Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Unexpected Hero

For the last several weeks, our congregation, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, has been working with nearby Asbury United Methodist Church and Wesley Theological Seminary on a journey towards reconciliation. The two congregations are located less than two blocks away from each other. I can see Asbury from my office window. We are so close when it comes to geography and so far apart when it comes to history.
One of the first things people notice about our monumental structure are words etched in stone, "Methodist Episcopal Church South." The large words are etched above both main entrances to the sanctuary building. The church building is monumental - it looks more like the Supreme Court building than it does a steepled church. It was designed to stand tall, to stand out, to stand above. And, it was paid for by people from other churches all over the south who were part of the same denomination, proudly stamping their building with the denomination name.
Our church was the "representative church" for the part of the Methodist Church that split in 1844 over the issue of slavery. When a bishop acquired slaves through marriage and would not let them go, the church split. The Methodist Episcopal Church would not tolerate slavery - a stance our church has held since its beginning. The Methodist Episcopal Church South, on the other hand, said slavery was fine.
We split. We built a monumental church. We remained a separate denomination until 1939. And, our churches have remained separate in so many different ways. But, through the gift of a partnership, our stories are being told in new ways - ways intended to bring together that which has been separated - to bring healing to hurt.
Our journey started with a film as we gathered to watch a movie and then talk. We then had a night devoted to hearing the history of Asbury UMC. The next Wednesday evening we learned about the history of race in the United Methodist Church. We then gathered last Wednesday night to learn the history of Mount Vernon Place.
I thought I knew what to expect. I tell the history in a short synopsis at each new member class. I have spent hours in the archives pouring through the files of history. However, I had never heard one of our members, Mary Lou, speak about our history. I had never heard her tell her role in seeking to change history nearly 50 years ago.
Mary Lou brought with her two documents. One of them was a copy of a local newspaper article from March 14, 1962. The article was titled, "Churches Declare Welcome to All Regardless of Race or Background" and told how 74 Protestant churches came together to sign a statement "welcoming into full membership all persons of any racial, economic or social background." Mary Lou brought the article and pointed out how Asbury had signed the document. She commended them for her taking a stand and then continued to tell her story.
She shared how she was responsible for the young adult group at church and invited a speaker to come and share on "How to Integrate an Unintegrated Church." Mary Lou was seeking to be faithful. She was seeking to follow her savior and expose the young adults to a different way. The conversation, however, did not go well. Mary Lou brought with her a letter dated June 14, 1962 from the pastor of Brightwood Park Methodist Church. Rev. Harry L. Bennett wrote to Mary Lou expressing thanksgiving and then shared, "I'm sorry about the embarrassment that the topic might have had for your Pastor and some of the church members. Perhaps some church members and pastors need to be embarrassed and shocked, especially when it comes to long overdue brotherhood and decent human relations."
Mary Lou did not elaborate on what had happened. She did not share why the pastor was embarrassed or what happened. She only made it clear that the conversation did not go well. In the meantime, I have been praising God for Mary Lou. I have been giving thanks for how her efforts nearly 50 years ago have played a part in getting us where we are today. I now see how Mary Lou's fingerprints are not only on the handles of doors that are opened as she brings people to church but on a congregation that has been transformed in more recent years. While we have a ways to go, I am so thankful for the steps taken long before many of us arrived at this place. I am also thankful for people at both churches who are willing to tell stories - to take steps towards wholeness and healing.
Thanks be to God for my new unexpected hero. Thank you, Mary Lou, for what you have done to make this church what it is today. Thank you for being you.

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