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Exodus: The Journey to Freedom

Welcome to the Spiritual Growth Study on Exodus: The Journey to Freedom. Christine Keels and the Rev. Bernard Keels have provided a deep river of content to draw us through the historical journey of African American Methodists in the United States. For these modern-day successors of the ancient Hebrews whom Moses led out of slavery in Egypt, there is a river between their desert wandering and the promised land; it is the river Jordan, and those traveling to the promised land have to go through it.

Exodus can be read as an ancient history of the Hebrews, showing the power of our God, whom we worship in church each Sunday. This is important. But the United States has its own Exodus story to tell, and we have not crossed over Jordan yet. Many generations have passed since our Civil War, and many have forgotten the story of how freedom was won for an enslaved people in this country. There is no annual commemoration like that of the Jewish Passover. No bread is broken, no wine is spilled, and no story is told about why "this night is different from all other nights" in remembrance of the African American freedom story. There is no solemn celebration to remind the people of the present about the lash and chains suffered by their forebears and about their ancestors‚ brave resistance and long journey toward freedom.

This more recent freedom saga is complex. The story of Black Americans cannot be told without the story of White Americans. The stories of Native Americans, Spanish descendants, and a multitude of immigrants - the Germans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and a host of other transplanted people, some willing, some coerced - are entwined with the story of a nation founded on the genocide of the peoples native to the land and on the slave labor of the Africans.

What's in a title?

The title for this spiritual growth study has been a point of discussion. Exodus was fine, but should the subtitle be An African American Methodist Journey? An American Methodist Journey? A Methodist Journey? The question is, whose journey is it? If we say "African American," it can be understood to be affirming of a people who have been long-suffering on the road to freedom. But does it adequately include the story of White people who used slavery to build this country and who segregated worship, and does it include even those Whites who resisted slavery? If we say "An American Journey," Latin Americans detect a U.S. assumption that subsumes the rest of the Americas. If we say "A Methodist Journey," is it enough? In the end, after much discussion and a review of the original recommendation approved by the elected Women's Division directors, the title is Exodus: The Journey to Freedom. Two watershed stories of escape from slavery are woven together. One is thousands of years old, the other is hundreds. Whose story is the story of freedom? Is it yours?

Exodus, Race, and Spiritual Growth

This brief book does not cover the entire history of Africans in America but focuses on a current need to understand how African American Methodists have dealt with racism in the Methodist family. Several historically Black denominations were formed in reaction to and because of racism. Many Black Methodists stayed in the Methodist Episcopal Church of the North; hoping and struggling for a redeemed church; but their fate in the successor Methodist Church was to be segregated for three decades (1939-1968) into a nationwide "Central Jurisdiction." With the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, thanks to the efforts of Blacks and antiracist Whites in both The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church, originally an ethnic German denomination, the Central Jurisdiction was disbanded.

Today, many will say that they are tired of talking about race and that we should simply do a Bible study on the Book of Exodus without bringing in all of these "political" agendas. But the story of Exodus is a story of nations and peoples that has a message for the United States and The United Methodist Church, a country and a denomination that still suffer the consequences of centuries of slavery. Exodus is a story of peoples who rose to power and fell from power, of peoples who rose to great faith and descended to idolatry.

Long before any of us reading this study were born, many White forebears faced a spiritual crossroads and, like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, took the low path leading to the heresy of slavery and the idolatry of skin color. Yet, throughout the ensuing eras, there were some Whites who stood in solidarity with Blacks, claiming their common heritage of being made in the image of God and not in the image of an idolatrous White "race."

The spiritual reality of the church‚s being the body of Christ calls for such questions as these: What does the body look like? Is it racially defined? Is it gender defined? If it is strictly a spiritual body, with no race or gender, then why are our churches so defined by these social categories? These are spiritual issues with social impact. Our actions loudly proclaim what we believe about being created in the image of God. Today we step into the ongoing conversation about reuniting the historic Black Methodist denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church˜with The United Methodist Church (UMC). The conversation reveals the need for allmembers of the Methodist family to know more about the histories of the respective denominations in order to understand why our churches are so overwhelmingly segregated, even to this day.

Christine and Bernard Keels point out that, in the Service of Reconciliation at the 2000 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, only elected delegates were seated on the main floor of the hall, while guests and observers were seated in an old-fashioned balcony encircling the hall. While a few key officials of the AME, AMEZ, and CME denominations were on stage, by default all the other guests of those denominations were seated in the balcony. This brought back memories of the days when Black Methodist members were relegated to separate entrances and to the balconies, while Whites sat downstairs and used main entrances.

Black United Methodist elected delegates on the floor were forced to decide what course of action to take when they witnessed their Black sisters and brothers in the balcony˜as well as when they realized that, among all the African American constituencies, they would not be mentioned. Their centuries of work to counter racism from within mainstream Methodism would not be recognized as part of the history leading up to reunion. United Methodism was treated as though it were a wholly White denomination in need of repentance. Ironically, some White delegates hugged Black delegates who kept their heads bowed in prayer while Whites confessed their sins. Few Whites realized that the sins were continuing at that very moment.

When the church proceeds in such ignorance of its past that it repeats the errors of its ancestors, it becomes like those in the parable of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31-46, when those judged say in amazement, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or in prison?" They honestly didn't know. Today, many of us would honestly ask, "Lord when did we discriminate against you because of your race?" The response is clear: "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

The answer is all around us. It echoes every time members of the dominant culture ask a minority person to remind them if they do something racist. Every time people of color are stopped because someone thinks they don't belong in a neighborhood, or believes they look like "terrorists," or assumes that they are members of the hotel staff rather than guests, the idolatry of racism is repeated.

Our study is not a comprehensive history of the historic Black Methodist denominations nor of the Black church within United Methodism. It simply takes its place among the multitude of voices raised against the claim, "We just didn't know." Jesus made it clear: ignorance is not an excuse.

There is so much to do and so many issues to address. Each racial or ethnic group has a history to bring to the story. Many who read this study will be among those who have made the spiritual commitment to a lifetime of resisting the idolatry of racism in all forms. To them, some information will seem old hat. Other people will find virtually all of the information new and sometimes shocking. Most of us, of whatever race, will fall somewhere in between.

As you engage this study in a group or by yourself, think of yourself as being among the Hebrew people escaping slavery, wandering through the desert. Remember that your survival depends on the strong supporting the weak and the weak being as strong as they can. Know yourself. Be willing to lead or be willing to follow, but do your best not to be among the grumblers who think God has abandoned them in the desert.

At other points, think of yourself as an Egyptian; but strive to be like the daughter of Pharaoh and her maids, who acted surprised to find a baby in a floating basket and did not report the Hebrew girl who had the audacity to speak to them, volunteering to find a wet nurse.

We can strive to be part of something much larger than our individual efforts. We can look back on the history of United Methodist Women who resisted racism. We can look around for leaders today and know that we have all been called. We can look to the future, when our children and our children‚s children will have a life of justice, peace, and celebration rather than fear, prejudice, and violence. We are looking for the promised land, where God's will is done on earth. We know that if we do not do God's will, we will continue to wander.

Remember that, just as in the desert the Israelites were never alone, we are never alone. We have the company of the God who led with fire at night and by a cloud of knowing during the day. Remember that the Egyptians had multiple opportunities to repent. Some gave the Hebrews provisions for the journey.

Through it all, we have the company of the dying and rising Christ, who brings the power of love and forgiveness to every moment of life. We also have the company of one another - the very body of Christ alive in the world today. Be prepared to wade in the water of Jordan because there is a promise of new life on the other side.

J. Ann Craig Executive Secretary for
Spiritual and Theological Development

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