The continuing discussions/debates/disagreements about human sexuality and marriage equality  in The United Methodist Church and how we might restructure ourselves to  accommodate traditionalists and progressives” is like a “blast from the past”. It, to some degree, could be a replication of the debates that took place before the “Unification” of 3 Methodist bodies that treated the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction in 1939.

But first, why quote the above famous “Yogiisim” from the mind and mouth of baseball great, Yogi Berra? I, at the age of 80, am fascinated by what the internet reveals to me that I did not know. I had not encountered the term “Yogiisim” until I googled the name Yogi Berra to be sure I remembered correctly the above quotation. My grandmother, “Mama Irene,” said as one of her oft-quoted bits of wisdom, “Live and learn, die and forget it all.” Since age and health reasons bring me closer to death than I have ever been before (smile), I am pleased to be able to live and learn before I die.

I continue to be fascinated and discouraged by the impact the words, “…the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching…,” are  having on The United Methodist Church in the 21st century. I am a bit “bothered and bewildered” by the fact that the denomination has never said with such clarity and finality, “The practice of slavery and racial segregation are incompatible with Christian teaching.”

I just read someone who wrote, “The only place slavery is mentioned [in the Bible] is for indentured persons and prisoners and war.” Why then, in the names of heaven and hell, did Methodism debate and divide for so long over slavery if it was not Biblical? And further, why after the debates about slavery, did the denomination step away from slavery and create and sanction church-sponsored racial segregation through the creation of the race-based, Central Jurisdiction?

I share this Methodist racial history because we are observing a replication of it in regards to human sexuality and marriage equality. How often must those of us in Methodism who have known separation and segregation because we/they are women and/or black,  say of today’s debate about human sexuality, “The more things change the more they remain the same?”

The following represents my effort to imagine the discussions/debates/disagreements that took place before the formation of the racially-segregated Methodist Church in 1939 at the Kansas City, “Unification Conference.” I do this in an effort, because of my 3rd generation Methodist history and my love of the United Methodist Church, to point out how we do not remember or allow our history to keep us from repeating that history in the present. We repeat it this time in response to same-sex love and commitment.

The leaders of three Methodist denominations continued their discussions about their future in a recent meeting. There was the usual discussion about what the Bible said and did not say about slavery and black people. The discussion this time was about more than Biblical interpretation, theology and Christology. It was about finances, church property and other matters of materialism. The debates about slavery again surfaced. One of the leaders from the south who disagreed with his colleagues who still sanctioned slavery although it was no longer legal, reminded them again about John Wesley and slavery. Wesley had written William Wilberforce
and exressed his disdain for slavery by expressing his view that slavery in America was the vilest in the world. He did this to remind them that despite their admiration for John Wesley, they disagreed with him on slavery.

The purpose of the meeting was to agree on a church structure/ecclesiology that would receive a majority vote at the 1939 Conference. They agreed that they could distance themselves from the support for slavery of the Methodist Church South by moving from slavery to racial segregation by creating the Central Jurisdiction. Although some at the meeting still believed that slavery was in the best interests of blacks, they agreed that the racial segregation of the Central Jurisdiction would be second best. One of the persons at the meeting said, “It is only a matter of time before racial integration becomes legal in all of the United States. We can justify the racial segregation of the Central Jurisdiction as an expression of our religious freedom that the separation of Church and State allows.

Although the Central Jurisdiction was created in 1939, a majority of the black delegates at the Unification Conference, voted against it.

Who are the United Methodists who will be the Yogi Berra’s among us, and dare to say in meeting after meeting; “It’s deja vu all over again?”

Rev. Gil Caldwell

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a retired United Methodist Minister who lives in Asbury Park, N.J. He was active in the Massachusetts unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and participated in the civil-rights movement throughout the nation. In 2000, he, with others, organized the RMN Extension ministry United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church (UMOC), an organization committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in every aspect of church and society. His recent book, Something Within: Works by Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is available from Church Within A Church. Gil's advocacy efforts were also featured in the film "From Selma to Stonewall - Are We There Yet?" Learn more at truthinprogress.com

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