Holy Conversations At Holy Covenant UMC Lay Groundwork For Change

Charlene Edwards

Charlene Edwards, director of programs and events at Project Unity, talks to the group before they moved into discussion time.

Project Unity’s Together We Dine program facilitates conversations between people of different races following a shared meal 

Dine 1On March 6, United Methodists from all walks of life gathered at Holy Covenant UMC to participate in Project Unity’s Together We Dine. The program facilitates conversations between people of different races following a shared meal. Around 100 members from Holy Covenant and Hamilton Park UMC engaged in the process, which Holy Covenant used to kick off their Lenten series focusing on different aspects of justice.

Together We Dine provides a trained facilitator at each table and creates space for people no matter their experiences with race. Primarily a listening exercise, the hope for Together We Dine is to deepen empathy and promote learning from one another’s experiences. Around the tables at Holy Covenant, people talked with strangers about their upbringing, not being exposed to minority communities until adulthood, feeling concerned about today’s political rhetoric and the impact of racial tensions in their communities.

“My hope and prayer is that we begin a deeper conversation about race,” said Rev. Cheryl Murphy, senior pastor of Holy Covenant UMC. “Our community is so diverse and loves having that as a part of our DNA. However, we need to be ready to honestly share our own stories. My hope is that we will begin to address real systemic issues that impact our community. That journey begins with conversation from all different people gathered together.”

Dine 2Events like this are examples of the church leading the way toward unity and reconciliation. “The church must lead the way toward racial reckoning,” said Rev. Dr. Sheron Patterson, senior pastor of Hamilton Park UMC. “Clearly, our society would have us at each other’s throats.”

Both pastors reflected on the need for the church to take up this work of making space for true listening and reconciliation. “It is up to us. Period,” Rev. Dr. Patterson said.

Holy Covenant member Ashley Norris said this is just the beginning of the journey for her and her church. She was struck by the willingness of people to sit and talk honestly with one another. “I don't know if that has been something that people have been willing to do before. Because it’s hard," Norris said. "We cried together today, and it was impactful. This makes us want to go out and have more of those experiences and bring more people in."

“As Pastor Richie Butler, who is the founder of Project Unity, always says, we like to meet people where they are,” said Charlene Edwards, director of programs and events at Project Unity. “So it doesn't matter if you are new to the conversation on race or if you consider yourself at the peak of knowing and understanding about other people. What we bring to the table with this program is flexible enough to draw you in and help you wherever you are.” 

Dine 3Holy Covenant UMC member Helma Gentry sees the potential to build empathy. “I believe that this can only enhance our ability to understand each other, to come together to make sure that our children and our grandchildren have the right to live in love without the inkling of being racist. It's not inside of us. It's learned.”

Holy Covenant Church Council Chair John Mays reflected a similar sentiment. “My faith plays a huge role in this because I believe that God doesn't teach us to hate, God teaches us to love. So to me, racism is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Hamilton Park UMC member Sheila Dyson appreciated the invitation to participate and hear from people across a broad range of ages, as well as ethnicities, at another United Methodist Church. “Where better than in God's house to feel comfortable, to share your heart,” Dyson said. “If you create a safe environment for people to speak, if you create a place where they feel that your heart is in the right place and you are welcoming them to be who they are, I think they will come.”

Dine 5Terry Allen, who serves as a Together We Dine facilitator, said he participates “to make sure that we deliver on our promise to be inclusive, to leave a world behind that we want for our children, and also to build a world that appreciates differences as if they are valued. So if I can be part of moving that needle, I have to be here.”

He said the best part of the day was turning uncomfortable conversations into comfortable ones to the point where members of his group were applauding one another after each person spoke by the end.

Pastor Murphy is hopeful that there can be future endeavors with Together We Dine across the United Methodist connection, if discomfort and fear can be put aside. “Sadly, there are some that feel diversity, equity and inclusion are threatening and something to fear,” Rev. Murphy said. “There is a fear of the ‘other.’  However, I can’t imagine that any United Methodist clergy and laity would not benefit from this type of conversation about race. This program speaks to all that makes us an amazingly diverse church.”

Learn more about Together We Dine.

Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2022