The Smoky Mountain District comprises the western-most counties in North Carolina and is a subsection of the Western North Carolina Conference of the First United Methodist Church.
The team, which had its first official meeting on Feb. 2, was born from the idea for a Black Lives Matter worship service at Lake Junaluska. Originally it was the Smoky Mountain District vitality committee, which focuses on the overall health of the church and community within, working to put together the worship service. But in working toward this goal, the need was felt for a group with intentions focused more specifically on conversations around race and diversity.
“We realized this was big. This was bigger than this [vitality] team, and really this is important enough that it needs to have its own group of people so that we could broaden ecumenically,” said Rev. Linda Kelly, Smoky Mountain District superintendent.
The team is co-chaired by the Rev. Keith Turman of Waynesville First United Methodist Church and Rev. D’Andre Ash of Snowhill and Iotla United Methodist churches in Franklin.
“Our mission specifically, which we recently put together and we understand to be something that we’ll be sharpening and crafting as we move forward, is to celebrate, to educate, to worship and initiate,” Ash said.
The original idea for a Black Lives Matter Worship service has since morphed into plans for a recurring Juneteenth celebration that would include worship, conversation, music, food and guest speakers. Juneteenth, also referred to as Freedom Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day, celebrates the end of slavery on June 19. The celebration is still in the planning phase, but the group hopes this can be a way for the church to bring the community together in celebration, and better understanding, of Black culture.
“The town of Waynesville, we celebrate so many things and we block off Main Street and we have these apple festivals and folk festivals and all these different things,” said Turman. “How awesome would it be if we had a Juneteenth celebration? It might be a big ordeal to try to get the town of Waynesville to block off the main street and have a big party on June 19, but we at the church could do something.”
The Western North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church has its own Justice and Reconciliation Team, whose mission and form were the model for the newly created team within the Smoky Mountain District. Local church leaders thought it was important to build a Justice and Reconciliation team in order to address local issues and work on projects for worship and celebration within the area, like the Juneteenth celebration.
“We hope to celebrate diversity with this Juneteenth event being kind of a visual manifestation of what our mission is,” said Ash. “So, we hope to celebrate diversity and we hope to educate folks on racial history and disparities that exist between races. We hope to worship together with folks of different denominations, different religions. And we hope it to be a movement that springs from our Methodist tradition, but that invites and includes others. We hope to initiate conversations.”
Both Ash and Turman value the importance of conversation in the work for justice and reconciliation. An important part of the Juneteenth event they want to create involves facilitating conversations that may be difficult to have — teaching people how to sit down and speak about issues that have for so long gone unexamined by so many.
“We hope that the lasting thing that we leave behind is that folks learn how to dialogue, and be in relationship with the other,” said Ash.
He understands this dialogue well. Ash is the only Black clergy member in the Smoky Mountain District. Originally from Atlanta, he was invited to pastor at both Snowhill and Iotla churches. Both homogenous, white congregations.
“These churches have open hearts, open and loving hearts, contrary to what, I don’t know, one may generalize about a homogenous, white church in Western North Carolina, rural Western North Carolina,” said Ash. “These churches are loving and open and they have the capacity and the bandwidth to listen and to speak and to dialogue. I think that’s an important part of why I’m here and kind of willing to engage in the work with the district.”
Turman looks to his church’s work with the LGBTQ community for guidance and inspiration. Two years ago, when a special council of the larger United Methodist Church convened to address divisions regarding the LGBTQ community, FUMC Waynesville did not shy away from the issue. The church was intentional in facilitating conversation within its own congregation, regardless of what the denomination at large decided.
“There’s this precedent now that we’re just not gonna look the other way. We’re not going to be silent. We’re going to ask the hard questions because that’s what Jesus would do,” he said.
The group is still growing, still taking on members. Kelly says the group wants to include more voices in order to make decisions that are respectful and reflective of the community.
“We’re excited about raising the banner, you know, for whatever that means in Western North Carolina and being courageous enough to say that we stand on the side of justice and engage in conversation with anyone who has a heart as willing to listen and be in conversation with us,” said Ash.