‘United Methodist Church made me who I am’

Staff icons Editor's note: This is part of a series of reflections on their own faith journeys written by members of the staff of the General Board of Church & Society. The photo is a compilation of items each person brought to a day-long retreat as a personal icon representing his or her faith journey.

 

I am who I am because of The United Methodist Church.

Susan Burton

My parents met in nursery school at First United Methodist Church in Tifton, Ga. Every year we traveled to southern Georgia to spend Christmas and summer vacations with my grandparents and extended family. All four of my grandparents were leaders at church and in the community: teaching Sunday School, serving on the School Board, founding Meals on Wheels, serving as communion steward, leading women’s circles and serving on the Board of Trustees.

My grandparents’ professional, personal and familial choices modeled a commitment to God and the common good.

My maternal grandfather would insert his lessons of faith into conversations while we watched baseball, as he blessed our meals, as we talked about current events and as he greeted every person with whom he came into contact.

As the son of a sharecropper who was also an abusive alcoholic, “Daddy T.” knew firsthand the impact of poverty, addiction and abuse. He taught me that every person is a child of God to be treated with dignity and respect.

Bountiful Christmas packages

“You tithe 10% before you pay for anything else,” he told us regularly. At Christmas time, the packages for a family in the community were as bountiful and extravagantly decorated as those for us.

My parents raised us with the same values that we saw in our grandparents’ homes.

My paternal grandmother had publicly testified in opposition when Tift County threatened to close all public schools in the 1950s rather than desegregate.

My parents openly spoke out about racism and fear they heard expressed in private.

Similarly, when Wake County Public Schools began a magnet-school system where children were bused to increase the equity among students of color and white students, my parents opted to keep me in public schools rather than enroll me in a private school as many white parents did. My parents openly spoke out about racism and fear they heard expressed in private.

I learned from my parents and our United Methodist Youth Fellowship (UMYF) counselors that Jesus expected us to ask questions when we noticed that a person or group of people being mistreated.

Increasingly concerned

In high school and college, I became increasingly concerned about racism and the ways it caused divisions in my peer group, some created socially and some administratively, such as which students were selected for awards, honors classes, etc.

Children of God book cover

Burton points to this children’s book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in which he retells more than 50 of his most beloved stories as a crucial resource to help all people love one another. Artists from around the world illustrate the stories using styles reminiscent of their own culture.

In high school, marching band became the equalizer where friendships were developed outside the defined parameters of neighborhoods, churches and classrooms. UMYF became the safe haven where I was loved unconditionally and encouraged to deepen my walk with Christ.

After a college career focused on biology/pre-med and community engagement, I moved to Washington, D.C., to volunteer in a medical clinic. During this year, I was called into deep relationships with people of many faith traditions, races and ethnicities, and socio-economic groups. I realized that God was affirming my love for education that transforms fear and hate into love and solidarity.

Through a graduate program in counseling and education, I became a student of the burgeoning service-learning movement. For several years, during and after graduate school I worked with faculty on several different campuses to design and implement service learning as part of their curricula.

I recognized that the mission of the school often determined which parts of my call I was able to incorporate into my work. On one campus, I could talk about the intersection of faith and service, and on another service and civic engagement.

‘Justice and mercy and faith’

Through a Peace with Justice newsletter sent to my father, I learned of a job opening with the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS). Later that summer, I began working with its United Methodist Seminar Program on National & International Affairs. Because of our Wesleyan traditions of justice, I had finally found a place where I could serve wholeheartedly as an educator who encourages people of all ages to follow Jesus’ call (Matthew 23: 23-24) for us to live lives of “justice and mercy and faith.”

Along this journey, God continued to plant transformative seeds as I became a godmother and mother to African-American children. My passion for equity and my commitment to building and nurturing communities where all people can thrive deepened and became integrated into my life.

I started asking questions that continue today:

  • How will my godsons and daughters grow up believing that they are beloved children of God when the messages that flood our media and the policies that frame our lives tell them the opposite?
  • How will my godsons learn to see women as their equals to love and respect when so many messages teach boys and men to objectify women making them more prone to violence?
  • How will my daughters learn to love and value themselves as smart, creative leaders when society places disproportionate value on their beauty and temperament?

God's call on my life from my earliest visits to my grandparents’ homes to the present day has been to increase my own consciousness to “stay awake and keep watch” so that I am lessening the ways and frequency with which I perpetuate injustice. God asks me to encourage consciousness-raising with young people, parents, teachers and pastors that builds knowledge and skills promoting justice.

In my current position at GBCS as Director of Women’s & Children’s Advocacy, the question I wrestle with every day is this: If we truly believed that all people are children of God with sacred worth, would the issues for which I am responsible — human trafficking, rape, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, child marriage, lack of access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive health care, and heterosexism — devastate so many families, communities and nations?

Letter to the Editor