and refreshed relationship with God.

I don't think Robersts comments were specifically about our church. He only came a few times and I don't think he would consider himself able to commetn in detail.