Rev. Cedrick Bridgeforth has been the chairperson of the Board of Directors of Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) for three years. As such, he has served as the representative to the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC) for that duration. He is an ordained elder in the Cal-Pac Conference who has served eight years as a district superintendent.
BMCR’s mission is to “Raise up prophetic and spiritual leaders who will be advocates for the unique needs of black people in the United Methodist Church.” (The organization’s mission, purposes and projects can be found at its website: http://www.bmcrumc.org/375206.)
BMCR supports legislatively the renewal of all resolutions about racism that need updating at General Conference 2016. Some resolutions were originally written at the founding of the denomination (1968). Some of those resolutions will be expanded with new language, bringing in a more contemporary voice about police and violence. In every case, BMCR urges the church not to be silent and complicit about racism. Bridgeforth commented, “Our original work is not done, so we are not changing that work.”
When asked about what BMCR brings to LYNC, Bridgeforth responded, “BMCR is a part of LYNC because the coalition helps us live out our mission, deepen our values and bring into view the great vision we have for a renewed, transformed and united body of Christ. We see the need for BMCR to be in relationship with the various partners of LYNC because each of us have issues and strengths that can benefit one another.”
Bridgeforth said that LYNC is still “learning the language and value of working in the intersections of who we are together.” In a speech at RMN and MFSA’s Gather at the River Convocation in San Antonio in August, Bridgeforth described this kind of learning in the following way:
When you invite me to your table, often I am expected or will at least try to conform to your rules, to your norms, to your language, to your agenda and any other thing that may aid in my inclusion at your table. The same is true when I invite to a table that is presumed to be mine. So, we see being a part of LYNC as bringing tables together. Each one brings their passions, interests, strengths, and norms and by joining tables together we are intentional about creating new and equitable space where no one is ridiculed for or forced to give up any unique perspective or principle. But, we join together and work from our common core and purpose. We see being together and working together not only as the best way, but as the only way to advance the greatest call to discipleship and care within and beyond the Church.
Coalition work has power because there is strength in numbers. But the numbers have more than strength, Bridgeforth said, when “within the Coalition we can understand that we are all broken at times, we learn to accept one another and work together to bring about as much wholeness as possible in each other.”
During the interview, Bridgeforth said the five racial-ethnic caucuses in LYNC bring a particular understanding of the intersections of work across differences. As Coalition partners, the caucuses “are uniquely positioned to see the inter-relatedness of all forms of oppression. We see that injustice in any form is an assault on all of humanity everywhere. As racial-ethnic caucuses, we tend to focus on racial injustice, but we see that injustice requires no preceding qualifier.”
Bridgeforth commented that he is personally coming to understand that while there are many factors in our lives and society that will not change—our sexual orientation, our race, our parents—yet “systems that are put in place to keep us apart can change; they must change, they will change.” He wants to live out a belief in that principle of institutional change and hopes it can be lived out “more and more within this coalition of justice and equity seekers.”
According to Bridgeforth, the greatest challenge to ending discrimination against LGBTQ persons in our denomination at this time is “the core fear that people have about what they would lose.” When Bridgeforth spoke of such fear, he referred not only to those who fear LGBTQ persons or changing The Book of Discipline to support gay people. He also highlighted the fear of change by LGBTQ persons themselves. Both sides need to address issues of fear.
He said that sometimes it is easier to set up the other side as the enemy. Both “sides” are concerned that “if we let these folks in, they are going to take something or make me something other than what I am now.” Bridgeforth believes that doing this kind of fear-confronting work “across camps” is helpful. He said, “We can stay amongst ourselves and that can be a very safe place and rewarding place and experience. Entering that dark place where there can be pain and anguish is a scary thing. But the only change that takes hold and matters is deep change. And deep change comes at a great price.”
How do we best work across these kinds of differences? Bridgeforth described his commitment to telling “soul stories.” These are stories that describe how we came to be who we are. He described his own upbringing. “I’m a Southern boy by trade and I come from a lineage of people who were not educated. We have spent a lot of time sharing stories. That’s how we got to know each other, our history, the land upon which we lived, and the expectations of us.”
In the telling of stories, we must “be as vulnerable as we can be, and refuse to demonize one another.” Bridgeforth believes that in the hearing and retelling of those stories, we may learn how to work together regardless of our stated or perceived differences. “If you share your story with me, I am bound to find connection in it somewhere. It requires vulnerability to share and listen.”
When asked to address the critique that the story-telling approach has been tried for forty years, yet failed to end the discrimination against LGBTQ people in the church, Bridgeforth responded, “That discounts that I have not been able to tell my story.” He explained that even though there are many people involved in various organization that have been telling their stories for 40 years, “not all of us have been around for forty years.”
He also countered the argument that we have told our stories for forty years to no avail. “Telling stories has had an effect. The work that Reconciling Ministries, MFSA and Love Prevails have done has made way for a whole new generation of voices to emerge.” There has been real work and change that has happened as a result.
From his perspective, “BMCR joined the Coalition as a result of that work. Black people in the UMC have fought against racism long before the inception of BMCR. So, the argument that 40 years is too long to tell our stories does not hold full strength with me because black people in this country has been raising up trying to combat racial injustice since the first slaves were brought here, but we cannot tire of that fight or of re-telling the narrative so no one every forgets how this came to be. BMCR eventually tackled sexism and gender discrimination. Both those fights continue within the Black arena for the purpose of creating equity at every level of the church and in society. The focus on full-inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ persons has not been a top priority for BMCR, but it is a great concern for me personally. As one who does not have the liberty of separating my person based on race, gender and sexual identity, I do not believe any justice-seeking organization can either. There are times when we are called upon to focus on one or the other, but that does not mean the other pieces and parts of our struggles or ourselves go un-noticed or are without value. It only means we have limited capacity to fight on all fronts at all times.”
Therefore, we have to keep having these conversations and sharing of who we are and where we are now. All of it is important work. “We are all beneficiaries of all of the work that has been done around race and homosexuality.” It is important that new people to the movement understand themselves as beneficiaries to a long history of stories and activism. People who don’t see themselves as beneficiaries of a tradition often are not motivated to believe and invest in making change. Bridgeforth remains unwilling to discount that storytelling and dialogue remain central to efforts for change.
The Coalition would be stronger if there were more issues and actions that call us out of our comfort zones. The broader church thinks that LYNC is just about LGBTQ issues. “As a Coalition partner,” he said, “I’m clear that is not the only matter. For the Coalition to be stronger, it needs to go beyond its one issue. It needs to demonstrate to itself that it is a broad-based coalition with a broad emphasis that would demonstrate how really broad the Coalition’s reach really is.” The Coalition would be strengthened by making the connections among multiple issues that would be noticed by the broader public as well.
We’ll know the Coalition is working well “when we can see how what we are working towards really benefits the whole, when no group or issue gets pushed to the back of the room. Bridgeforth explained that the church wins when we work toward fulfillment of broader agendas. It may be slow and incremental. At many of their gatherings, BMCR sings, 40 Years On The Journey. He ended his comments by saying, “We have to recognize the incremental or subtle changes that we benefit from so we can continue to raise hell in whatever ways we choose about whatever affects us or our sisters and brothers.”
This is the sixth in a series of interview reports that Love Prevails is conducting with representatives of every member group of the LYNC as a part of preparing for General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. We share what each group brings to the Coalition, their particular emphases and concerns for GC2016, and the challenges and benefits of working across various kinds of differences related to identity, opinion and action. While Rev. Bridgeforth officially represents BMCR to LYNC, the opinions expressed in this interview report are entirely his own.