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May 4, 2000         GC-011

Civil rights leader urges delegates ‘to be courageous souls’

CLEVELAND (UMNS) -- The church’s challenge in the new century is to provide spiritual, ethical and moral leadership as the nation redefines itself, according to a renowned civil rights leader.

“There is an opportunity for General Conference to sound prophetic voices, to be courageous souls,” the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery told participants at a May 3 dinner for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

The retired United Methodist pastor was founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as that organization’s third president, from 1977 to 1997.

In a rousing speech peppered with humorous asides, Lowery noted that the turn of the century also brought an end to an era of communist/Cold War hysteria. During that period, he quipped, “You could get away with anything as long as you said you were fighting communism.”

But as a new era begins, the church must try to raise the right questions “and join with the nation in seeking the right answers.”

The answer to the question of “authentic integration,” he said, is not in the closing of black institutions nor the systemic movement of all things black to all things white but the movement of “all things wrong to all things right.”

Lowery decried the “frightening growing disparity of income in this country” and wondered why the church must expend all its energy on issues of sexuality “when there’s hunger in the land, when there’s misery in the land, when there is growing disparity.”

“In the redefinition of a nation, we must move from charity to love,” he added.

The man who worked side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. also chided the church for its obsession with the spiritual worth of gays and lesbians by wondering how it could “challenge God’s power that he can’t use anybody he wants to use.”

Lowery voiced strong criticism of the U.S. criminal justice system, noting that the system in 1999 was almost a replica of the system in 1909 except for the disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos who are processed through it. He said that executing criminals by lethal injection – a technique introduced by the Nazis – sends a message to young people “that killing is an acceptable means of solving social problems.”

Before Lowery’s speech, the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, top executive of the Board of Church and Society, summarized the agency’s actions in the Elian Gonzalez case.

Responding to a “cry for help” from the Cuban Council of Churches, the board’s executive committee established a fund to collect voluntary donations to pay for legal assistance for Juan Miguel Gonzalez in his quest to be reunited with his son Elian and take him home to Cuba. No United Methodist funds were used.

“We respond to cries for help, even when they are unpopular,” Fassett said. “We do not take opinion polls before deciding to do what is righteous.”

He noted that some have criticized the agency for assisting “godless communists.” But Cubans, including those of the Methodist faith, are not faceless political puppets.  “More importantly,” he pointed out, “churches are commended to love our neighbors as ourselves and Cubans are certainly our neighbors, both literally and spiritually.”

Fassett – who visited Elian and his father on April 29 – stressed that the agency’s goal had been “to reunite the father and son.”

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-- Linda Bloom

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