How do we engage and build bridges in our local community? How can the church be relevant in today's culture? How can we equip leaders with the skills and awareness to build relationships across cultures and develop authentic relationships that transform lives, churches and communities? How do we embrace diversity as a way of being?
The General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR), along with local United Methodist churches, districts and annual conferences, is exploring these questions.
GCORR is more than the monitoring agency it was first set out to be. Created by The United Methodist Church in 1968 to hold the church accountable in matters of racial equity and justice, the commission continues to evolve. Today, it invites and leads the church into new conversations about relevance and God's call to serve a world that is far different from when it began its work.
The CORR Action Fund is one way Religion and Race leads the church into new conversations. In 2014, the commission awarded more than $1.2 million in grants to fund bold, innovative initiatives across congregations, annual conferences, jurisdictions and central conferences and seminaries. These efforts also increase intercultural competency and conversations about race, cultural diversity and systemic equity leading to action.
Epworth United Methodist Church, located just outside the District of Columbia in Gaithersburg, Maryland, received a grant. Historically a predominantly white church, the congregation has grown and is now a thriving interethnic congregation with cross-cultural leadership.
"We are an intentionally multicultural, multilingual community, with our largest populations being white, African American, new African immigrants and new Latin immigrants," says the Rev. Jennifer Fenner, Epworth pastor.
Sharing a vision
In 2010, Fenner came on staff as a mission intern through the General Board of Global Ministries, together with the Rev. Yolanda Pupo-Ortiz, now pastor emerita. The church then offered one English, one Spanish and one bilingual Holy Communion service each month. They have since added weekly English-language services in traditional and contemporary formats and a contemporary Spanish-language service every Sunday, to respond to community needs.
Religion and Race, Fenner says, "has been instrumental in allowing us to be creative in how we reach youth and the communities surrounding the church, and has always been at the forefront of intentionality in multicultural and intercultural ministry and understanding its challenges.
"GCORR gets all of that. They have caught a vision for reaching younger folks and engaging with the community, and have been at the forefront of supporting that," Fenner remarks. "It has been very helpful to have an agency of the church that not only provides funding, but also provides leadership around the very issues that are affecting [our] community."
The Rev. Amy Stapleton, the agency's team leader for organizational accountability, agrees. "There is a gap between the church and changing demographics of our communities, and we are in such a unique time in the history of the world, to be able to equip and resource the church in areas of intercultural competency, and stand in that gap."
"The U.S. church is 95 percent white, according to the General Council on Finance and Administration," she adds. "We are trying to change the narrative so that every person and congregation is equipped and prepared and ready to embrace a cross-cultural ministry experience."
Erin Hawkins, GCORR general secretary, sees her agency as a resource provider for those who want to be in relationship with their community. She is excited about the commission's work in the central conferences. "It's not just because we're a global church," Hawkins says, "but because much of what's happening outside the United States is impacting us here in the U.S. That work feels more holistic, more complete, more of what the church is supposed to be."
Philippines also benefits
In the Baguio Episcopal Area of Philippines, grant funds are creating a communications resource center for approximately 25 youth and adults to learn and interact with people from different cultures, ages and economic backgrounds through multimedia productions.
"Half of the group is undergoing training in intercultural understanding with special attention on how to reach the younger generation and the unchurched," says Ernani Celzo, a member of Baguio United Methodist Church. The grant creates space for indigenous church media artists, cultural performers and storytellers to have access to learn, record, share and advocate using technologies funded through Religion and Race.
The Rev. Giovanni Arroyo, GCORR team leader for program ministries, sees a shift from a monocultural understanding to embracing a community's reality and making it the church's reality. "This is a transition of who we are," Arroyo reflects. "We are no longer the church we used to be, but as an agency, we are committed to helping the church understand the dynamics of multiculturalism and build leaders who can work in any context or reality."
Through training, consulting and a host of resources, GCORR is equipping local churches, districts and conferences to be spaces where everyone can see themselves as relevant to the needs of the people in their communities.
"The General Commission on Religion and Race," Hawkins says, "is here to help those who recognize the shifting demographics in our churches, and is ready to assist those congregations without the same capacity to reach non-dominant, non-upper- or middle-class communities."
Sophia Agtarap is a freelance writer and communications consultant and trainer based in Nashville, Tennessee.