Church’s painful past leads to new anti-racism initiative

The former Fairlawn Community Methodist Episcopal Church exterior and interior along with a pamphlet from the Women of the Ku Klux Klan found in the church's cornerstone. Undated interior photo used by permission from Historic New England.

September 15, 2020

“Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. …” 
— Revelation 2:5 (NRSV)
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 
― James Baldwin

A new initiative to dismantle racism and white privilege is beginning from one church’s painful, long-buried past.
Cornerstone: Claiming our past, building a better future will seek to do the work of ending racism and dismantling white privilege in our Conference in collaboration with existing conference commissions and committees. 

The funds to support this work will come, in part, from assets from the Wellspring United Methodist Church in Shrewsbury, MA. 

Wellspring members voted to close in February 2020. In July, Commonwealth West District Superintendent Megan Stowe retrieved items from the church that were to be placed in the district archives. 

Among them was a cornerstone laid on Jan. 16, 1927 by what was then the Fairlawn Community Methodist Episcopal Church. In it, Rev. Stowe discovered some unexpected – and troubling – materials.

Much of the cornerstone’s contents were what you might expect: New England Conference Journals, 1926 coins (a wheat penny and buffalo nickel), newspaper articles, a church bulletin, a list of founding members. But the cornerstone also contained items that were inappropriate for commemoration: multiple pamphlets and magazines published by the Ku Klux Klan.

Rev. Stowe shared her discovery with Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, who gathered some conference and denominational leaders to discuss how to respond.

“Fighting racism requires truth telling, confession and repentance from us all,” Bishop Devadhar said. “We lift up this church’s history not to shame them, but as a lesson for all of us in the importance of facing the past and reconciling with it. We must start by understanding our past; that is the only way we can hope to create a present where there is true racial justice.” 
Click to enlarge

Wellspring’s predecessor congregation was Wellspring Community Methodist Episcopal Church. That congregation was a Lazarus Congregation started in late 1997 after the closure of the Fairlawn Community UMC earlier that year. 

The contents of the cornerstone were known to some. It had been dug up on Nov. 23, 1996 as the Fairlawn Community UMC congregation was preparing to move to a new building; the church building at 10 Stanley Road had been deemed unsafe. 

The contents of the cornerstone were the reason the congregation sought to have this new church deemed a Lazarus Church; they wanted a fresh start. 

At the time the Administrative Council “considered this information better buried, and not resurrected with a new church,” according to a letter from the pastor, Miriam Chamberlain, dated Jan. 7, 1997.

“We know that was not the best response,” Rev. Stowe said. “We cannot hide from our past – even when it is painful. It is important to name our sin, to repent and find a better path forward. That is what the Cornerstone initiative is about: a tangible act of repentance through work that is focused on racial justice and reconciliation.”

A resolution (RS-20-203) officially closing this church will come before the Annual Conference on Oct. 17, 2020. 

If approved, that resolution directs any assets and property belonging to the Wellspring UMC, which are not otherwise designated, to the In Our Time Fund, a partnership initiative of the United Methodist Foundation of New England.

Foundation President Rev. Ted Crass said, “The Foundation is committed to the movement for racial and social equity, and we have made a significant commitment of Foundation-owned assets to seed the Fund.  Our collective partnership with the NEAC, churches and individuals will help sustain this work.”

There is $900,000 (without Wellspring assets) in the newly created In Our Time Fund, and the goal is to raise at least an additional $1 million for the fund, so that income from the fund can provide $100,000 annually to support and sustain anti-racism work in the NEAC and beyond.

Some of that work within the Conference would be:
  • Supporting anti-racism training among NEAC pastors and laity
  • Building the leadership capacity of pastors and laity to lead local congregations in anti-racism education - including learning events and action around dismantling white privilege and white supremacy
  • Engaging advocacy initiatives to address income inequality and systemic injustice in education, healthcare, criminal justice, and other sectors of society
  • Providing grants to impact structural change for individuals and communities, including early childhood education
As part of Cornerstone: Claiming our past, building a better future, Bishop Devadhar, along with Cabinet members, will offer a four-week Advent Bible Study using It is Enough: A Racism Bible Study by Rev. Michael C. Johnson (Sunday evenings, Nov. 15, Nov. 22, Dec. 6 and Dec. 13). The Cabinet will lead a Lenten Bible Study, Roll Down Justice, with materials from the General Commission on Religion and Race which will be followed by an Act of Repentance. All members of the Conference are invited to participate.

“The churches of the district will also work intentionally with interfaith and ecumenical groups in Worcester County as we seek to dismantle racism in our congregations and in society,” Rev. Stowe said.

Details will be announced in the coming weeks and months. Watch the news for more information about the Cornerstone initiative — including some information and techniques to help all churches uncover and explore their own histories as a path to reconciliation and healing.

“It is my hope and prayer that this discovery and our corporate response will begin a time of healing for our Conference,” Bishop Devadhar said. “When those in the future look back on this moment, I hope that they will be proud of this undertaking and be rewarded with the many fruits it will bear.”