Epworth history through a racial justice lens

Epworth in a Time of Racial Reckoning

The video recording of George Floyd’s death has become a cultural touchstone. Something about that footage — maybe its graphic nature; maybe the close-up shot of the expressions of George Floyd’s face; maybe the sound of the helpless passers-by begging for his life; maybe the casual manner in which the homicidal policeman’s fellow officers stood by, heading off any possible interference while this life was slowly, permanently tugged away. Whatever it was, it appears that in the airing and viewing of that particular video footage, the soul of a nation was finally touched. And touched it has been.

Protest demonstrations have been taking place in over a hundred cities nationwide, indeed worldwide. They have been accompanied by op-ed pieces, corporate declarations, political pronouncements, and the designation of a holiday in recognition and condemnation of America’s racist past and present. It is, without doubt, a time of reckoning across the country and the world, and we at Epworth must reckon, as well, and with our own focus close to home.

We must determine what role we are to play in the seemingly inevitable social change and upheaval that lies in our immediate future. As members, we pledged to “resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they may present themselves,” so our participation is warranted, perhaps mandated. That means trying to fix the world “out there,” but it also means paying closer to attention to our world close to home. Epworth is an entity, an institution with its own life and history. To properly address what lies before us — our future — we must honestly address what has been lain behind —- our past.

While it is important to ask these questions in the broadest terms, we also need to embed our pursuit of racial justice in the very ground we occupy, the very space that we once inhabited (and hope to inhabit again, once safe and prudent to do so.) How might our understanding of our call be reshaped by asking how Epworth came to be a predominantly white United Methodist Church located in a predominantly white section of the otherwise diverse East Bay, and in proximity to other diverse Methodist churches?

Pastor Kristin has proposed that we, Greg and Michael, head up a committee of willing church members to explore the history of our home church, and its predecessor churches, with regard to race. We know Epworth is a product of many histories. We know that John Wesley was an ardent opponent to slavery. We also know that a rift in the church over slavery created competing predominantly white Methodist denominations; that black Methodists saw the need to found the AME Church in 1816 and the CME Church in 1870; that the church created the all-black Central Jurisdiction in 1939; that the fully-integrated church did not emerge until 1968.

Also, we must explore how and why essentially all-black United Methodist churches like Downs Memorial and Taylor Memorial exist so cozily beside such predominantly white Methodist churches like Epworth and Trinity? And how Epworth developed alongside the growth of AME and CME churches in the East Bay?

And Epworth grew not just within a Methodist world but also a particular neighborhood world of residential segregation in Berkeley. How did the specific red-lining of North Berkeley and the exclusion of black people from jobs on the adjoining Key Route System create the neighborhoods that Epworth and its predecessor churches largely drew upon? What, finally, does our knowledge of the choices and forces that created Epworth require of us as people who voluntarily choose Epworth? Along with its many assets, what debts does Epworth owe, and do we as Epworthians owe? And how would we pay them? Our time of reckoning has come, as well.

Those Epworthians who are interested in being part of an experience that promises to be intellectually edifying, as well as emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, should contact one of us as soon as possible.

Greg Downs

Michael Martin

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