you created all people in your image.
We thank you for the astonishing variety
of races and cultures in this world.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship,
and show us your presence
in those who differ most from us,
until our knowledge of your love is made perfect
in our love for all your children;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Lutheran Book of Worship
Like many churches around the UK, today at Walworth we celebrated Racial Justice Sunday. Methodists have been observing Racial Justice Sunday on the second Sunday of September since 1989 and in 1995 it was recognised ecumenically.
Walworth Methodist Church is connected with the development of my own awareness of issues around Racial Justice. Back in the late 80s I was a member of Lambeth Methodist Mission (now Lambeth Mission and St Mary’s) and we made a decision as a church council that we would collectively attend a racism awareness course organised by MELRAW (Methodist Leadership Racism Awareness Workshop), a programme founded by the remarkable Dame Sybil Phoenix. MELRAW was based at Walworth and Sybil worked closely with the then minister of the church Revd Vic Watson, himself a tireless worker and campaigner in the field of community relations. Of the contents of the workshop I now remember little but I do recall that it was challenging and eye-opening.
The late 80s was a time for considerable reflection in the Methodist Church on the topic of race, firstly with the publication of the report ‘A Tree God Planted’ (1985), which was a call to Methodists to take seriously the issue of racial justice within the church and to work for greater representation of black and ethnic minority church members in the decision making processes of the church. In 1987 Methodist Conference affirmed its stand against racism and for racial justice. And, as already mentioned, a couple of years later churches were invited to engage with the issues by celebrating Racial Justice Sunday.
Why celebrate Racial Justice Sunday? A statement on the Methodist Church website makes the case:
We believe that the universe was created by a loving God who chose to become a human being in Jesus Christ, who has redeemed the world and sent the Holy Spirit to enable us to love one another with God’s love. All human beings are equally children of God and loved by God. Since none is outside the love of God, none should be outside our love either.
We believe that the diversity of the human race was no mistake on God’s part. God deliberately created variety within the human family and wants us to take as much delight in that variety as God does.
But racism persists in Britain and Ireland. At its most obvious and brutal, it takes the form of physical attacks, which sometimes end in murder. But it takes many other forms as well, like discrimination within the police force, popular prejudice against Travellers or people seeking asylum, or reluctance to accept people of a different ethnic or cultural group as neighbours. Even within churches, people can face discrimination and unkindness because they are different from the majority in a particular community.
As long as this continues, we believe that it is important to make time to give thanks for our diversity and to pray for God’s help in overcoming our prejudices and the injustices that reflect and reinforce them.
The worship this morning at Walworth was led by my colleague Dave Hardman, with assistance from the Wednesday Bible Study Fellowship of the church. I preached on the gospel text, on the theme of ‘forgiveness from the heart’. But it was the conclusion of the service I found most moving, firstly as we heard a few words from veteran writer and campaigner David Udo, who worked alongside Sybil Phoenix at MELRAW back in the early 90s. And then as we sang the concluding hymn ‘We have a dream’ (words by Michael Forster based on the famous speech by Martin Luther King) including the verse:
We have a dream; our children shall be free
from judgements based on colour or on race;
free to become whatever they may be,
of their own choosing in the light of grace.
Amen and amen!