BIPOC gathering offers community, listening, support

July 20, 2023
Pastor Celia Navas (Isaiah 61:1 in Monticello and Park Rapids), Maria (Lourdes) Franco (Christo en tu Ayuda), and Janet Hernandez (Community UMC in Monticello and Isaiah 61:1 in Monticello and Park Rapids) / Photos by Yazmin Moktan

By: Christa Meland

Approximately 40 BIPOC individuals joined Bishop Lanette Plambeck and Director of Racial Justice & Equity Sabrina Tapia at Path of Grace UMC in Maplewood on June 29 to gather in community, share testimonies, receive support, and help shape the future of racial justice work in the Minnesota Conference.

“The intent of the gathering beyond bringing people together in community was to listen to clergy and lay persons of color and hear firsthand their experience in the Minnesota Conference, and their hopes and dreams for the future,” said Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of connectional ministries & clergy assistant to the bishop. “If we are going to live fully into our vision of being a church rooted in Jesus, grounded in our Wesleyan values, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation, it is important that we listen and learn from all voices.”

In the morning, Bishop Lanette and four cultural brokers greeted those gathered, and they worshiped together in multiple languages. The cultural brokers—Mai Xiong, Vanessa Gill, Daniela Pérez, and Gisela Santiago—will work with Tapia over the next year to build racial affinity groups and respond to specific needs of each community. Then in the afternoon, attendees made their way to various stations to engage in deeper learning and conversation.

“From the worship to the material presented, every aspect of the program was great,” said Janet Hernandez, office administrator at Community UMC in Monticello and a member of its Isaiah 61:1 Hispanic ministry. “As soon as I walked in, I had a sense of belonging to the group. During the worship service, I sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit, saw a lot of familiar faces, and made new acquaintances.”

Director of Racial Justice & Equity Sabrina Tapia (fourth from left) stands with Jimmie Heags (fifth from left) and four cultural brokers who will be working with the conference over the next year (from left): Gisela Santiago, Vanessa Gill, Mai Xiong, and Daniela Pérez.

At one station, licensed therapist Jimmie Heags led restorative justice circles that gave attendees an opportunity to process and discuss what has happened in the past, what they are experiencing now, and what they need to do to move forward in the Minnesota Conference. (Heags is a trainer and consultant in restorative practices, crisis prevention and intervention, and other social emotional learning approaches who will be working with Tapia in the coming months.) At another, Elaine Moy from the General Commission on Religion & Race (GCORR) answered questions about demographic data that her agency is helping to collect and led deep conversations about creating beloved community. And finally, Tapia invited attendees to participate in monthly affinity-based groups for shared support and connection, talked about the conference’s three-year racial justice plan, and debuted racial harm reporting and communication tools, both aimed at providing support for BIPOC church leaders.

Rev. Hannah Choi, who serves Mount Bethel UMC in Inver Grove Heights, noted that this was the first gathering of its kind since she began her candidacy process in the Minnesota Conference and said it was “phenomenal.” In particular, she appreciated the healing circle she participated in.

“I believe that Bishop’s presence and her listening was so powerful,” Choi said. “This was my first experience sharing my personal stories in front of Bishop. I was healed by that. I was grateful to Bishop to hear the voice of the powerless and unheard.”
Rev. Dr. Genia Garrett (First UMC in Redwood Falls) and Rev. Dawn Houser (Aitkin UMC)

Bishop Lanette appreciated meeting new people and said it felt like Pentecost as she listened to a beautiful mix of languages being spoken throughout the day.
“It was powerful to listen to the sharing of both celebrations and places of pain,” she said. “I appreciated not only the things that were happening in the healing circle but time in fellowship laughing, hearing story, deepening relationship. That was transformational, and so was hearing hard truths about white centrality. We all know that those who hold the most power make policies and create systems. Listening to witness of where our practices, our policies, our structures, our strategies have unintentionally brought harm—it was important for me to hear that.”

This gathering was part of a four-prong racial justice audit process that Tapia is leading. The other three:
· In partnership with GCORR, the conference is collecting demographic data to provide a baseline from which we can measure and assess our racial diversity.
· Tapia will send a comprehensive survey to all conference constituents to help assess our strengths and opportunities when it comes to racial justice and equity. For example, does the conference intentionally reach out to people of color for priorities and focus? Are my voice and involvement valued in my involvement with conference programs?
· Tapia will visit five churches from each district to get a sense of how our congregations are creating communities of welcome and belonging for all people; she’ll be evaluating five equity areas: climate, environment (including accessibility) and resources, leadership and governance, continuous improvement, and family and community engagement.

Choi hopes to see more gatherings for BIPOC people in the Minnesota Conference and further conversation about including diverse leaders and working for anti-racism.
“Our community has very diverse people, however, our churches are not mirroring the diversity,” she said. “I hope that our conference can be an agent of empowering diverse leaders to use their gifts to spread the gospel to all people and help them find their values, wholeness, and dignity in God.”
Tapia shares that hope and desire.
Attendees enjoy fellowship at the BIPOC gathering.

“This is only the beginning of our journey together, and I do mean together,” she said. “We cannot allow systems and histories of oppression to pit us (people of color) against one another, to zap our joy and fill us with sorrow. Nor am I here to shame and distance affinity groups from our other brothers and sisters of Christ. I am here to create an intentional bridge, share power, and help the conference become a healthy community by facilitating uncomfortable conversations where all parties look at their rights and responsibilities to create sustainable change as a community.  I truly believe that from great discomfort comes great growth.”

Bishop Lanette said the gathering was a first step but provided an opportunity to recommit to racial justice work.

“If beloved community is our goal, the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven—and I believe that is the mandate of the gospel—we need to do this work.”

Click here to support these and future racial justice initiatives in the Minnesota Conference.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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