Members of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., burn strips of paper on which they’ve written things they need to be forgiven for during an act of “repentance, forgiveness and renewal.”
Forgiveness is a tenet of faith and a popular sermon topic, but the practice of daily reconciliation — of cleansing the hatred from one’s heart — can be a challenging goal. Those working to give church members practical ways to implement forgiveness strategies say practicing what is preached is a matter of living it each day, with an emphasis on revisiting what was learned the day before.
“Reconciliation is a huge amount of work on the congregational level,” said the Rev. Sonnye Dixon, pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. “You have to believe that it’s essential for your community to make it start to happen.” Last year, more than 70 of Hobson’s members embarked on a yearlong journey toward forgiveness. Dixon said the idea for the program began after church leaders saw that dozens of members had stopped attending worship because of disagreements or personal issues with their fellow Christians.
During a special assembly, members were encouraged to participate in three symbols of forgiveness: a ritual of writing down their grievances, then burning them; a remembrance of their baptism; and an anointing ceremony. Since then, Dixon said, he has worked with individuals and small groups, urging them to reconnect with those around them whom they might have pushed away.
“We all disappoint each other, and each of us has something we need to have forgiven,” Dixon said. The most difficult part about it is getting people to see that they need to ask for forgiveness.” On a larger scale, the United Methodist Church is reaching out, both in educational and practical ways, to give members the tools to build upon the foundation they receive at church but may struggle to implement in their lives.
Last April, nearly 1,000 delegates to the church’s top legislative body, meeting in Pittsburgh, participated in a Service of Appreciation for African Americans who remained as members of the former Methodist Church and predecessor bodies despite the racial indignities — including segregation — that they experienced.
The United Methodist-led JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation in Washington has become a resource for many. JustPeace staff members help churches and individuals in need of mediation, resolution assistance or a fresh perspective on conflict. “We must think about forgiveness not just in some abstract sort of way, but as a real spiritual practice,” said Mark Mancou, director of administration for JustPeace.
“From the pulpit, forgiveness is usually expressed more as a value to strive for, and then it’s up to us to figure out how to live that way,” Bishop Kenneth Carder, professor of the practice of pastoral formation and director of the Center for Excellence in Ministry at United Methodist-related Duke University School of Divinity, has worked with forgiveness on many levels. His knowledge and proximity to a particular aspect of social reconciliation led him and dozens of others on a three-year journey known as Truth and Reconciliation.
The program continues under the oversight of United Methodist-related Emory University in Atlanta. Carder, who led the United Methodist Church’s Mississippi Area for four years, has accompanied groups to key sites where events critical to the civil rights movements occurred. His goal was to help congregations and individuals come to grips with the past in order to live as a reconciled community. “We remembered where we were during those murders, those riots, and acknowledged what our role had been, recognizing that racism is a part of all our stories,”
Carder said. “In doing so, there is a freedom to move on, to confront the realities in this present time and to reach across racial barriers.” Forgiveness often means coming clean with our own story and past, he said. Churches can help that happen in members’ lives by establishing small-group experiences in which people feel free to share their experiences and confessions.
“Worship plays a critical role, as do Bible studies … but when there’s an environment created where interpersonal sharing can take place, we have a community of reconciliation, rooted in God’s forgiveness,” Carder said. The Rev. Diana Hynson is leading such a group in the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference. Hynson, director of learning and teaching ministries for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, is using Companions in Christ material for the eight-week study on “Spiritual Exploration of the Forgiven.”
She said her group talks openly about issues related to reconciliation, and their victories and struggles to be quick to forgive and slow to condemn. “They’re thinking, they’re testing the material,” Hynson said. “What I see in them is that they really want to be able to think theologically and faithfully about their lives.” Mancou agreed that personal experiences and involvement in the reconciliation process lead to a forgiving lifestyle.
The benefits of that lifestyle manifest themselves in myriad ways, he said. “Perhaps learning forgiveness could be one of the missing pieces that has prevented us from really engaging one another in constructive ways,” Mancou said. “Think of all the good that can be done.”
Dixon says churches willing to prioritize forgiveness on the congregational level will see members transformed. “You’re going to open deep wounds,” he said, “and when you pick that scab off, there’s a lot of pain involved for many people. It’s a healing process, absolutely, but it takes time and commitment.”
*Ross is a freelance journalist based in Dallas. News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.