Truth & Racial Reckoning - History Overview for Holy Conversations
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, exists today in a time of racial reckoning with the continued impact of white supremacy in the United States and the world. The May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis catalyzed local and worldwide protests, and has engendered movements to confront and address this pervasive and systemic racism. In July 2020, an open working group of Epworth members began meeting at the suggestion of the pastor for the purpose of educating ourselves about our history as a local church and our understanding of truth-telling and racial reckoning. We are a predominantly but not exclusively white congregation in a predominantly white neighborhood, despite the presence of many Black Methodists in closely neighboring communities and despite a history of exchanges and interactions with our sister congregations.
What does our knowledge of Epworth’s past require of us? This document provides a quick overview to help focus discussion on the implications of Epworth’s cultural inheritances as a United Methodist Church situated in Berkeley. Many kinds of exclusion, racist and otherwise, are central to Epworth’s story. For the purposes of this document, we focus primarily on anti-Black exclusion and segregation in North Berkeley and within the Methodist Church at the time of Epworth’s founding.
The Epworth United Methodist Church we know today arose out of two separate social structures, each steeped in the racism that has pervaded the United States since its earliest days. One system is the US Methodist Church in its many incarnations over the centuries. The second is the creation and development of North Berkeley’s neighborhoods and surrounding areas. The intentional exclusion of Black people and the establishment of systems that were and remain unequal profoundly shaped both structures.
These structural forces often overlapped with contrasting efforts inside the broader Methodist Church. Examples in the denomination’s past include John Wesley’s eventual opposition to slavery, anti-slavery activism among early Methodists, efforts to construct biracial Methodist churches from the 1700s onward, and Methodists who fought against the denominations’ move toward separate and unequal practices.
At different moments in our history, the Epworth community has made concerted efforts to confront racism, even as we must acknowledge a failure to reckon with the ways white supremacy at Epworth has harmed and continues to harm members of our congregation and the broader community. Perseverance in this work requires constant vigilance, a commitment to speaking the truth in love, and a determination to strive to be as Christ to one another. That love that is foundational to our faith must inspire us to practice anti-racism.
In the late 1700s in the United States, Methodism sometimes nurtured significant numbers of Black congregants and fostered spirits of justice and equity. Although John Wesley at first seemed to accept the institution of slavery where he found it, he preached to Black people in his visits to American colonies and in 1774 published a strong critique against enslavement in his pamphlet, “Thoughts Upon Slavery.” Early U.S Methodist conferences passed requirements that ministers preach against slavery and in favor of manumission, or the emancipation of enslaved people.
But the church frequently failed to live up to its ideals. For a time, in cities, Methodist churches were sites of cross-racial engagement, though this engagement was often unequal and paternalistic. In the end, white Methodists crushed alliances with Black Methodists. Richard Allen’s conversion to Methodism serves as a notable example: As a Black man, he preached across mid-Atlantic states and successfully promoted Methodism within Philadelphia’s Black community. But in 1786 and 1787, during a service at his church, white congregants forcibly removed Allen and other Black members. Allen’s response was to leave the Methodist Church and take his followers with him to found a new church. White Methodist leaders then sought to seize the property from Allen and those followers, leading to a lengthy legal battle that the white leaders lost. With that victory Allen and others established the Bethel AME Church and then the AME denomination, which still thrives today. Similar stories in New York led to the creation of the AME Zion denomination.
By the 1830s, white Northern Methodists increasingly struggled over slavery’s impact on the denomination. In the South, an explosion of wealth from cotton and increased pro-slavery legal and theological attitudes hardened support for slavery among whites. By 1844-1845, the southern conferences created their own separate Methodist church to defend slavery. White Southern Methodists included enslaved people in churches as less than full participants.
Cross-racial worship continued in unequal, distinct terms within both denominations. After the Civil War, the Southern Methodist church aided Black Methodists in founding the CME denomination for once-enslaved Methodists. At the same time, white Northern Methodists launched campaigns to convert the same formerly enslaved people to their own denomination. But the inclusion offered was also unequal. Northern Methodists separated white congregations from Black, Asian, and other “ethnic” ones, forming racially segregated conferences across the country.
The two large, historically white Methodist denominations—Northern and Southern—reunited in 1939. As separate denominations, they each had churches in Berkeley, established by white migrants from different regions. With national unification, some church sites were deemed redundant. Epworth today emerged directly from this history as the merger of the campus-area Southern Methodist Church named Epworth and the North Berkeley Northern Methodist Church named Northbrae Methodist. The new congregation took Epworth’s name and built a larger church on the Northbrae site.
The national merger also reinforced Black people’s separate and unequal status in the Methodist church. Black Methodist churches were placed in a separate Central Jurisdiction, a move that continued to isolate non-white churches from white ones. The result was uneven distribution of resources and attention within the UMC. But the separate jurisdiction also created space for relative Black autonomy, leading to many still-thriving Black UMC churches led by Black bishops who had a profound impact within the East Bay and far beyond.
Our denomination’s history follows broader U.S. patterns of enslavement, the creation of racial codes, the temporary decline in slavery’s power in the years after independence, the resurgence of slavery’s role in the country in the early 1800s, the self-emancipation of Black people in the 1860s, and the resulting establishment of segregation from the latter parts of the 1800s through the World War II Era, the Civil Rights movement, and the world we live in today.
Epworth is embedded in a legacy of neighborhood exclusion. In the early 1900s, North Berkeley was created and molded through nationally innovative racial zoning laws and urban land development; coupled with private deed restrictions and covenants, these practices excluded people of color. Even after the Supreme Court barred restrictive covenants, real estate agents and banks deliberately segregated our community. Federal housing guarantees also favored white homeowners, ensuring many Berkeley neighborhoods would not desegregate for decades. All this happened by design, by city planning, and by real estate decisions that directly led to wealth and health for whites and blocked opportunities and equal access for people of color, which persist to this day. How does this housing and neighborhood history impact our foundation as a congregation and how should we approach this legacy today? Residential segregation creates obligations our present church community must acknowledge and understand.
Our committee is just beginning to discern Epworth’s history within the context of the broader church and US history and to examine Epworth’s specific actions and inaction since its founding. As the church reopens during the pandemic, our committee recently regained access to the church archives and is now collecting written and remembered history of actions at Epworth addressing racial injustice from the local to the global.
Moving forward requires that we acknowledge the ways Epworth and our broader church community have hurt people of color—and that we find a way to plant the seeds of a genuine, heartfelt healing within our present congregation and within the United Methodist Church. We must join with others to pursue justice and stand in solidarity with those most harmed by structural racism.
Can our congregation commit to ongoing learning about racism and racial injustice? Are there actions of atonement or reparations for Epworth to consider or to work with the western jurisdiction to consider? What would making amends look like?
These are the questions we hope holy conferencing may consider to lead to the kinds of commitments we hope and believe Epworth can make.
Epworth History - US Methodism Context by Dr. Greg Downs
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Zoning and Racism, North Berkeley Style by Navarre Oaks