Penn. UMC Conference Gives Financial Relief to 29 Predominantly Black Congregations in Act of Reconciliation

Eastern Pennsylvania Conference
The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. |

A regional body of the United Methodist Church based in Pennsylvania has passed a resolution that gives financial relief to 29 historically African-American congregations.

Last month at its annual conference in Oaks, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference unanimously passed Resolution 2018-25, which relieved the churches "from any further responsibility for any and all prior-years' balances accumulated prior to December 31, 2017."

John W. Coleman Jr., spokeperson for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, told The Christian Post on Monday that the debt cancellations have been applied and that "financial statements were mailed to the churches last week." 

"Such acts of reconciliation are important and overdue — and only a beginning — as we reckon with the racial discrimination and injustices of our history, the residue of which is still with us in some ways," said Coleman. 

Resolution 2018-25 noted that with the creation of the United Methodist Church during the 1960s and 1970s, many old and decaying structures originally housing predominantly white congregations were transferred to growing black churches.

These exchanges were encouraged by church hierarchy and while often labeled "purchases" or "sales," did not involve an actual exchange of money.

"Burdened with buildings harboring significant energy inefficiencies, deferred maintenance and decreased equity, the African American churches pursued ministry faithfully in a context that perpetuated systemic economic and racial injustice," noted the resolution, which is referred to as "an act of justice.

The Rev. William Lentz, a member of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration, told Grand Haven Tribune that this was their "attempt at atonement for two harmful acts we cannot change: the segregation of African-American churches ... and handing over poor buildings to an already at-risk community." 

The Rev. Shayla Johnson and Pastor Eric Carr of the conference caucus Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Inc. explained to CP that they were involved in "gathering and providing the historical information necessary to provide an accurate account" for the resolution's background.

"Being the voice of the black community of Methodists, it was our role to give voice to the issues and concerns that our churches face," stated Johnson and Carr.

The caucus members considered the resolution a "step towards reconciliation of the disbanding of the [historically African-American] Delaware conference and the burdens on the black community of Methodists that resulted."

"Because the passage of this resolution is fairly new, visible change may not be immediately seen," they explained to CP.

"However, the spirit of the members of our black churches has been noticed with the weight and burden being lifted off their shoulders. In particular one church with access of over $400,000 in historical balances rejoices at the passage of this resolution." 

The UMC Eastern Pennsylvania Conference is not the only mainline Protestant body to give financial relief as part of an act of racial reconciliation in recent years.

In 2015, Presbyterian Church (USA)'s Synod of the Northeast cleared the $175,000 debt of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church of New Jersey.

The debt relief for Witherspoon Street Presbyterian came in response to past efforts by white leadership to deprive the congregation of funds over its civil rights activism. 

"It became imperative that we needed to engage in an act of justice and not simply words," explained the Rev. Dr. Harold Delhagen, leader of the Synod, to The Christian Post in 2015.

"Racial division is absolutely unacceptable and the first step is for us to be honest about the brokenness of our past and to take responsibility for our future."

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