"Do No Harm": An Open Letter to the United Methodist College of Bishops of the Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central and Western Jurisdictions of the United States of America
My name is Rev. Chenda Innis Lee and I am the appointed Associate Pastor at Fairlington United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I was born and baptized into the Christian faith in a small United Methodist Church in rural Liberia, West Africa. I hail from a family of preachers—both men and women—so the path to the vocation of pastoral ministry was inevitable, despite my many years of resistance. In God’s time, I was led to the Virginia Annual Conference and have served churches in the Northern Virginia region for over ten years now. Sharing my background is important to why I am writing this letter to you, and by extension your cabinet.
Since beginning my pastoral ministry in the Virginia Annual Conference, I have been appointed to cross cultural and cross racial congregations, the majority being in white dominant churches. In each of these settings, I have been targeted with bullying behavior demeaning my ethnicity, race, and gender. Most recently, in the church where I am currently appointed, I was the recipient of two anonymous letters, from a member(s) in the congregation criticizing my appearance in racist, sexist, and misogynist language. I brought the letters to the attention of church leadership, namely the lead pastor and the Staff Parish Relations Committee. A public statement of support, including copies of the letters, was sent to the congregation denouncing its contents (included for your viewing). While the author’s view did not reflect the vast majority of the congregation, the author, however, exposed a pervasive reality facing clergy of color serving white dominant churches in the United Methodist denomination.
In my experience over the years, ethnic minority clergy are always required to participate in cross racial/ethnic training prior to their appointments while the churches to which they are sent are not held to the same standard. The truth is that many white people, clergy and lay, are unaware of their racism because it is fully ingrained in the culture and church. The lack of racial sensitivity and diversity training, being a requirement for churches receiving ethnic minority clergy, leaves clergy of color vulnerable in these spaces. We are subjected to subtle and overt acts of racism and a plethora of microaggressions, often to the detriment of our spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. When we dare name these insidious behaviors towards us, we are gaslighted and perceived as “angry,” and “unapproachable.” Consequently, the stress of these incidents lead us to acquiesce our authenticity for the sake of our sanity, yet suffering in silence while “patiently” awaiting the day we can “check the box” to request a change in appointment. However, I’ve learned from these experiences that a change in appointment does not always come immediately and is often a band aid solution to addressing the sin of white supremacy and its malignant systems still prevalent in our denomination.
The recent incident in my current appointment has propelled me to no longer be silent about the detrimental impacts of white supremacy on clergy of color serving white dominant churches in the United Methodist Church. I made my story public with the “#DanglingEarringsChallenge,” which trended on social media for several weeks as an act of resistance against racist, misogynistic and sexist demands that attempt to undermine our call as heralds of the Gospel. Furthermore, the challenge was the initial action of bringing into the light of Christ the silent stories of my colleagues and demanding the United Methodist Church prioritize and fully commit to dismantling the evil, injustice, and oppression of white supremacy. Dismantling white supremacy is not easy, but all believers have a Christian responsibility to this work. It is an issue of discipleship, reminding us of Christ’s command to love God AND our neighbor. Over the years, our denomination has skirted addressing the Church’s racial harm by scapegoating the concerns of our LGBTQIA+ siblings and allowing the sin of racism to keep flourishing in the Church.
Therefore, in the spirit of our Wesleyan heritage, I am organizing the “Do No Harm” campaign, demanding the College of Bishops of the five U.S. jurisdictions make the rectification of the harm being inflicted on people of color compulsory for local churches, districts, and annual conferences by doing at least the following:
1. Publicly acknowledge the harm churches are perpetuating against clergy of color by highlighting their stories as a call to repentance and accountability. In the same manner that clergy are held accountable for abusing their pastoral authority, congregations should also be held accountable for the harm inflicted on pastoral leaders. Pastors are called to be servant leaders among the people of God, not to be targets for assault and abuse.
2. Conduct an annual anti-racist and diversity training for members of your cabinet. Many of my colleagues of color have shared stories of the lack of support they receive from their District Superintendents. Often, clergy are consecutively reappointed to churches to their emotional, mental, and even physical detriment. Most clergy just want to use their gifts for ministry, not climb the “corporate” church ladder.
3. Establish a Cross-Racial/Cross-Cultural Ministry Task Force to lead mandatory anti-racist and diversity training workshops for local churches receiving cross-racial/cross-cultural appointments immediately and a plan to do this in all local congregations by 2024. This task force should include both clergy and lay members. Diversity trainings should not only be the responsibility of the clergy, as is often the case. It is time to bridge the gap so that the laity is included as part of this important work.
4. Create a conference staff position that focuses on diversity, inclusion, and equity training for your annual conference. Diversity and inclusion training is becoming the norm in many institutions, yet the Church lags in this trend. This can no longer be the case because the lives of persons of color are at risk daily. This position should work closely with the Cross Cultural Task Force in conducting mandatory training for local churches and districts. Additionally, this office will hold the conference accountable to its commitment of dismantling white supremacy and creating healthy work environments for ALL clergy.
Too often, the work for racial justice is relegated to educational experiences--workshops, panel discussions, book clubs, etc. However, education without action continues to inflict and perpetuate harm against people of color. Furthermore, the trauma from these injustices is felt not only by those impacted but also by their family and loved ones. I have four young daughters who are becoming disillusioned with the church because they have borne witness to my mistreatment over the years. I believe that neither I, nor any of my ethnic minority colleagues, should be bullied into sacrificing our bodies for the comfort of whiteness. We resolve to no longer be complacent in our own demise and demand that the tangible actions outlined in this letter be implemented, so that we can thrive in our appointments without fear of abuse, incrimination, and reprisal for being our authentic selves.
In Faith and Love,
Rev. Chenda Innis Lee
Fairlington United Methodist Church, Alexandria District
Add your name below to endorse this open letter to the UMC College of Bishops of the five jurisdictions in the United States. You do not need to be United Methodist or a person of faith to support this letter.