A racial split in the Methodist church dates back centuries. At a meeting in May, the nation's second largest Protestant church will begin reconciliation efforts.
Richard Allen loved Methodism. He just did not think Christians should be pushed around during prayer or relegated to the balcony of the church because of the color of their skin.
When he and other black members left St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in protest at the end of the 18th century, they set in motion more than 200 years of racial separation in a church that continues to be divided into predominantly black and white denominations.
With the onset of Christianity's third millennium, the nation's second largest Protestant church hopes to take the first step toward reconciliation at its quadrennial meeting in May in Cleveland.
Delegates to the United Methodist General Conference will consider amending the church's constitution to recognize its own "sin of racism," and will participate with representatives of three major black Methodist denominations in a service of repentance.
When United Methodists repent and black Methodists forgive, major changes can take place, said the Rev. Gena Thornton, pastor of St. Paul AME Church in Cleveland.
"I would like to see the people in these congregations, both black and white, feel a sense of God to such a degree we would be willing to learn to mingle, to live next door, to work in equal jobs," Thornton said. "Right now, we're all in our own camps. Christianity goes no farther than these camps and it's tragic. . . . God expects more of us."
The origins of Methodism began in the early 1700s when John Wesley led a renewal movement within the Church of England. Methodism spread to the North American colonies shortly before the American Revolution, and in 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in Baltimore.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church developed out of the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization founded by Allen in 1787. Two decades of racial friction, symbolized for many by the manhandling of worshipers bowed in prayer at St. George Church, led to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has more than 2-million members.
In New York City, persecution within the church led members of John Street Church to found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1796. The church has 1.2-million members. The 800,000-member Christian Methodist Episcopal Church gained independence from the Methodist Episcopal Church-South, and was founded by former slaves as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America in 1870.
At its last quadrennial meeting in 1996 in Denver, the United Methodist Church voted to establish a Commission on Pan-Methodist Union that would draw up a plan for closer relationships among the four churches.
The three predominantly black denominations also voted to create such a commission.
When they started talking about what should happen next, what became clear was the first thing the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church needed to do was to seek forgiveness for past acts of racism, church officials said.
"No one is ready to talk about structural union," said Bruce Robbins, general secretary of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
One of the first acts toward reconciliation involves repentance, Robbins said.
The Commission on Christian Unity, along with the General Commission on Religion and Race, is proposing adding a paragraph to the United Methodist Constitution decrying racism within and without the church and calling on the denomination to "confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large."
The church is also planning at its May General Conference a service of repentance to which members of all four churches throughout Northeast Ohio are being invited. A choir with representatives from each of the denominations also is being formed.
These actions are important, said Rhymes Moncure Jr. of the Commission on Christian Unity.
"I am deeply moved by the presence of hope in our church. What happens after General Conference, who knows? Here is something that reaches inside of us, brings out the best in us," he said.
But leaders of the church unity effort are hopeful the acts of repentance will lead to closer relationships. A national dialogue is planned, and church officials hope it will encourage other exchanges among the four churches.
Ultimately, change in the church should lead to change in the streets at a time in race relations where patience is wearing thin, Thornton said.
"We're getting to where the rubber hits the road. We're either going to do it or destroy each other totally," she said. "We're just going to have to do it. If it doesn't happen in the Christian church, you can forget the world."