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PANEL FINDS RACISM IN RURAL CHURCHES

In the rural Midwest, church members objected to the appointment of a South Korean pastor because they had served in the Korean War.

In the Northeast, when a college student in her church participated in a cross burning at the home of a black grandmother who lived alone, the pastor felt white neighbors of the victim withdrawing from her as she responded to the incident.Elsewhere, an African minister appointed to a predominantly white church received letters telling him "to go back where you come from," and some members of the congregation stayed away his entire four-year term.

When the United Methodist Church established a task force on rural racism that held hearings throughout the country, examples were disturbingly easy to find - both in the church and the community.

A depressed rural economy and diminished farming acreage contributed to a fertile atmosphere for white supremacist groups to exploit, and the task force discovered the groups are pushing their message on forums ranging from cable television programs to home pages on the Internet.

And while there are concerned people within and without the church confronting rural racism, "the task force concludes that racism continues to be a pervasive and systematic force within the rural church and community."

That is not the way it should be, according to the report approved recently at the United Methodist General Conference meeting in Denver.

"Racism is sin. . . . A manifestation of sin is injustice, abuse and violence, often consequences of racism and a distortion of God's love for all people."

Confronted with such stark biblical and theological reasoning, there have been several recent efforts by Christian groups to seek racial healing.

In 1994, leaders of major black and white Pentecostal denominations created the Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches of North America, with an executive committee divided evenly by race.

Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant church, denounced racism and repudiated the denomination's failure to support the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. The Promise Keepers Christian men's movement has made racial reconciliation a priority.

Also at its quadrennial General Conference, the United Methodists approved plans for a Commission on Pan-Methodist Union to seek unity with the three largest black Methodist churches.

However, as its own task force on rural racism found out in hearings throughout the country, there is also a tendency in the church to hide the problem.

Everywhere the task force heard testimony, from Denver to Gulfport, Miss., "a recurring theme . . . is that many white rural churches hide from the fact that racism is still a problem, and that silence contributes to continued racism."

The Rev. Chester R. Jones, a black United Methodist Minister from Pine Bluff, Ark., who led the task force, said he was not surprised.

"We have a tendency to ignore issues that we're just not going to deal with, or are just too much to handle," he said.

Complicating the denomination's ability to address the issue in rural areas is sometimes the churches are so small pastors do not work there full time or even live in the area. Often rural churches also are steppingstone churches that pastors do not stay in long enough to establish the credibility to bring about racial reconciliation in a community.

In its report, the task force makes some 54 recommendations, from urging the general church to provide resources to congregations to combat rural racism to encouraging regional conferences to develop plans to provide cross-cultural experiences in rural areas.

Curiously, however, only three recommendations are directed at individuals and those encourage support for victims and for church members to teach their children about other cultures and countries.

There is no call for people in the congregation to search their own souls for how they contribute to rural racism.

"Nobody wants to take blame for the issues around racism," Jones said. "I think that's a criticism - a valid criticism - of the report." However, he said the Methodist report is still a step in the right direction.

"You just have to keep working and praying about this issue, and maybe if we move one centimeter in 50 years, you just have to be thankful for that."