Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Holy Conferencing as Love Building: The Witness of Mary McLeod Bethune

Thinking today about angry white men, stupidity, and malice. Steve and I have an ongoing conversation about the latter.

Having grown up in the great heartland of America, where one can cherish mightily the illusion that one is innocent, Steve ever sees the glass as half-full when I see it as half-empty. He’s quick to recognize stupidity and the effect of its heavy hand in social institutions, including the church. He is loath to see outright malice in much of the bungling that passes for leadership in church and society.

With my crazy, tormented Southern family tree, I’m more inclined to spot evil. I more often grant people the benefit of the doubt re: their ability to understand what’s happening around them. I see many of the blockages in building a better world as willfully evil, willfully malicious and self-interested, rather than fed by stupidity.

And so (naturally) to angry white men: I’m one of them. But what angers me most of all, I think, is something other than what seems to make the “typical” angry white male tick. What angers me has to do with the confluence of stupidity and malice in the thought patterns of so many people who want to resist necessary social changes at all cost.

The current U.S. federal election has resurrected the angry white male—as if he had ever gone away. Powerful currents in our culture resistant to progressive change continue to feed resentments of the angry white man around issues of gender and race. A politics of stupid, venal obstruction, which is never removed from the power centers of our culture, is playing a key role in the current political debates.

And it will probably continue to play a key role when the two candidates are finally selected and voters line up behind one or the other. The question—one of the fundamental questions—we face as a culture (and in our churches of the radical middle, which so closely mirror the culture) is whether we want to stand on the side of the stupid and malicious, or on the side of those who have, at least, the intent to move our culture towards the key ideals for which we claim our nation was founded.

So, anger, yes: my anger as a white male tends to focus on those who seem (to me) intent on willfully thwarting the coalescence of movements of progressive change around our foundational ideals. I could, if I wished, nourish resentment against women or people of color. Some of my most painful experiences in recent years, as a white gay man, have been at the hands of black women—women whom I expected to know better, and knowing better, to do better. Those experiences cut deeply, precisely because I suffered them at the hands of people representing two groups with which I commit myself to stand in solidarity.

But what is to be gained by singling out two social groups that struggle with crushing historic oppression, and venting all my rage about the venality and stupidity of the world on those groups, as if they (and not my demographic) stand for all that is evil in the world? In my view, LGBT people have everything to gain by standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across racial and gender lines. Our society as a whole stands to gain—and all of us as marginalized groups pitted by triangulating white-male “managers” against each other—by forming strong bonds of solidarity with each other. When a woman or an African American breaks through the barriers of the triangulating power center, I gain as a gay white man.

I offer these reflections today as I focus my reflections about holy conferencing on an enormously influential African-American leader of the 20th century, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. I want to focus today’s critical analysis of Wesleyan holy conferencing, as it is currently practiced in the United Methodist Church, on the following claim of Dr. Bethune in her moving Last Will and Testament:

Love builds. It is positive and helpful….Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice where no man's skin, color or religion, is held against him. Loving your neighbor means being interracial, interreligious and international.

Love builds: love is constructive; its opposite is not. This is the leitmotiv of Mary McLeod Bethune’s thought. It is far easier to tear down in a moment something that has taken many years to be built up, than it is to build. It is easier to destroy than create. Chaos beckons everywhere around us, constantly. The choice to move against chaos is one that pulls against the grain, that forces us to muster imagination, trust, creativity, strength of mind and heart, in a world where it is much easier to go along, to become a witting or unwitting agent of all-encompassing chaos.

One of the rare privileges I was given at my last academic job was the charge to immerse myself in the thought of Dr. Bethune (though, strangely enough, I was later reproached for fulfilling this assignment; I was told that it was inappropriate for me as a white man to be analyzing the thought of Mary McLeod Bethune, and that the hard work I did—to research, write, and disseminate information to the university community—was not “work” but “talking” . . .).

My reading of Dr. Bethune has led me to the conviction that this 20th-century figure has something of crucial importance to say to those of us who struggle to keep holy conferencing alive in a 21st-century postmodern context. In church institutions, including church-affiliated academic institutions that are in danger of losing their souls because the leaders of those institutions have acceded to the pressures of those skilled at triangulation, Mary McLeod Bethune points a way forward.

She points to another possibility than accepting the managerial techniques of triangulating power centers who would like us to assume that such techniques are inevitable, if we wish to be preserved from chaos. She points to the possibility of building, not holding the line as if stasis is the single option left if we do not wish chaos to ensue.

Mary McLeod Bethune’s commitment to progressive social change—to constructive building—led her to found a United Methodist HBCU, Bethune-Cookman College. One of Dr. Bethune’s significant innovative practices was her development of town-hall meetings on the campus of the college she founded. It is this development to which I want to draw attention today, as I reflect on how holy conferencing has come to be practiced in the United Methodist Church (as opposed to its prophetic possibility in Wesleyan tradition).

Because Dr. Bethune believed that students learn most effectively when involved in hands-on work with the social challenges of their communities, she made the walls of her college permeable: she linked her campus to the surrounding community, such that the college became an educational presence in the community at large, while the community itself became a privileged locus for her students’ education in social transformation.

I am pointing to Dr. Bethune as a pioneer of a participatory democratic process that has much to offer the United Methodist Church today, as the church examines what it means to engage in sacred conversation. I want to draw attention to Dr. Bethune for another reason, as well.

Her town-hall meetings have gained the attention of progressivist thinkers not only because of their innovative pedagogical interface of town and gown. These meetings also blazed the way for a dialogic process of participatory democracy that brings everyone to the table. At a time and in a place in which the seats of honor were saved in any gathering for those with white skin, Dr. Bethune deliberately assigned no seats to anyone on the basis of power or privilege (which is to say, on the basis of race and socio-economic privilege).

Seating at her town-hall meetings was first-come, first-served. Everyone was welcome. But the meetings comprised a safe space in which the powerful were not permitted to rule over the powerless. They were a safe space in which the voice of the powerless was not only permitted to be heard, but actively solicited.

In other words, at the United Methodist College she founded, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune modeled one of the key principles of Wesleyan holy conferencing, in her town-hall meetings: she actively worked against cultural patterns that gave privilege and voice to a select few on the basis of race, gender, economic status, and so on. She protected those who are ruled out of the conversation and dismissed from the table at most gatherings in the society in which we live (and the churches we attend in Main Street USA).

Like her sister Johnetta Betsch Cole, Dr. Bethune offers the United Methodist Church some important insights into what holy conferencing is all about, when it is practiced authentically and intentionally—with fidelity to core Wesleyan insights. Just as Dr. Cole’s image of soul work is a useful foundational metaphor for holy conferencing, Dr. Bethune’s image of constructive love, love that builds (with its echoes of Wesley’s injunction to do good constantly and avoid causing harm), offers an important critical insight into what holy conferencing can be when it is practiced with fidelity to Wesley’s spirituality.

From their experience of double marginalization as African-American women (and from their experience leading United Methodist colleges), Johnetta Betsch Cole and Mary McLeod Bethune represent radical inclusiveness, coupled with a critique of institutions that thwart the participation of any marginalized group in the structures of participatory democracy. The United Methodist Church, with its practice of holy conferencing, has much to learn from such prophetic leaders.

Dr. Bethune’s understanding of a radically inclusive participatory democracy that brings everyone to the dialogic table, and undercuts attempts of the powerful to silence the marginal, derives from deeply rooted theological beliefs that echo Wesleyan principles. Throughout her writings, she insists that authentic democracy is founded in the conviction that non-essential inborn traits including race, gender, or national status do not define human beings in the essential core of their being.

In Dr. Bethune’s view, what defines a human being and human worth is, starkly put, our common origin in one creator God. As she states in her 1954 “Address to a World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament”:

I listened to God this morning and the thought came to me, “Any idea that keeps anybody out is too small for this age—open your heart and let everybody in—every class, every race, every nation.” We must remake the world. The task is nothing less than that (in Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, ed., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999], p. 58; emphasis in original).

Late in her life, as she drafted her Last Will and Testament, Dr. Bethune declared, “All my life I have been stirred by the idea of one God creating one world” (as cited in ibid., p. 259).

This religious conviction fed Dr. Bethune’s desire to inculcate a global perspective in African-American youth, and, in particular, in those youth she was cultivating for leadership. As she notes in a 1952 essay entitled “The Lesson of Tolerance,”

The essence of Democracy is the concept that no one group or individual is all-wise or has a monopoly of all the virtues. Training ourselves and our children to have both tolerance and respect for opinions diverging from our own, is one of the best possible ways to promote brotherhood—among the peoples of the world, and among our neighbors in our block! (“The Lesson of Tolerance,” Bethune Papers, Bethune-Cookman University; in ibid., p. 267).

Dr. Bethune came to the conviction that the college she was founding was to be a “sacred place” in which the world might come to discover the world-changing possibility of interracial, cross-gender, radically inclusive dialogue in which all addressed one another as children of the same God. As her 1954 document “My Foundation” states,

So I want this to always be kind of a sacred place—a place to awaken people and to have them realize that there is something in the world they can do; and if they try hard enough, they will do that thing….I think we need leaders now so much. I thought that we would hold conferences, interracial conferences with women of all classes and creeds that we might sit together, think together, and plan together how we might make a better world to live in (Bethune Papers, Bethune-Cookman University; in ibid., p. 271).

In my view, just as Johnetta Betsch Cole has recognized that the preceding principles of radical inclusivity and radical welcome must apply not only to women or people of color but also to LGBT persons in the structures of a healthy participatory democracy, were she living in our postmodern cultural context, Mary McLeod Bethune would—I have no doubt of it—welcome and include LGBT people at her table, too. Just as Dr. Bethune brought to her leadership table not only people of color but Caucasians, not merely men but women as well, in a contemporary context she would—I have no doubt of it—incorporate in her college’s leadership team openly gay and lesbian academic leaders.

And she would protect these valuable children of God from attack by members of the “entrenched male hierarchy” of the United Methodist Church, against which she constantly did battle as an African-American female leading a college (cited in ibid., p. 13, citing Clarence G. Newsome, “Mary McLeod Bethune and the Methodist Episcopal Church North: In but Out,” Journal of Religious Thought 49, 1 [1992], pp. 7-20). She would do so because her thought opens to the conviction that all human beings have intrinsic worth and a place at the table of participatory democracy because all come from the hand of the same Creator God.

It is difficult to imagine Dr. Bethune characterizing any children of God as the spawn of the devil. It is difficult to imagine that she would have rested easily with such discourse even if it were implicitly elicited by the ground rules for holy conferencing of churches in Main Street USA—by those with power to make or break her as the leader of a church-affiliated college.

These are important considerations to lift up as we consider what holy conferencing is all about today. They are important because other voices that side with entrenched male hierarchical structures in both church and society continue to echo the “spawn of the devil” rhetoric of those structures—and African-American women can be found as well (and sadly) among those using such rhetoric.

It is interesting to note that, just as the recent General Conference got underway, several news stories broke, all involving African-American women recently called to accountability for pushing homophobic positions in their workplace. One of these is a 2 May report about Crystal Dixon, Associate Vice-President for Human Resources at the University of Toledo. This report states that Dixon was put on leave following an op-ed piece she wrote on 18 April for the Toledo Free Press (see and

This opinion statement entitled “Gay Rights and Wrongs: Another Perspective,” purports to articulate the black woman’s perspective on gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Dixon expresses “great umbrage” at the thought the quest for gay civil rights should in any way be equated with her quest for civil rights as an African-American woman.

Dixon states that, whereas she goes to bed at night black and wakes up black, gay persons can freely decide whether to “leave the gay lifestyle.” Dixon rehearses the familiar (and widely discounted) arguments that her gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have chosen a “lifestyle”; that this “lifestyle” choice can be cured by prayer and “a transformative experience with God”; that the gay “lifestyle” is injurious to the health of individuals and society. She also advances an argument that gay and lesbian households are not in any way economically deprived, but that these households experience economic benefits unavailable to African Americans.

Ultimately, Dixon notes that her argument hinges on her theological belief that “[t]here is a divine order. God created human kind male and female (Genesis 1:27). God created humans with an inalienable right to choose . . . . It is base human nature to revolt and become indignant when the world or even God Himself, disagrees with our choice that violates His divine order.” (For my critique of the rhetoric of “divine order,” see my posting “The Church’s One Foundation” at

Critics of Dixon’s statement have noted that it is especially troubling, given that her position at UT requires her to adjudicate claims of job harassment and discrimination and to enforce professional codes that prohibit discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The second report I noticed as General Conference was underway is a 30 April report that the ACLU had sent a letter to the Memphis City School system, charging Daphne Beasley, principal of Hollis F. Price Middle College High School, with discrimination against gay students. Beasley is an African-American woman, and Hollis F. Price is affiliated with LeMoyne-Owen, an HBCU.

The ACLU alleges that Beasley had gathered a list of students who were dating, including gay students, and had posted this list in a public place, essentially outing gay students who had not yet revealed their sexual orientation to their own families. A gay student at the school, identified as Andrew, claims that Beasley called his mother to inform her that her son was gay, telling the mother that she does not like gay persons and does not want them on her campus.

The Memphis City Schools system has responded to the ACLU letter by upholding Principal Beasley’s right to keep order and discipline on her campus. The school system finds nothing inappropriate in her behavior (see and

The third report is a 26 April posting on Chris Crain’s Citizen Crain blog entitled “DNC’s ‘Talk to the Hand’ Outreach” (see

Crain summarizes recent initiatives of Leah Daughtry, an African-American woman who is chief of staff to Democratic Party leader Howard Dean. In Crain’s view, Daughtry “has garnered a reputation for inciting rivalry between African American and gay constituencies within the party.” Crain notes that Daughtry had “tried to help unseat the first-ever duly elected lesbian to the Alabama state legislature, in favor of a black candidate.” He also notes that, “Later, she (and closet case Donna Brazile) pitched a fit when gay Democrats proposed that gays be included in the same quota system for selecting state convention delegates as other minority groups.”

Given this history of contention in which, Crain believes, Daughtry has sought to sow seeds of discord and contention between the LGBT community and the black community, he finds her recent image-management attempts to patch up the rift she has worked to create too little and too late, a form of impression management to cover over triangulating procedures she herself has set in motion in the DNC office.

Clearly, there is work to do. The question is whether the United Methodist Church and other churches of the radical middle will take their cue from Dixon, Beasley, and Daughtry, or from Johnetta Betsch Cole and Mary McLeod Bethune. The time for sitting on the sidelines is rapidly vanishing as our political culture moves away from a politics of triangulation designed to create stasis to a politics of constructive building that welcomes the contributions of all God’s children.

Preceding my current series of postings on the United Methodist practice of holy conferencing is a series of open letters to the United Methodist bishop of Florida, Bishop Timothy Whitaker, under whose pastoral jurisdiction Bethune-Cookman University now currently functions. In previous postings, I have also noted the troubling violence against LGBT persons Florida has recently experienced. Daytona Beach, where Bethune-Cookman University is located, is as well the recent locus of some of the most horrifying acts of violence against homeless persons in the nation—acts often committed by teens. Florida was recently named the leading state in the country for acts of violence against the homeless.

Florida is now divided over an anti-gay marriage amendment that specifically targets LGBT citizens for no reason other than their sexual orientation.

There is clearly much pastoral work, much educational work, much healing to be done in Florida. One cannot imagine John Wesley or Mary McLeod Bethune standing aside from these glaring social needs.

Since the recent General Conference passed resolutions condemning homophobia and discrimination against LGBT persons, as well as calling for educational initiatives on the part of the church to help understand (and combat) all forms of social violence, wouldn’t it be amazing if Bishop Whitaker undertook to see that the university founded by Dr. Bethune became a force for reconciliation, education, and social transformation around issues of violence and homophobia—in a state where such reconciliation, education, and transformation are clearly needed?

Perhaps Bishop Whitaker and Bethune-Cookman University will respond to the resolutions of this General Conference by rehabilitating Dr. Bethune’s town-hall meetings with their practice of radical inclusivity. Perhaps Bishop Whitaker and this HBCU under his jurisdiction will follow Dr. Bethune’s lead by incorporating and acknowledging the contributions of all members of the campus community, black and white, gay or straight, in the leadership teams of the university, and by modeling inclusive leadership that crosses racial lines and lines of sexual orientation.

One can hope. As M. Paz Galupo notes in an article entitled “Advancing Diversity Through a Framework of Intersectionality: Inclusion of LGBT Issues in Higher Education” (Diversity Digest 10,2 [2007], 16-17), though the modern academy commonly pays lip-service to diversity and inclusion of all voices and perspectives, it lacks systematic or thoughtful strategies for integrating lesbian-gay concerns under the rubric of diversity. The academy still resists first-person testimony by its gay-lesbian members, and disallows such testimony as biased, self-interested, or distasteful.

Galupo (who is bi-racial) speaks expressly of HBCUs. She notes that HBCUs “typically have no institutionally recognized LGBT student groups” and that “structural barriers” in HBCUs prevent the successful integration of lesbian-gay persons into the academic community.

Galupo calls on the academy (and the HBCU in particular) to ask the following “hard questions” about such structural barriers, if the academy wishes to be truly inclusive:

Why do we advocate for LGBT inclusion in general, but remain afraid to challenge homophobia within our racially diverse communities? How can a dialogue about the experiences of LGBT persons of color inform…our work within the larger African American and LGBT communities? How can our successes in advancing racial diversity and gender equity inform our advocacy for LGBT inclusion? And conversely, how can arguments for LGBT inclusion be used to shift our discussions about race and gender to creative and more effective directions?

One can hope . . . . In the world coming into being in the 21st century, too much is at stake for the church and its institutions to choose triangulation and stasis over the prophetic witness of people such as John Wesley and Mary McLeod Bethune.

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