30 Days of Anti-Racism: #12 Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political boundaries in such a way as to intentionally create minorities. In secular politics, this practice leads to the convoluted shape of many U.S. congressional districts. The majority party will intentionally draw boundaries to give the minimum number of seats to the opposing party.

The following graphic illustrates how gerrymandering works.

Image by Steven Nass (Own work) (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Notice that none of the above arrangements distributes power in a manner proportional to constituency.

In structurally racist church organizations, boundaries will be drawn in ways to keep people of color in minority status even when they constitute a majority within society at large or a particular region.

Before the merger of the SWTC and RGC, the RGC overlapped geographical conferences in two states. Taken as a whole, Texas and New Mexico were not majority Hispanic. Most of the RGC churches, however, were concentrated in Hispanic-majority areas. The former RGC was apportioned two lay and two clergy delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.

The geographical conferences were free to elect Hispanic delegates, and my former conference, the SWTC often did. The total number of Hispanics from the area, therefore would at least be 4 and sometimes be as high as 6 to 8.

After merger, Hispanics became a small minority within the new conference.
Consequently, any aspiring Hispanic delegate would need to seek endorsement from one or more non-Hispanic voting blocks.

In the first post-merger election, the General Conference delegation included one Hispanic clergy, while the Jurisdictional Conference delegation included one Hispanic clergy and two Hispanic laypersons, an outcome significantly decreasing Hispanic representation at General Conference.

GERRYMANDERING AND COMMITTEES

In the merger agreement, the Standing Rules stated that all committees be staffed 50 RGC /50 SWTC until “at least through 2020,” reflecting the demographics of “the mission field.” By 2020, as Hispanics that left committees were replaced from the general pool of available members, ethnic constituency had returned to levels similar to the demographics of conference membership.

The 50/50 rule required an abandonment of earlier inclusiveness rules within the SWTC. The earlier rules that mandated more general inclusiveness across all ethnic-minority groups have not been restored.

GERRYMANDERING AND SOLIDARITY

Prior to merger, the ministers of the RGC met together in associations to share best practices, fellowship, and organize the Culto Unido joint worship services. I joined one such group prior to my appointment to La Trinidad UMC. The associations were organized along RGC district lines, North and South. They met monthly around a meal and shared worship experience. They followed their own by-laws, elected their own officers, and maintained their own funds. Similar associations did not exist in the SWTC.

Before the merger had become official, the former bishop merged the districts, removing the two RGC superintendents, both Latin-American. He appointed one to a racist Anglo church, an appointed that ended in an early retirement, and appointed the other to a Spanish-speaking RGC church.

Immediately after this transition, the Anglo superintendents met with the associations. In the North, the new superintendent informed the association that he had reorganized the district into eight “forums” or sub-districts. The Anglo churches were organized geographically into these forums, but to be “inclusive,” RGC churches were moved out of their geographic areas. Consequently, the RGC churches were placed in six of the eight forums, forums that would be Anglo and English dominant in their administration.

The association would be free to continue meeting, but one thing was very implicit. Besides creating an additional burden for clergy, doing so would appear “backwards” and disrespect the expectations of the new patrón.

Around the same time, I traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to meet with the association there. The predominance of Hispanic churches there allowed their association greater leverage and the means of remaining intact, even attracting some bilingual Anglo clergy. Unlike the northern group, they continued holding the monthly Culto Unido. My purpose was to explore with them the possibility of a conference-wide Hispanic caucus.

Immediately following this meeting, their new superintendent informed me that my presence there, and the agenda of a conference-wide association were not welcome. “I want my pastors to follow me not some conference-level group.”

Word of my travel made it to my own new (and former) superintendent. He expressed his opinion that we should no longer be “separate and unequal.” A conference-wide Hispanic and bilingual pastors association would run “contrary to the unification principles.”

The Northern Hispanic pastors association eventually disbanded.

Two years later, the Hispanic chair of a “Vision Team” attempted to hold a listening session with Hispanic clergy and lay delegates at annual conference to reflect on their status after the merger. The one Hispanic superintendent serving on the cabinet did not attend and discouraged other Hispanic pastors and laity from participating. A similar response was given to a “Fiesta Fellowship” event inviting Hispanic clergy organized during Bishop’s Convocation. That chairperson produced a report documenting patterns of bias. He resigned after the cabinet disregarded the report.

For the first time since 1873, the official policy of the San Antonio Episcopal Area opposed and undermined uniting and organizing Hispanic churches and pastors.

GERRYMANDERING AND APPOINTMENTS

In a hierarchal system, gerrymandering will impact any form of appointed leadership. This is true of the UMC appointment system.

I was the first of what would become multiple “cross-conference” appointments between the SWTC and RGC. After a year at my appointment to La Trinidad UMC in 2013, I requested for my conference membership to also be transferred to the RGC.

My offer was rejected by the superintendent and former bishop. I was not allowed to enter merger from within the same conference as my spouse and retired ministers in my pastoral care.

Soon after merger, the mixing process picked up. Several U.S.-born Hispanic ministers in the former RGC moved into former SWTC church assignments. Others transferred to other conferences, to extension work, or left ministry. Today, it is twice as likely that a Hispanic clergy member of my conference will be serving in extension work as it is for their Anglo counterparts.

With merger, cabinet members began asking former RGC churches if they would accept a monolingual minister, and many agreed. Within a year, four of the most prominent appointments within the former RGC were led by Anglo ministers, one of whom unable to conduct worship in Spanish. With the consent of the congregation, the oldest Hispanic church in the conference ceased offering Spanish worship services.

Many churches would say goodbye to the last elder ever to serve their pulpits as higher standard salaries meant that the value of a local pastor in the former SWTC was considered higher than a seminary-trained elder in the former RGC. One prominent RGC appointment declined from being served by an experienced elder, to a provisional elder, to a part-time pastor from another denomination, to “to be supplied” status, in just four years. The only Hispanic and bilingual congregation in a large border city now stands at risk of being closed and sold.

One Anglo pastor sent to a RGC church in a 97% Hispanic county reported that his D.S. left it “up to him” whether or not to continue services in Spanish at the English-dominant Mexican-American congregation. Before my appointment, leaders of my own church were asked if they would accept an “English-only” pastor. Spanish was also marginalized within conference staff. Job descriptions at the conference mandated proficiency in English and labeled Spanish as “a plus.”

The implied commitment that the new conference expect bilingual skills among all clergy was abandoned within the Board of Ordained Ministry.

The appointment system claims to match “gifts and graces” to local churches. Consequently, economic and political advantage would fall to those who were young, White and English-only, as bilingual and Spanish-speaking pastors would be more likely to seek and receive deployment to the newly created margins or appointment late in the process.

IMMIGRATION

Finally, as if the new boundaries were not enough to marginalize the Hispanic presence, immigration policy also favored the ethnic-minority White population. As the bishop informed the conference that there were “too many elders” in the conference, significant numbers of Hispanic elders (including two chairs of the order of elder) and associate members left ministry, took early retirement, transferred to extension ministry appointments, and joined other annual conferences. U.S.-born Hispanic pastors found new opportunities in the merger, while those born in the other 2/3 of the Western Hemisphere began to wonder if they had a future in this “bold new conference.”

I brought concern for immigrant pastors to a D.S. The response was, “Show me one of them that has any fruit!”

As Hispanic emigration from the conference accelerated, several of the largest, most affluent churches came open to a new clergy appointment. To fill those pulpits, English-only White clergy from other conferences, several of whom having been intentionally groomed into privilege, were brought in and quickly granted conference membership and other positions of leadership.

Not only did this exacerbate growing patterns of racial and economic inequity, it shut down the chain of appointment changes that usually followed such appointments.

In perhaps the most extreme examples of White privilege, some White clergy were even allowed to even take affluent churches out of the denomination while retaining conference membership, protecting those churches from both apportionments and the itinerant (appointment) system.

Whether the boundaries are regional or local, geographical or merely political, the entire conference or a committee, a district, or a sub-set of churches, gerrymandering moves the ropes around to benefit some and disenfranchise others. With structural racism, the harm will be done to people of color.


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