Monday, March 11, 2013

Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai: Why I Choose to Be United Methodist Today

Vicki James* is a developmentally disabled, African-American woman who lives in a half-way house near, Milwood UMC, the church I pastor. She spends most of her days walking up and down the streets near our church, sometimes in near zero-degree temperatures. I found her walking one winter day wearing pajamas and a man’s coat that would not close because the zipper was broken.

Every Sunday morning Vicki comes to Milwood to worship. She comes early to share in muffins and coffee. During worship she sits on the aisle. A few Sundays ago, she stood up in the middle of worship to declare that it was her birthday. We stopped everything and sang to her.

Vicki lives on the margins of race, gender, ability and socio-economic status. She stands at the boundaries that separate those who have privilege from those who do not. Through her (and through people like her) comes God’s call to the Church to move from its privileged center to the margins and to reach out across boundaries and build community.

I am United Methodist today, because Methodism, from its inception, has always sought to do that. John Wesley reached across the boundaries of poverty and class to engage those on the margins of his society. Some of the early Methodist circuit riders in America reached across the boundaries of race and ethnicity to also engage those on the margins.

Of course, we have not always been successful with reaching across boundaries and engaging the margins. We have often failed in painful ways. There were the divisions within our precursor denominations over the issue of slavery. There was the creation of the Central Jurisdiction that segregated the faithful by race. There was Methodist participation in the massacre at Sand Creek and the marginalization of indigenous peoples around the world. And today we continue to struggle with engaging those we have pushed to the margins because of their sexuality.

We have had our failings as a denomination. We still have our failings. However, I can find no other place that is better equipped to engage the margins and cross boundaries than The United Methodist Church. That is simply because we have social justice written into our DNA. And that DNA compels us to cross boundaries. That DNA moves us to the margins where people like Vicki live.

The members of my local church are mostly white and middle class. Yet, they welcome Vicki. They feed her and give her coffee. I don’t know that they know what they are doing. But I do. They are reaching across boundaries. They are inching closer to the margins. They are in the busy intersection of justice and community to which the Gospel calls us. They are doing this with Vicki. They will be called to do this with others if they are to thrive.

And they will be called to do more. They will be called to relinquish privilege—the privilege of cherished traditions—the privilege of maintaining white cultural norms within the church—the privilege of complacency around issues of justice. They will be called to relinquish such privilege to erase boundaries. They will be called to relinquish such privilege to move from center to margin to build community. They will be called to do this as a local church. We are being called to do this as a denomination. I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be part of a denomination that is hearing and responding to that call.

*Name has been changed for identity protection.

Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai is the Pastor of Milwood UMC Kalamazoo, Michigan and District Superintendent Elect for the Lansing District/West Michigan Annual Conference