On the first day of Mississippi’s Annual Conference, Bishop Swanson made his allegiances clear. He told the gathered clergy that they needed to sit down, stop protesting, stop withholding apportionments, stop complaining, and be joyful. Black folks, he said, had already done this: they had been through it all, and the Central Conferences had endured racism. They didn’t withhold their apportionments or complain, he said, and they found joy even in their pain. 

While I’m sure parts of what he said are true, I’m deeply worried about the connotation he drew: that people would just grin and bear their own oppression, that their voices shouldn’t be heard to talk about the oppression of their personhood, that they needed to act as if nothing had hurt them. 

In all my reading of the Bible, I’ve never once seen where Jesus told folks who were hurting that they should sit down and be quiet. He does quite the opposite. Over and over again, Jesus stands up for the oppressed and breaks the norms of conventions of the empire, drawing much ire from the religious and civil authorities. The Bishop addressed this by saying that Jesus did not teach us how to live; that’s what Paul was for. So it seems that the Church isn’t just divided about the teachings of Jesus, but it’s also divided on whether those teachings even speak into our lives.

This misunderstanding continued during the election of delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference. It took several voices calling for young leaders and deacons to make it onto a delegation before even one person under 40 could be elected as an alternate. In response, the Bishop told the Annual Conference that they needed to make friends in order to extend their power, as though the way we selected leaders was through popularity, not principles. 

This type of leadership has clearly influenced the entire conference, as seen by the voting on petitions and resolutions. Every petition that came up to address the harm done by the General Conference was voted down, ignored, and argued against. The conference couldn’t even recognize all the pain and harm the LGBTQ community has endured.

On that first day, Bishop Swanson drew a good parallel between the Black community and the LGBTQ community, both of which continue to be oppressed in society and the Church. 

Instead of wishing for those communities to silence their pain and pretend that everything is fine, the Bishop could have recognized the way those pains share similarities, are distinct, and are also overlapping. The bishop could have talked about the ways in which LGBTQ Black folks experience homophobia and racism from within and outside of their communities and the intersecting harms of racism and homophobia. He could have said that anti-racism work is necessary in the LGBTQ community. He could have said so much about the work to be done to advance the love and appreciation of both communities and their intersections along with the ways marginalized communities can work together and affirm and support one another. 

Rev. Jenna Johnson

Rev. Jenna Johnson is the youth director at St. Paul and St. Andrew UMC in New York City. She grew up in the Mississippi Annual Conference and then attended Union Theological Seminary.

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