Our greatest challenge is not LGBTQ debate…

•June 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I didn’t attend my home based annual conference this year but my heart breaks over the challenge that they, we, are all engulfed in.  This is a tough fight.  Emotions are high.  Feelings are hurt.  And we are stuck, seemingly, to depend on an Episcopal ruling, (one that I think was offered correctly and in line with the office she possess) to show us the way.  But, I struggle in a different way.   Showering anger on a presiding bishop perhaps is not time best spent.  The matter, truthfully, is not in her hands.

From where I stand, our biggest challenge is not the matter of LGBTQ inclusion or even fixing language in the Discipline that forbids it.  Our biggest challenge is finding a way out of the heaviness that America has inherited from white supremacy and privilege.  WAIT! Before you click me off, I beg you to hear me out.

When I speak of white supremacy, I am NOT speaking of white people.  I’m speaking of a sociological construct that has created a superior advantage by one color over the others.  So, I don’t mean white people in general.  In fact,  one of the gifts that I have encountered in this church is its defiance to racial exclusivity.  Many of my brother and sister colleagues and laity that are white are just as much frustrated with white supremacy as anyone else.  I truly believe they’ll go down fighting for me and others to be equally treated in this land.  They hate it.  They argue at family dinners defending the cause of the oppressed.  They  show up at rallies.  They serve in communities that are deeply poor.  They do all they can to tear down divisive racist walls.  But, we are all damaged by a strong racist culture in America.

What I am suggesting is that we are all living with the residue of white supremacist, imperialist and audacious thinking.

I grew up reading about these fascinating men; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and the list goes on.  One thing they all have in common is that they are all white and male.  While ironically, they declared their independence from British rule, they imposed and allowed slavery to exist.  This institution of slavery gave them their first national/social controversy.  They were engulfed in a conversation about slavery.  Some of them owned slaves while others despised it.  John Adams for one, hated the institution of slavery while Thomas Jefferson, though nice to his slaves, owned them nevertheless.  Even our own great Methodist schism of 1844 was a conversation, metaphorically, between two white men (or streams of thought); the North and the South, centered around Bishop James Osgood Andrew.  Before the country ever split and engaged in a Civil War, the Methodist Episcopal Church beat them to it and divided 17 years before hand only to come back together less than 100 years later.

These two men, the liberal and the conservative still dominate the American conversation.  Roe vs. Wade as a national subject is a great example of what these two men think women (and families) should do with their bodies and what options are available.  Also, Family Values was the result of the white conservative male’s attempt to keep patriarchal systems in place as a means of returning the country back to its original euphoric bliss of white domination.

We all walk around with this residue on our clothes.  The antebellum south was like a major earthquake with the aftershocks lunging 200 years in the future.  Speeding up on the chronological line and on a far more global scale, when I was a teenager, the security of the entire world was at risk as two white men challenged each other, debated and argued over nuclear proliferation; Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev.

While there are women, African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans  immigrants and Asians sitting on the edges, with powerful voices and are organizing the masses for justice; what is clear to me is that the two primary people in the seat, at the round table, where there are only two chairs, are two white metaphorical men charged by their ancient but not too distant heritage of deciding everyone’s political, theological and sociological positioning in these United States and the world.

In so many ways, as an African American cleric, in a denomination that is being ripped apart by the conversation of inclusion, even this conversation is not mine, entirely.  The truth is, even many LGBTQ conversations and advocacy are held by persons of privilege and benefactors of white privilege.  In the contexts I have served throughout my itineracy, I have had to care for gay persons of color who long for LGBTQ inclusion but are still trying to get hired for positions for which they are well qualified, move in to neighborhoods (many of which were owned by their grandparents but are quickly becoming gentrified to ensure a certain class secures the new acquired community) and prayerfully getting through a day where they are not asked to leave Starbucks before they spend $10 on a cup of coffee or be beaten down by the police; issues by the way that have not always appeared to be a major concern by our bleeding church.

Please know I don’t write this in anger.  I write it out of great love for everyone of us that wears the residue of the battle-strong dust of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant on our clothes.  We all are trying to figure this stuff out.

The real Way Forward is to find a means to peel back the years of impact of white domination in every realm of American society and culture, but most importantly, that which we’ve allowed to sneak in our church.  We have to revisit Biblical interpretation without the dominant race’s cultural lens, bias and norms.  We have to revisit equality without racist historical intrusion.  We have to reconsider policies that are soaked in ways that give disadvantage to underprivileged populations.

In terms of the faith, those in the liberal camp will have to find a way to see love as action and not spiritual infatuation.  Those in the conservative camp will have to give up ownership of the Bible and refrain from projecting supremacist notions on ancient text that keeps one group superior to others.

Quite frankly, the creation of an association or a caucus under the cloak of denominational reverence and orthodoxy, using United Methodist property to openly discuss possible secession is just as mutinous as the behavior of those “disobeying the discipline”; conduct that secessionists so deeply lament.  Even denominational allowance of this conversation on its property is a benefit of white privilege.  I know of no other caucus that would have survived under such behavior.  We have to get out of this foolish game of dominance and get back to a Christ Centered faith and not a faith trying to breathe under political platforms.

One of my favorite parts of our Eucharistic liturgy is reciting the mystery of faith, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”  However, I sincerely doubt that Jesus will come again in a three piece suit, carrying a briefcase and upgrading the white horse to a Volvo S90.  Nor, do I think he’ll be recreating the environment to a 1970s feel of Godspell.  I think it’ll be deeper than that.  Hopefully,  he’ll come back to a church that fulfilled his prayerful desire,”that they may be one.”

This conversation is far bigger than what we think it is.  It is not merely a conversation of inclusion.  It has to be a conversation of retrospection and one of reconsidering of who still dominates the table and demand that a few more chairs be included around it.   I think the Kingdom will be ushered in by folks who are willing to abandon their ideological post and side with the Luke 4:16-20 Christ.  This must be our primary focus.

I even dare to say, that the motion itself, given at that 1972 General Conference excluding homosexual ordination and making it incompatable with Christian faith, made and given by a white male, lay delegate was also cloaked in white supremacy, which suggests, “we just won’t accept you.”  I have yet to see where mysogyny, race hatred, racial real estate profiling, building a wall to keep Mexicans out, or calling people monkeys incompatable with Christian teaching.  This is what should be paragraph(ed) there. Do we ordain racists?  Do we ordain mysogynists?  Do we ordain women (oh yeah we just started that 52 years ago).

So, going at a bishop, protesting, threatening flight, breaking up friendships, will do nothing but create comedy hour for the prince of this world.  What then shall we say to these things?  “If God before us, who then can be against us?”  I’m just a preacher.  I hold no national office.  I hold no national title.  I do not sit on any high ecclesiastical throne.  But, I must remind us that we are not each other’s targets.  But we have to work through this…and it won’t be overnight.  We have to work through this.  Male-female relationships.  Black male, white male relationships.  Black male, white female relationships.  White female, back female relationships.  White male, black female relationships.  White, Latino relationships.  Latino, black relationships.  Episcopal, clergy relationships.  clergy, lay relationships.  Young, old relationships.  Active, retired relationships.  Gay, straight relationships.  Gay, gay relationships.  Conservative, liberal relationships.  Come on…we can do this!

So, until then, our work of LGBTQ inclusion, as necessary as it is, may be a mere secondary change.  The primary change is in living into real Biblical faith, that is exclusive of divisive rhetoric and reading the whole sacred text and not just Leviticus and the Pauline letters.  I’m speaking of a Biblical faith that focuses more on who is in, than who is out and yes, one that focuses more on who is out, than who is in.  A Biblical faith that knows no matter what we do, who we are, we will always be flawed, regardless of where we place our intimacy, but his banner over our sinful, destructive, adulterous, corrupt, vicious, hateful ways, is love and redemption.

Well, if any of you have lasted this long in this commentary, I am grateful for your listening.  I hope I remain a friend.  I close with this ancestral song of my heritage.  It says,

“Walk together children, talk together, sing together

don’t you get weary,

there’s a great camp meeting

in the promised land.”

May it be so for us,

The Rev. B. Kevin Smalls, D. Min.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A bishop has been among us…Remebering Felton E. May

•February 28, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I was sitting in the bleaches at American University as a college student and for the very first time in my life I heard a black bishop speak to the annual conference.  He was tall in stature and when he opened his mouth he spoke with such an amazing fusion of conviction, power, oratory and passion.  I could hardly keep it together.  He electrified that annual conference session.  At that session, I learned that he was on a one year assignment to address the growing problem of drug addiction in the country especially in the city of Washington, DC where I’d just graduated from High School.

Little did I know on that hot June day in 1990, that thirteen years later, he’d be my bishop and would ordain me as an elder in the life of the church.  I remember him standing there, with his colleagues in the council, Bishops Forrest Stith and Herbert Skeete along with my uncle, Dr.  Alfonso J. Harrod and Dr. George DeFord and my superintendent at the time, now, Bishop Marcus Matthews.  It was, I thought a pretty hefty group.  All of them, laid their collective and heavy hands on me in such a way that my head was buried in my chest while Bishop May began…”Take thou the authority….”

It was what he did after that, however, that will stick with me forever.  He yanked my stole firmly around my neck and said these words…”Yoked in Christ and Christ eternal.”  I looked up at him as time stood still and those words slowly fell in my ears.  I arose from the prie dieu, yoked in Christ and Christ eternal.

When I lost my mother, in 2001, almost a year after my ordination, my phone rang and his name was on the caller ID.  When I heard his voice I immediately broke down and cried.  He rallied me up and asked me did I believe in the resurrection.  He recited for me the great kingdom plan when we will all be raised with Christ…Christ eternal.  He gave me his own examination outside of a Board of Ordained Ministry and insisted on knowing whether I believe in the power of the resurrection and whether I preached it or not.  I assured him that I did.

Bishop May was not the easiest for which to itinerate.  He’d often come my way and I’d find a way to turn to avoid him.  You never knew what he’d ask you or what he’d say.  If I was successful at such an avoidance, I’d wipe my forehead , gently smile and walked away.  Then, there were those times I couldn’t avoid him or his investigative inquiry to what I was up to…but, it was okay.  It was who he was.  It was him.  Then, in his retirement he’d often attend Queen’s Chapel UMC and my anxiety of preaching with a bishop in the congregation never seemed to diminish.  After service, he came up to me, pulled out his Bible, and showed me my signature on the opening pages, along with the signature of everyone else he ordained throughout his episcopacy.  He had such pride, no larger than mine however, to have such a kinship.

The episcopacy in the United Methodist Church is highly managerial.  But, in addition to that, he was more so pastoral.  He never forgot his love for the local church and from time to time, you’d hear him long for the days of pastoring a local congregation.  Of course, the local church is the strength of our church.  I tell you, I loved him.  He might have had a tough demeanor but he was compassionate, caring and looked out for those whom he led and those who were in need.

Our conference celebrated his retirement in 2004.  Walking back to the hotel after lunch a homeless person stopped me.  I was prepared to offer my remaining change from lunch but he didn’t ask for that.  He had a different question.  He asked, “is it true that Bishop May is leaving?”  I said, “yes, he is retiring.”  The man put his head down and quietly walked away.  This bishop was a bishop to those on the ground, literally.  What a great witness!

So, today, I mourn the first bishop I served under as an ordained clergyman.  He was bold, courageous and unapologetic about what the gospel demands of us.  Sometimes, I day dream about what ministry would have been like, if I hadn’t avoided him in the hallways as much. He saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself.  I would rather not encounter such a reminder and go the other way.

Though I tried to embrace myself for his departure, I wept when I hung up from the call that delivered the announcement.  I wept.

I pray for his wife, for his children and grandchildren.  I pray for his colleagues in the Council of Bishops who will no doubt miss such a powerful voice and large presence among them.

It was in March, less than a year ago, that I saw him.  He glared at me as he served me communion at the national meeting of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.  I wanted to be sure to get in his specific serving line.  He spoke to me without saying a word when he saw me.  I know what he was saying.  I could tell in his face that he knew I’d be heading to Michigan on a new assignment.

As he gave me the broken bread, he didn’t have to say it, I saw it on his smiling, beaming face.  “Yoked with Christ…and Christ Eternal.”

Thank you God, for we know, a bishop has been among us and “did not our hearts burn while he was talking to us on the road and opening the scriptures to us?”

Why I am a United Methodist Minister…(and will always be one): The Impact of Conference Youth Ministry

•January 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

umc

While in the Western region of Maryland on a preaching engagement I took time to visit McDaniel College (formerly Western Maryland College).   I drove up on the campus, parked my car and began the walk that I used to take 30 years ago as a youth attending what was known as Youth Assembly of the Baltimore Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In those days, we didn’t have Rock event as it is now.  We had a smaller conference wide event that drew together about 160 youth every summer in the month of  June.  For those of us who attended, it was the highlight of the year.  We had workshops, baseball games, community building, and worship.  Underneath all of that, we also had the typical heartbreaks and 48 hour romances that came with teenage life.  Then, there was the newsletter that circulated the entire assembly.  They were the greatest newsletters EVER!

What we created was, community.  From Tuesday through Friday, we lived together.  We ate together.  We slept in dormitories and ate in the college cafeteria.  But, what was the highlight of the week, was the Thursday night worship service and Holy Communion.  It was in this service that many persons became believers, received their call to the ministry and other vocational paths.  This was a powerful night, ending with a circle outside of Big Baker Chapel singing, “Pass it On.”  That hymn was reserved seemingly for the last night of Youth Assembly.  During that hymn, we wept, we remembered and we realized that we were apart of something huge, no matter what home life was like, no matter what life was like back at school, for a moment we created a larger community that felt like and was, the Kingdom of God.

Walking on that campus, some thirty years later, I remember so very well and understood so deeply that that experience was life changing and life saving.  My call to this life was nurtured and birthed on that campus for the following reasons:

  1. Intimacy.  Youth Assembly (and the Conference Youth Council) was a small group of kids who had grasped the gospel mission.  We were small enough to know when someone was struggling and striving.  Our intimacy was small enough to break bread and raise cup over a common table.  Yet, all were welcome and more came.
  2.  One on one access to pastors.  As youth we had the pastors during that week ALL to ourselves.  The pastors hung out with  us, conversed with us and literally befriended us.  The Rev’s. Terri Cofiel, E. Allen Stewart, Kim Capps, Gayle Annis-Forder,  Mark Mooney, Joan Carter-Rimbach, Richard Gray, Terri Rae Chattin, and Bill Hershey were just a few.  These were young adult clergy, youthful, energetic and vibrant and took us in under their wing and believed in us beyond our own understanding.  I am today, because of them.  I got to ask a thousand questions, explore a number of issues and listen to a variety of preaching styles and theological insights.
  3.  Youth planned EVERYTHING.  Youth came up with the theme, chose speakers, and figured out the product.  The adults were in the background gently leading and guiding us.
  4. I was exposed to other youth from other cultural backgrounds who also shared the call to serve the church.   We all didn’t remain United Methodist but a few of us did.  Even in those days, we wrestled with issues of nuclear disarmament, homosexuality, the drug war and world peace.
  5.  United Methodism at work and in sight.  The United Methodist Church led Youth Assembly from beginning to end.  All of the preachers were Baltimore Conference clergy.  Communion was very liturgical and powerful.  Hearing them preach, watching them consecrate elements, sitting on the steps hearing their stories solidified for me that this is where I wanted to be.
  6. Being on a college campus exposed me to the possibilities of being in a college of my own and

I don’t mean to suggest that those days were perfect or that we grew up to live perfect lives.  In fact, some of us struggled to make sense of  life after those days.  But, it was those days that pushed us to fight through difficult seasons of divorce, loss, cancer, addiction, failure and all the other seasons that accompany adult life.  We had a foundation to stand on and to lean on.

I was nurtured as a youth.  I was nurtured by committees on ordained ministry.  I was a child of the church being raised to serve our Lord.  For this reason, I will always be faithful to this church; riddled with challenge, shifting and calls to change.  It found its way to my neighborhood, picked me up and utilized my gifts.   God brought me back here to this campus I came to in 1985, to remind me of what a sacred relationship and trust I’ve been invited to serve in.  Oh what a privilege.

I got back in my car after this stroll with thanksgiving in my heart, that I grew up in the neighborhood known as the United Methodist Church.  I am here to serve and I won’t turn back.

I love thy church, O God!  for her my tears shall fall, for her my prayers ascend, to her my cares and toils be givin, till toils and cares shall end.  Beyond my highest joy, I prize her ehavenly ways, her sweet communion, solemn vows, her hymns of love and praise.

 

 

 

 

The Inconvenience of Apportionments

•November 3, 2015 • 5 Comments

apportionments

This is the time of the year when the letter comes.  Yup.  The letter.  The letter that informs pastors of what the apportionment number is for the next year.  For those who are not United Methodist, each one of our congregations is assessed an amount to support the mission and ministry of the global church.

When this letter comes, I open the letter and slowly peak in it at first.  Then, I begin to take it out of the envelope and then BAM, there the number is.  Bright and bold.

I will confess, I cringe.  I begin to think of what I could do in the life of my church if we could keep those resources.  I think about the staff I could hire.  I think about the new drum set we need.  I fantasize about updating the technology in the building.  Oh, don’t forget about the parsonage.  That needs its own share of repairs and remodeling as well.

I remember growing up hearing the complaints of how costly apportionments are to some local churches.  “We don’t have that many people.”  “Our building is falling down around us.”  “We have needs in our own backyard.”

Sadly, I’ve also seen the passive-aggressive ways of congregations to punish the connectional church for being situated outside of the bounds of their theological compass.  Some congregations get mad at the annual conferences or bishops for sending them pastor’s that don’t meet their approval and the response has in some cases been, “we will not pay apportionments.”

The problem with this is that there are people in the middle of these fights, who suffer.  While we are using our resources to send our denomination a message, we aren’t showing up to do our part in the line of our missional commitment and responsibility.  We are leaving people stranded in life’s lowest places.

I can’t be too judgmental, however.  I have to reconsider the all-too-frequent temptation to add to my own ecclesiastical luxuries.  Such temptation leads to the sin of greed and selfishness.

The bottom line is this.  While we make our individual congregations fatter and while we punish the larger church for its multiple complexities as it attempts to navigate theological, cultural and systematic dynamics, we pull the feasting table back from those who would eat by the gift of our hands in the name of Christ.

I was never more convicted, when I read the report that the congregation I lead came last in apportionment giving on our district.  We only gave 10% of our asking last year.  I was horrified.  I called my leaders together immediately and informed them that this can never happen again.  They concurred.  We committed to doing 101% in this year.  Prayerfully, we’ll meet our goal.

When I now get that envelope with the new number for the next year I am beginning to think of other things.  For example, I attended Claflin College (now University) one of our institutions of the African American tradition.  That school is largely funded, along with ten other institutions of the historical black college family by the United Methodist Church.  I later represented this giving as an intern for the Black College Fund as a college student having the privilege to thank annual conferences for their generous support.  To this day, I still am grateful for Claflin’s scholastic influence on my journey.

When in seminary, I was given financial support through the Ministerial Education Fund.  Those resources came in handy while sitting in a financial aid office wondering how it would all come together!

The year of 1989, Hurricane Hugo ravished South Carolina, my freshman year in college, and the first on the scene was the United Methodist Committee on Relief repairing, replenishing and re-energizing the neighborhood and the church.

The list goes on.  Through apportionments we assist the students in Africa taking an opportunity to advance scholastically; the women in India by giving alternatives to a life of human trafficking; the bishops of the church and their work in the world; the efforts of missionaries, teachers and preachers who serve poor and rural areas.   People NEED us!

Our apportionments often boil down to individuals: an individual mother, father, son, daughter who somewhere on this globe, often with little strength, asks of us, “are we the ones to come, or shall we look for another?”

Faithful giving will always leave you wanting something for yourself.  Giving is supposed to happen while you have your own checklist of needs.  Suffering and challenged people should never have to wait until we hire our staff; buy our new equipment; win the denomination on our side of the theological coin; or finally until the perfect pastor’s arrival before we show up with grateful hands and giving hearts to help someone along the way.

As for me, I want to live so God can use me.  I want someone to have a burden lifted.  I want one less person, one less family to be lifted from the disasters of despair, hardship and poverty.  Children, the elderly, women, teens of every color and nation need us!

When you add up their need, what we give becomes so very small yet so very powerful!

The plea to give never comes at the right time.  Such pleas are always an inconvenience of sorts.  But then again, so are national disasters; unsupported clergy and church personnel in retirement; lack of medical supplies in hospitals and poor learning environments in urban and rural centers.

All of us are blessed by someone’s inconvenience!

I’ve read my letter from the conference treasurer. But then, I read another letter from Paul, “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What!  Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?  Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?  What should I say to you?  Should I commend you?  In this matter, I do not commend you!”  I Corinthians 11:21-22

Ouch and God bless!!

The preacher’s contribution to Charleston-like incidents

•June 19, 2015 • Leave a Comment

So, I’m up at 4AM.  I’ve read as much commentary on the Charleston massacre as I possibly could.  I’ve heard the politicians in power and those who want to be in power offer their conversation to this painful theme.  I’ve seen news footage, live and in print.  I’ve heard the mournful sounds emerging from congregations throughout the country.   I’ve seen us gather in circles, singing familiar but aged civil rights hymns and light candles.  We should do those things, for sure. But, I’m still deeply distrubed about something.  So, I”ll write it out and hope to get at the bottom of it.

In fact, I’ve been haunted with a possibility of my unsettling tonight.  There is a group of people who must take some accountability, large or small to the climate of racism in this country.  That group is “we.”  Preachers.

We’ve somehow defined successful ministry as that ministry which keeps a congregation happy, harmonious and euphoric; drunk off of the friendly personality of the pastor.  As a result, so many pastors have been hushed and silenced, largely by themselves, from preaching sermons that exposes the world’s tensions within the walls of our church.  If there is not a meeting of the world and the church within our sanctuaries, what good are we?

This kind of meeting or conversation is necessary.  It’s what happened when Nicodemus (probably a pretty good preacher) went to Jesus “by night” to inquire about his ministry.  This John 3 dialogue must still take place if not by night, at least by 11AM on Sunday mornings.

Preachers must expose, correct and treat the evil sickness of racism from the pulpit.  Congregants should be challenged on using the “n” word, complaining about people of color, and not being hospitable to those who come to our congregations.

What Mr. Roof did, what he believed, and how he viewed the world could very well be the result of unmet challenge to his thinking and perspectives.  Seeds of racism are often planted in tiny ways.  They soon grow and grow until it is out of control like grass in an abandoned back yard of a vacant house.  One day you look and it is out of control.

The preacher, white or black, can not be afraid to address racism from the pulpit.  In fact, don’t just address it, aggressively pull the sheets right off of it and in turn literally scare the hell out of racist spirits that lurk the hearts of all of us.  We can’t go along and act like it doesn’t exist because we have folks from different cultures among our Facebook friends.

It exists.  It hurts.  It stings.  It divides.  It kills.  It is destructive and God is not pleased.  How could God be pleased when a portion of God’s creation is allowed to attack without a prophetic word from the preacher.  I recognize that we are in a post civil rights age.  I recognize that today’s congregant is hyper focusing on how to overcome negativity from personal friendships, relationships, and co workers so that destiny can be achieved.  But, a scared church will never stand in today’s post modern climate if it doesn’t wake up to the racist systems that our born, cultivated and allowed to exist in the fellowship halls of our churches, during pastoral visitations, in worship maintenance and planning and lastly, and perhaps most sadly by the silence of the preacher.

I am forced to review my own Nicodemian ways.  I must reflect on my contribution to what happened on Wednesday night by being polite and courteous around the vicious cancer of racism as opposed to be prophetic and intentional.

I’m not suggesting that I will go out tomorrow and buy a  new dashiki, greet people with a closed fist, or engage in a feeble attempt to grow an Afro thick enough to hold a pick.  But, I will be correcting my tendency to go to Jesus by night, quietly and discreetly, hiding my deep belief in who he has called me to be around the issue of racism.

Poor Nicodemus.  Nicodemian ministry models are what keeps a racist society going.

Instead, let’s be bold, courageous and strong enough to homiletically kick racism in its big rear and demand its vacating our land.  Embrace the call to go to “Pharoah and the systems s/he creates and demand that God’s people be liberated.

Don’t just light a candle Sunday, don’t just form prayer vigils, and don’t just offer Hallmark moments without asking the question, “which one of these is your neighbor?” (Luke 10:36)

Yes, listeners will be uncomfortable.  They will say you aren’t a good preacher.  They will tell you stories on why they don’t like people of color.  They will tell you how they fought in the war.  They will tell you how cruel white people are.  They will recall burning crosses in their grandparent’s yard or even in the yard of the church.  I suppose it depends on which side of the tracks you pastor. But, call them to embrace the radical message of Christ, which is to be “born anew.”

This work is hard.  It is lonely.  It often renders you misunderstood.  But, we must abandon the definition that successful ministry is one where the congregants are happy, pleased, full and fat off of pastoral attention and submission.  Shake them UP!  Prepare them for that day in heaven when they have to praise God with people that resemble those they hate.  Call it for what it is.  Racism is sin.  It is offensive to God and it is a deep cancer that could deteriorate the status of our country, should God ever get fed up with our arrogance and give our title of world leaders to some other country.

We can no longer be Nicodemus, entirely.  We can no longer be in pain without saying a word about what we see.  It’s not good enough anymore. Today’s preacher must find a way to speak in love but with urgency that if we don’t turn from our ways God will not heal our land.  No longer can we run to Jesus at night, thinking we are pleasing him with whispered conversations while the world, the country and Charleston burns with racist flames.

Throughout our United Methodist connection, we are concluding annual conference season where persons are being ordained.  It’s always a time to remember our own marital vows to the church.  If you are United Methodist elder, the opening sentences of your public ministry begins with these words.  “Take thou authority, to preach the Word….”

May we be true to what we promised!

Living (and accepting) with Loss…

•April 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Death. It has held me hostage for years. Death. At least once weekly, I recite an affirmation that defies death with the “resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” And then, someone dies. Someone I love and I’m in a crisis.
Death. This past summer, my grandmother was taken to the hospital for a minor issue that somehow ended up being major, that included a transport to a larger hospital that included her ending up suffering a stroke fifteen minutes before discharge and ultimately me having to place her in hospice care.
I saw her, mangled, eyes crossed as though she could no longer control them, speech destroyed as though she could not hear herself speak. I saw her, suffering under the weight of illness and medication that kept her unaware of all that was going on. She had no control. She didn’t get a say on her body’s malfunction. She and her body were beginning the final dance they’d share together for a lifetime.
From time to time, I’d look out the window of her hospital room, down on the busy life of George Washington students. It was a deeply intense juxtaposition. I looked down on life but in the room from which I glanced, loomed the threat of death.
When we were alone, I leaned down to my grandmother in humble and difficult submission to the process and wept. I thanked her, in her ear, for being the best grandmother I could ever have. I felt like a five year old child whose parent was going away on a long trip and I didn’t know what I’d do. I apologized for not being able to protect her from this mishap. I wept with her with the incessant sound of insensitive beeping and buzzing from machines monitoring her care.
Her body began the process of slowing down from a speedy life filled with joys and sorrows, ups and downs. Out of her 95 years, I walked with her for the last 44 of them. She walked with me. She showed me the world. She took me on trips. She bragged about me. She woke up and went to bed thinking about me. We were inseparable, Grandma and me. Coming home from school, finding on the table a cherry pie that she baked would be the best surprise. Standing behind the door waiting to say boo as she came in sent me laughing hysterically, until one day she did it to me and I cried and cried.
The phone rings at 1:22AM on July 7 with the news “your grandmother just passed away.” My son and I quickly ran to the center. Upon walking in the room, and looking at her laying there so peacefully I fell at her bed side and wept for I don’t know how long. I wept and wept. My son ran down the hall overcome with grief. I could hear him sobbing as he moved further away. Yes, she walked away from earth and fell into the arms of the very One who came up with the idea of making, creating, designing a woman I would know as “Grandma.”
Since that time, I’ve been reflectively living in between the poles of life and death, loss and gain, endings and beginnings. Part of me, died with her. Only a few questions remained. What is real love? Who would love me the way Ma and Grandma did now? Who will make me such a priority as they? It seemingly was my lifeline. I knew that no one would be able to fill the void they left.
What emerged for me was the quest to discern what really, truly, deeply mattered in life. For so long, I’ve lived seemingly exclusively for my title, my positions in the church, my vocational journey. But, now I know, I’m not just those things. I’m not just a pastor, a clergy person on assignment by one to a charge. I’m not just on some upward climb. I’m not just Rev. Smalls. Rev. Smalls is not all or enough to be who I need.

I am Kevin Smalls. I have lived and I have loved. I have embraced and I have lost. I have seen the greatest of sights and yet I have seen some that will negatively shake me for a while to come. I’ve been cared for. I’ve been vulnerable. I’ve known joy and bliss. I’ve known loneliness and depression. I’ve known sorrow and defeat. I have failed so many times. I have disappointed people so many times. I have fallen short so many times. I have lost people a few times.
I know loss. I know what it means to have slip out of your hands something you held so dear and close. I know those things.
I’ve learned to look death in the face and embrace it as a continuous part of life. It is a part of life. Not just the death of people. But the death of dreams, visions, hopes, fears, relationships, friendships and seasons. Losing some of these things suspend us for a while or keep us hostage for years as we refuse to live life without that season, person, dynamic or experience. In these instances we are not available to embrace life. We die as well.
So, I am choosing to live. And when, like the Good Shepherd, I feel the urge to leave the 99 and go back after that one sheep; when I feel the urge to join the widow and look for that one lost coin I pray that God will grant me grace to know when that sheep can’t come back and when that coin will never be found.
Lord, help me to release the ONE that I lost on my watch, the ONE that I failed to save, the ONE that will haunt me for days to come. Help me to become a better person, a living person who accepts that all things die…even that ONE we thought never would or never could.
As a clergy person, when I and thousands of other United Methodist clergy begin services of Death and Resurrection (funerals), we offer words of grace. I think I’ll do the same, but this time, I’ll use these words as a closing. I will use them as words that announce life. I can’t think of any other words that best fits those of us who happen to be in this space and in this season. “May God grant us grace that in pain we may find comfort, in sorrow hope and in death, resurrection.”
I am becoming! Thanks be to God!

This blog was written and inspired off of a scene in the TV Show Grey’s Anatomy when the newly made widow, Meredith Grey consoles the doctor that treated her husband. In it, she said, “He is your One. You will see his face in every patient. You will be better because of him.”

Ebenezer UMC meets the Institute of Relgion and Democracy, kind of, sort of, not really though…

•February 11, 2015 • 1 Comment

My Dear Ebenezer,

I write you after reading a blog that has been circulating around the internet, primarily JuicyEcumenism and MinistryMatters about a visit that Mr. Mark Tooley, president of institute of religion and democracy (IRD), apparently had while walking through the neighborhood, at which time he hears “uncharacteristic” music emanating from the windows.  I wonder, “uncharacteristic of what?”  This, interestingly enough, peaks his curiosity and he actually goes in, and finds a seat in the balcony due to the lack of available seats on the main floor.  In his blog, he refers to you, to us, without calling our names as “virtually died off.”

“The congregation, of course, was not United Methodist but an evangelical

congregation tied to a Calvinist network and founded just a few years ago

by a young pastor from out of town. Meanwhile, the home United Methodist

congregation has virtually died off. I was glad to see the stately old sanctuary

put to good use for vital worship and ministry reaching millennials.”

You, Ebenezer, are not “virtually died off.”  Mr. Tooley perhaps is not aware of your rich history.  He is not aware that you provided the first Negro school in the same nation’s capital in which he suggests we have no witness.  He is not aware that we’ve been on this corner for 179 years.  He is not aware that declination is not always equivalent to death.  In fact, for us, it is equivalent to a new beginning.  God specializes in new beginnings.  He gave Abraham and Sarah one at age 90.  He gave Elizabeth and Zechariah one in old age.  God’s best work is often done with folks who are up in age.  Also, God promises to make all things new in the concluding document of the Holy Bible.

However, the truth is, Mr. Tooley may not really care about your story or have much use for it in this instance.  He used his experience of worship with whom he calls “Calvinists” to throw a theological dart at our Connectional partner on this block, Capitol Hill United Methodist Church.  It is typical of the work of IRD and many conservative branches of Christianity to overlook the African American witness as non essential and irrelevant to the conversation on the theological tables.  These type thinkers are often in a quest to highlight the sinful nature of humanity and make sure it is aware of how all who are trapped in human conditions, like homosexuality, are surely headed down the eternal drain to hell.  I certainly agree, that we all are wrestling with our human location on the soteriological scale but I also feel that we are covered in grace which makes us eligible to be the children of God.  Without question, we are a sinful people, flawed in many ways.  No question that the call to eternal life is a call to repentance, justification by faith, and regeneration as well.  But, we should be careful to not harp on one or two sins that particularly offends us that we escape the overwhelming call of Jesus, to “come, you who labor and are heavy laiden…I will give you rest.”

While this arm of faith is busy pointing out liberal flaws, converting homosexuals to heterosexuals and ultimately making them eligible for ordination and whatever ecclesiastical perks the church can hand out, not to mention access to heaven, there is silence.  I would love for the IRD and her conservative sister organizations to stand up and speak against the horrible crimes and imbalance of justice in the nation, like that in Ferguson, Brooklyn and cities in Florida.  I would love for the IRD to say something about the unfortunate act of gentrification which drives the poor out of their homes and cities with a check in their hands to pay them off to leave the cities they love and end up elsewhere.  I would love for the IRD to spend time, like you do Ebenezer, in some of our most challenging schools mentoring children that in many cases won’t survive beyond the age of 24, falling to a travelling bullet or a sentence not on paper, but read sitting in a box called jail.  I would also sign up with them but they forget, that they too have many gay people sitting in their pews and preaching from their pulpits some of whom are hushed, ashamed and trapped in hiding out of fear of banishment from their sinful counterparts. Religion and faith, from the Christian perspective must be about those on the margins.  I wonder if Mr. Tooley has stopped by the church around the corner, (that he attempted to embarrass) to have lunch with the unhoused community there they feed every single day.

I suggest that Mr. Tooley revisits his definition of vitality.  He, the IRD and many other evangelical movements such as the confessing movement should be aware that at least from this African American male’s perspective, the day they are calling us to, in many ways resembles an America of 1950 where churches were often “vital” with every pew filled, but with racist hearts and practices ultimately diminishing their vitality in Kingdom standards.  For obvious reasons, I’m not inclined to return to any such day.

In the meantime, should any of you run into Mr. Tooley strolling through the neighborhood again, please invite him to take his stroll a little earlier in the day next time, on any Sunday and he too will find music blasting from the windows of the real Ebenezer, still vital and still moving.  While there will be plenty of room on the main floor for his worship engagement, more importantly, there will be plenty of room for him, individually, regardless of his theological, biological, ethnic, anthropological make up.

He and all are welcome to join the rest of us sinners, trying to make heaven our home.

Come now, let us be on our way!

The Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls, Lead Pastor

Ebenezer United Methodist Church