From the Desk of the rev. dr. candi dugas | 27 April 2021
Just because an organization is a church, it should not be allowed to get away with unlawful practices.
Shortly before Thanksgiving 2019, despite and because of phenomenal success in my work, Rev. Sara Webb Phillips of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church handed me a letter (as she reported to me was upon the guidance of members of Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s cabinet) wrongfully terminating my role of Pastor of Worship & Arts at Grace United Methodist Church (Atlanta, GA) of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church because I complained about racism and white supremacy at the church. To terminate an employee because she complains about racism is retaliation, and is unlawful — against equal employment opportunity laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (See the letter below, with the unlawful retaliation language highlighted.)
However, the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church is getting away with their unlawful practices due to the “ministerial exception,” which allows religious organizations an exemption from the law under the auspices of “separation of church and state.” I write so that the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church will not get away with their unlawful practices. Despite my right-to-sue from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (November 2020), I am unable to pursue what the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church owes me due to the ministerial exception. My next recourse is to make this egregious harm as public as possible to hold them accountable. I want what the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church owes me — a clear, thorough, and public apology accompanied by financial redress. I also want Black clergy and congregants to know more clearly and definitively that the United Methodist Church is not a safe space for us to work or worship.
How Did We Get Here?
In spring 2019, after approximately eight (8) months in my role of Pastor of Worship & Arts at Grace United Methodist Church, and the accompanying phenomenal success that began rather immediately upon my hiring, Bishop Haupert-Johnson appointed Rev. Phillips, a pastor “who displays a propensity for racist behavior.” (EEOC File №410–2021–000669) Why would Bishop Haupert-Johnson make such an appointment to a congregation that had recently begun to grapple with the active racism/white supremacy in its midst? Why did she not instead appoint a pastor that would assist in continuing to root it out and dismantle it? It’s Bishop Haupert-Johnson’s job to know of such dynamics, to appoint in ways that do no harm, and that affirm and uphold what the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church says is its commitment to racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. Beyond this negligence and/or ignorance (i.e., ignoring) by appointing Rev. Phillips, Bishop Haupert-Johnson stated in 2018, “I also want to personally acknowledge my complicity in white supremacy.” (“Bishops sound alarm about surge in racism,” UMNews.org, 7 Nov 2018) Several months later, in spring 2019 with her pastoral appointments, Bishop Haupert-Johnson did not mind continuing to be complicit — if not active.
Prior to the spring 2019 appointments, the phenomenal success that we celebrated at Grace United Methodist Church under the leadership of Rev. Stacey Rushing was well-documented quantitatively and qualitatively:
===> In just under one (1) year, my John 4 worship & arts design strategy that I proposed and shared with the church introduced at least 89 new artists and community experts to Grace United Methodist Church to help lead ministry, plus 300–400 new attendees that included a core group of repeated worshippers — with little marketing.
===> One Sunday a first-time visitor left with the others following worship, but then almost ran back inside to tell me, “I just had to come back and tell you thank you for doing this. I will be back.” (“One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising G~d in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan.” Luke 17: 15–16)
===> Another Sunday, Easter in fact, a Black woman who rarely attends church shared with me as she was leaving following worship, “I needed this today. I was not sure about coming here at first.”
===> Throughout the week countless others approached me in the building (or via email) we shared with the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church asking about the next planned event if I had not yet posted a flyer, or to offer their life story to be a part of the ministry. (NOTE: During the same period in which I was experiencing racial discrimination, Ms. Ivy Couch was experiencing in another part of the building with Global Ministries a work environment that led the EEOC to file suit against Global Ministries. This suit for retaliation discrimination was settled in February 2020.)
===> Following Rev. Rushing’s departure, many of these newer attendees came to me asking where she went. They often commented something like, “I miss her. From the moment I met her I knew she was the real deal, just something about her.”
All of this success from September 2018 through the next 14 months at Grace United Methodist Church occurred during a persistent season of steady decline in church attendance and membership in the United Methodist Church in the United States of America. Instead of sustained celebration, this success became the catalyst for the exposure of racially/white supremacist motivated disdain because I was the Black woman leading the work in worship and arts. When Bishop Haupert-Johnson appointed Rev. Phillips to Grace United Methodist Church, all of the progressive effort that Rev. Rushing and I were implementing together stopped. I no longer had support for the success my leadership had cultivated.
And my complaints about the racism/white supremacy at Grace United Methodist Church began to be unheeded. I complained when Rev. Phillips sought to exploit the 1619 anniversary by connecting with a new, unvetted evangelical movement, One Race, that opposes including openly gay people in the life of the church. (Grace United Methodist Church openly affirmed LGBTQIA+ siblings’ participation in church life and leadership.) The inherent racial bias active in one of its more prominent leaders became public months later when he characterized chattel slavery in the United States as a “blessing.” I complained when Rev. Phillips exploited a few of the Black children in Grace’s children’s ministry following a viewing of Black Panther, by staging pictures of their displaying the Wakanda gesture for the church’s newsletter, using it out of context, and misspelling it, something like, “Wekenda.” I complained (and refused to participate) when Rev. Phillips’ attempted to exploit the raw pain of Black people by irresponsibly hosting a viewing of When They See Us. At the time of her proposal, she had not viewed the documentary; she wanted me to consult with a white United Methodist pastor in the Midwest about how best to host it; and she did not want to have viewing sessions in a way that protected Black people and their emotions/reactions/triggers.
Moreover, as I continued to complain about even more incidents of racism/white supremacy, Rev. Phillips increased her harassing attempts to end my employment at Grace UMC. Regularly she would set a meeting with me for one topic, and that meeting would instead end up being about matters around my employment. I began to experience what it felt like to be hunted, a dangerously racist/white supremacist dynamic that I’d only read or heard about from other Black people. I began to notice her staring at me, uncomfortably so, especially following a particularly potent worship experience that I’d designed and facilitated. I had to seek medical, mental, and additional spiritual support beyond my regular practices for the symptoms and conditions developing due to stress and working in a hostile, toxic environment. It’s a jarring and painful reality to face that despite life-long connection and service along with stellar records of education and employment excellence — at the end of the day, in white space, you’re “still nigga.” (Jay-Z)
Bishops and General Secretaries, how are you okay with these racist/white supremacist practices?
How is it all right with you that your status as the Church of Jesus Christ protects you from lawful redress when you are guilty of unlawful acts?
What are you going to DO to account for and repair my wrongful termination and the wounds I’ve suffered?
Legacy of Racism/White Supremacy — The Discounting + Dismissal of Black Bodies
Within my EEOC file is a letter from the attorney responding on behalf of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church that takes great care to explain how I am not a clergyperson ordained by the United Methodist Church, and that United Methodist clergy undergo a “rigorous process.” As I read this letter I wondered the purpose of the inclusion of this explanation; it seems to have nothing to do with (and possibly contradicts) their bottom-line defense of ministerial exception to Title VII. What was the compelling need to characterize me as the “other” when in fact I was one of your own? Is this lack of knowledge in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church representative of that in the systemically racist/white supremacist United States of America — ignorance that only sees the color of my skin rather than the deep character and service legacy of which I am a part and to which I have contributed since I was a child?
Are Bishop Haupert-Johnson and other leadership of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church aware of the ecumenical service my grandfather, Deacon Julius Brown, gave to Andrews Chapel United Methodist Church? And the decades of honored service from my aunt, Mrs. Carolyn Crowder, at that same parish — service so widely impactful there and to the City of Atlanta where she also served on the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, acknowledged by United States Congressman David Scott in a proclamation, and by the Atlanta Journal & Constitution in an exhaustive obituary? Are they not aware that my own commitment to serve began at that same Jonesboro, GA parish, including some of the earliest signs that G~d would call me to ordained ministry? How about the subsequent decades of service in my adult years to Ben Hill United Methodist Church and Impact Church before my time at Grace United Methodist Church? When they allowed (directed?) their legal counsel to describe me as other, as below the rigorous United Methodist Church ordination process, were they not aware that I graduated with honors from Gammon Seminary (United Methodist) at the Interdenominational Theological Center (Atlanta, GA) and was a top candidate for United Methodist ordination? (It was I who withdrew my candidacy at G~d’s prompting.) Or the academic excellence that accompanied my Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA)?
If not, they should be aware.
It’s their job to know.
Why did they not inquire? Were they not interested?
It seems that my Black legacy does not matter, especially when alongside the white systems which challenge my phenomenally successful work and label it in ways that best suit its purposes rather than whether my service fulfilled G~d’s charge and benefitted G~d’s people. When asked just before Lent of 2019 what healing would look like for Grace United Methodist Church, one worshipper wrote, “More white people — Some more black people who are like white people in forms of worship.” I suppose that about sums it all up. Black bodies are only appreciated and relatively safe in white spaces as long as they are like whiteness, and in fewer numbers than white bodies. The fact that the white space is the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church (the largest in the United States) matters not — with its definitively predominately (90%) white congregations and white clergy. Church or not, white space continues to be intolerant of, hostile and toxic to, and discriminatory (with retaliation) against Black bodies — without accountability.
Breadcrumbing in the Name of G~d
The United Methodist Church has a 53 year-old General Commission on Religion & Race. It has a statement to dismantle racism. And it has a 20 year-old tagline of “open hearts, open doors, and open minds.” Recalling this, the immortal words of Mr. James Baldwin come to mind, words at the top of a large poster on my wall, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” And the rest of the poster is blank because what you do is nothing.
Bishop Haupert-Johnson and the leadership of the North Georgia Conference continue to say many things — and do nothing.
On or around 9 June 2020 Bishop Haupert-Johnson and the leadership of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church published “A Call to Repentance and Pledge from the Bishop and Cabinet.” It listed various acknowledgements, confessions, and laments regarding the racial reckoning that was rampant across the country last summer. It listed a pledge of seven (7) actions and a “fervent” prayer to love one another. It is billed as a kind of repentance that will bear fruit. Really??? Because the letter from legal counsel representing Bishop Haupert-Johnson and the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church that I referenced above was dated approximately three and a half (3.5) months later, on or around 22 September 2020. If there was no other opportunity, my case was one for Bishop Haupert-Johnson and the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church to repent in a way that would bear fruit — and they did not. Strange fruit, indeed.
Additionally in 2020 I watched a video of Bishop Haupert-Johnson repeat her confession of complicity with white supremacy. How often does she say the same thing over and over again — and do nothing? Somehow it’s fine for her to continue to confess without taking corrective action(s)? Are Black United Methodists (and other Black people who pastor and attend UMC parishes) supposed to accept the breadcrumbs of complicit confessions and spectacles of protest marches through downtown Atlanta as sufficient anti-racist fruit?
Woven into the tightly knit fabric of racism and white supremacy that is the United States of America is the participation of the Church. It’s not complicit; it’s culpable. Racist, white supremacist Christians stole this land from Native Americans and enslaved Africans to build it. Lynchings of my ancestors were featured moments of entertainment during picnics that followed Sunday morning worship. Only with the Church’s integral leadership, its pervasive participation in systemic racism and white supremacy is it thriving in this country.
Silent Acceptance Does Not Liberate Us
So, like my ancestors, familial and collective, I will not keep silent. My silence does not liberate (i.e., save) any of us. (Ms. Audre Lorde) Sometimes, our voices are all we have — and even for some who feel or are actually trapped, they do not even have that. For surely, Black people are oppressed within an invisible “Central Jurisdiction” of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, evident from my wrongful termination to the disproportionate number of Black women clergy appointed to white congregations without any anti-racist/white supremacist training for the congregation to bribes offered to African delegates for their conservative votes at the most recent General Conference.
It’s oppressive (and offensive) to work with a pastor like Rev. Phillips who wanted me to track visitors of color by their apparent ethnic traits, visitors who had not opted in to the church’s database. (I declined to do so.) It’s oppressive (and shocking) to hear a pastor like Rev. Phillips enthusiastically proclaim, “Get some Asians, and some Africans — you can grow a church!” It’s oppressive (and an attempt at being demeaning) for a pastor like Rev. Phillips to value the opinions and observations of a 1st-year seminarian over the qualified knowledge and experience from an ordained clergyperson with multiple decades in ministry/nonprofit executive management and two (2) advanced degrees.
The Call for Justice
And like my ancestors, I live forward knowing that G~d’s justice will most certainly have its way with the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. What the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church is doing is not only unlawful and a shame, it is willful, intentional, unrepented sin.
And you all know it.
“A Lament for Israel’s Sin. Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up. For thus says the Lord G~d: The city that marched out a thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which marched out a hundred shall have ten left. …
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the L~rd is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. …
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the L~rd, the G~d of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. …
Alas for you who desire the day of the L~rd! Why do you want the day of the L~rd? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the L~rd darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5, NRSV)
“To the angel of the church of … I have this against you …” (The Book of Revelation)
Justice looks like the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church rendering to me what it owes me, what I could have received if the law allowed me to sue a religious institution — like any other employer — for wrongful termination:
===> Lost Wages & Benefits (four months before the beginning of a global pandemic)
===> Emotional and Mental Distress
===> Punitive Damages
===> A Widely Published Apology (including direct, clear, and specific admissions of its series of racist/white supremacist decisions and actions that culminated in the unlawful, wrongful termination (as retaliation) of my position as Pastor of Worship & Arts)
May justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
the rev. dr. candi dugas
FOR OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR who have experienced harm, discrimination, verbal/mental/emotional and/or physical assault/violence at a USA United Methodist Church, and would like to share their story(ies), you may do so — anonymously or confidentially — here: http://bit.ly/UMCsoWhiteStories.
(Non-physical assault/violence can happen via slurs, microaggressions, retaliation, etc.)