30 Days of Anti-Racism: #7 Bait and Switch

Like the Big Sell, Bait and Switch seeks to elicit a transaction, but what is given is not what was originally offered.

Instead of dressing up a structurally racist proposal in glowing promises, Bait and Switch offers one thing, and then replaces it with something harmful or inferior.

While most think of tricks used to get people into car dealerships, or items purchased online that are much smaller than they appeared, in history, Bait and Switch has been a lethal tactic of racism.

U.S. treaties used Bait and Switch to deceived indigenous tribes into giving up territory. Colonists offered gifts of smallpox infected blankets. Predatory lenders offered Mexican farmers cash and later foreclosed.

Bait and Switch also finds expressions in the structural racism of the church.

Some years ago, I received a call from a distressed Hispanic pastor who had been serving a two-point charge between Spanish-language and multi-ethnic churches. The multi-ethnic church needed resources to complete a larger worship center. Instead of funding the building project, the conference provided this pastor with a small salary subsidy and required him to serve both churches.

Conference officials proposed a merger between the Spanish-speaking church and the multi-ethnic church so that the proceeds from the sale of the Spanish-speaking church could help the larger church complete its new worship center. This seemed a good idea, as it would also lighten his responsibilities.

When the charge conference was held to enact the proposed merger, the superintendent and conference executive explained the process to the immigrant church members: “We need to be clear what we are doing. We are voting today to dissolve this church so you can join the other church.”

After the merger and sale of the closed church, the pastor was informed his other church would not receive the funds.

The pastor and immigrant church had fallen for a bait and switch. Under UMC polity, when churches merge, their assets merge, but when a congregation disbands, its assets revert to the annual conference. It would take several years and personnel changes before this pastor’s merged congregation would ever receive even a portion of the proceeds of that church sale.

Around this same time, another Hispanic pastor, a provisional elder serving as an associate pastor, requested her own pastoral charge in order to begin the Residence in Ministry ordination process as a senior pastor.

Two weeks before annual conference, she received word of an appointment to a difficult and small urban congregation meeting in a very large and distressed property, a church that was losing thousands of dollars every month and depleting permanent funds to pay staff. Although this would be the most difficult appointment offered to anyone in her ordination class, and in spite of being six months pregnant, she accepted the only appointment offered.

After annual conference, the superintendent then moved to assign a second distressed congregation to her charge. She complained to the bishop who told her not to worry, but the fix was in, and the second church was added.

The second church consisted of 15 elderly members meeting in a room without air conditioning. The superintendent forced her to convene services there at noon. He also forced her to retain a bookkeeper that she did not trust who later undermined the financial integrity of that church forcing it to close during her second year.

When the second church closed, the pastor was given two choices: take her baby and move to West Texas three hours away from her husband for the only “available appointment,” or sign a waiver to work part-time.

The Residence In Ministry chair informed her that if she worked part-time, she would have to leave the ordination process because probationers could not be part-time or move during the two-year probationary period. She then asked why an Anglo woman in her group moved twice and was not penalized. “Don’t play the race card,” the chair told her.

Betrayed at many levels, she left the Southwest Texas Conference and became an ordained elder in the Rio Grande Conference. Those two conferences, however, were on a collision course of merger.

That merger would have many features of Bait and Switch.

Extensive meetings of unification teams produced documents outlining a bold vision of a pro-Hispanic conference uniting the financial strengths of the Southwest Texas Conference with the cultural and missionary gifts of the Rio Grande Conference. The new conference promised to move resources away from “bureaucracy” and “into the mission field.” The model for the ideal pastor of the new conference featured bi-cultural and bilingual skills and a missionary spirit. Governance would be shared 50/50. Legacy funds would be honored. A higher salary promised to improve the social status of RGC pastors. Every church of the Rio Grande Conference, located throughout Texas and New Mexico, was assured a place in the new conference.

When the time came to vote in the Rio Grande Conference, only the most seasoned, experienced clergy, those with memories and scars of civil rights struggles, quietly opposed the offer to dismantle a missionary structure that had stood since 1873 and enter a new promised land of opportunity and full inclusion.

Moments after the merger vote, the media interviewed Anglo leaders of the unification effort. One reporter asked, “What happens to the 35 RGC congregations outside the current Southwest Texas Borders?”

“There will be a discernment, self-determination process for those congregations,” answered Byrd Bonner, co-chair of the conference’s unification steering team.

During that time, the churches can explore being in relationship with the districts and conferences in which they are geographically located, Bonner said.

Heather Hahn 7:00 AM ET July 25, 2012 | OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS)

The presiding bishop was then asked about his commitment to expect proficiency in English and Spanish among clergy serving this “bold new conference.”

“I’m not requiring it,” he said. “We’re requesting it because we will be appointing people across (cultures). That’s one of the things that’s hurting us now is we have a lot of people in Southwest Texas who could serve Rio Grande churches well, but we can’t get them across because of some of the disparities, and the same thing vice versa.

Heather Hahn 7:00 AM ET July 25, 2012 | OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS)

Soon, new job descriptions were published stating “Fluent command of the English language, proper style, usage, and punctuation. Bi-lingual (sic) in English and Spanish a plus.”

Spanish was not expected of anyone. English was.

Almost all of the RGC churches outside the SWTC boundaries transferred to geographical conferences, save for those rejected by the bishops of those conferences.

Ethnic quotas governing the composition of SWTC committees were replaced by new language mandating a 50/50 composition of former SWTC and former RGC persons on conference governance structures until 2020. Within one year, committees began transitioning back to Anglo-dominant constituency, a bias also evident on the extended cabinet.

Equitable compensation legacy funds designated for RGC churches were unrestricted, undermining Hispanic church access to full-time appointment and consequently, pensions and healthcare legacy benefits. Numerous Hispanic churches closed or went to part-time status.

The Bait and Switch negated nearly every promise made prior to merger even before the new conference had reached its 5th birthday.

The experience of a Bait and Switch can be traumatic. Individuals and communities lose confidence, time, work, money, even relationships and health. Emotionally, I would compare it to suffering a theft, an assault, a violation, or a severe betrayal of confidence.

Like those seasoned RGC pastors skeptical of the merger, anti-racists need to approach any offer of partnership with power or historic oppressors with skepticism, guarding their autonomy, their independence and their freedom whenever possible and making sure accountability measures are in place.

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