By Brian Roberts | Cape Atlantic District Superintendent
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:26, 27
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. …15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Romans 12: 9-10, 15
“We’re Different, We’re the Same!” I remembered reading this Sesame Street book to my children when they were little and went online to order a new copy to read to my great-nieces and great-nephews. This is a fun, colorful book that teaches a powerful Biblical Truth.
If I were writing this book, I might have started with “We’re the same!”, but the authors acknowledge our apparent outward differences and then teach that under and in the midst of it all, we are all the same! For us in the Church, we proclaim each one is a child of God….created in God’s image.
We’re different! Each of us, while created in the image of God with sacred worth, is different with different gifts, talents, personalities and experiences. Recent events in our nation, with the horrific death of George Floyd, has brought to the surface a painful and difficult reality we are grappling with as a nation.
While there is one human race, all made in the image of God, there are many who experienced and are experiencing life in our nation very differently. I worked in Buffalo the year between college and seminary in what some would call an inner-city community going through a lot of change. The concept of “different Americas” or different experiences in this nation hit as I moved from rural upstate New York into the city and lived over a congregation’s store front outreach center.
One member of the congregation I worked with described it like this: “I drive a few short miles from one America in the suburban outer rings of Buffalo into a very different place; it’s like it is a different country”.
As I became acquainted with different members in the small increasingly multi-cultural congregation, I started to learn their stories and realized my experiences growing up were not their experiences. Many had scars emotionally and some physically from racism. One had moved up from the South and shared what it was like to grow up and be forced to drink from a different water fountain or enter a separate door at school because of the color of her skin–and she was less than 20 years older than me.
In seminary, I was blessed to serve as a student pastor for a year with the Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Princeton, NJ—just blocks from the seminary campus. It was a meaningful year as I worshipped and ministered with seminary and Princeton University professors as well as those across a wide economic and educational spectrum.
A professor would remind me during our discussions about shared Methodist roots that the AME denomination was formed in Philadelphia in 1796, when Richard Allen attended a Methodist Church with other African Americans and they were told to worship in the balcony; they walked out to start their own denomination.
In conversations with the senior pastor the AME Church while we visited members’ homes, he would help me understand that while I had interest in learning and understanding about black history and experience, I was a “visitor” to another America. I could travel freely back and forth between these different Americas due to the color of my skin and “white passport”. He and his members were viewed differently by many due to racism.
In my first experience out of seminary, I served at St. Peter’s in Ocean City and was blessed to serve with Macedonia UMC, the sister African American congregation in Ocean City. The fact that there are two congregations on the island speaks to a history in our nation and a time period in our denomination (1938-1968) where there was “separate but equal” segregation. All these African-American congregations, formed in towns with other Methodist churches due to racial divides, were put into the Central Jurisdiction which segregated African-Americans from their Methodist brothers and sisters based solely on race.
This notion of different Americas that I lived in and experienced as a white American had been put into a very powerful message called “The Other America” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., less than a month before he was assassinated. This “other America” was very apparent as I served as senior pastor of St. Paul UMC in Trenton for 5 years. It was a multi-cultural congregation that worked intentionally to be a community of faith together, yet there were moments of great pain when implicit biases impacted and hurt others in the congregation.
I also served on the Mayor’s Cross Racial Task Force. As we grew deeper in faith and closer to each other across ethnic, class, and educational differences, I became aware of the varied and painful experiences people had, often based on the color of their skin. We wrestled and dealt with the harmful impact of racism—some blatant and importantly, much of it intrenched and invisible to those impacted by their biases.
We can’t fix that which we don’t acknowledge. There is and was a painful part of our history as a nation and a denomination that we must address together.
We have beautiful, rich diversity in our Greater New Jersey United Methodist Church and there is opportunity for us to tap into it for healing, hope and justice in our congregations, the wider church and our world. We have come this far by faith, and we’ve a long way to go Yes, our Southern Region (that ROCKS!) And there is painful history we need to acknowledge, so join hands and hearts and work together for transformation.
In college, the track coach would often be in the athletic center where I had a campus job. I would hear his booming, jovial voice down the hall and step out to see him. He would slap me on the back, as he did others and say “It’s a great day for the race!” This was “bait” as people would inevitably ask “What race, coach?” and he would share with gusto “The human race!”
I believe God calls us in these challenging times to work together to make it a great day for the race-the human race, by working together, seeing each person as created in God’s image, lifting up and bringing peace and justice for all. Let’s join hands and hearts and live out what Jesus modeled and taught.
We’re the same! The Bible tells us so and we are stronger together as Christ’s Church!