United Methodists Confront Profiling Issue

March 19, 2009

First of a three-part series

A UMNS Report

By Kelly C. Martini*

March 16, 2009

The Rev. Humberto Casanova is still bothered by his May 2007 experience at Simpsonwood Retreat Center, a United Methodist facility near Atlanta.

When he checked in, the Chilean-borne pastor told the desk attendant that he would be staying one night beyond his meeting to complete work for United Methodist Communications.

But after colleagues at his meeting departed, Casanova was awakened at 1 a.m. by "a loud knock on my door with a male voice commanding me to open the door."

Two police officers and two Simpsonwood staff members wanted to know what he was doing there.

"Everything started to become bizarre," he recalled. "I could not understand the presence of the police and the insistence of having to pay immediately for the extra day.

"I was forced by the intimidating presence of the police to come out of my room in my pajamas and walk - feeling like a criminal escorted by two police cars - all the way to the registration building."

More than a year and a half later, troubling questions linger about the incident: If he were white, would the police have been called? Would he have been allowed to wait until morning to clear the misunderstanding?

When Casanova (at left) returned to his office in Nashville, Tenn., he immediately wrote to his supervisor, who involved leaders in the church's North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference, including Bishop Lindsay Davis, who was leading the conference then, conference treasurer Keith Cox, and Simpsonwood's interim chief operating officer, Paul Minter.

Church leaders worked quickly to rectify the situation. The responsible staff person was fired and the retreat center refunded Casanova's room charges, apologized to Casanova, and agreed to train staff in hospitality and procedures to handle misunderstandings. A Simpsonwood official declined to comment for this story, noting that there has been a turnover in staff since the incident.

The retreat center responded quickly to the situation, but the episode serves as a reminder that the church and its institutions are not immune to incidents of racial profiling.

The Rev. David Rocha and members of Camino de Vida United Methodist Church, Gaithersburg, Md., are grieving for one of their congregation who was stopped by a police officer "because of his skin color," taken to jail and deported in early February.

"Unfortunately, he was the provider for his sister and a niece being treated for leukemia and receiving chemotherapy treatment," Rocha wrote in an e-mail message calling for support and action to stop such arrests.

The church is often a microcosm of the racism reflected in our larger society, according to Jeneane Jones (below, right), a spokesperson for the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, Washington, D.C and former Communications Director for the California-Nevada Conference. Her agency works to eradicate racism within The United Methodist Church and to sensitize and educate members about racism.

"Just as racial profiling occurs on our streets, where police can pull over an individual solely based on how they look, the irrational power of stereotyping within our denomination can result in racist, hurtful behavior," she said.

Jones uses the example of a dominant-culture church offering its facility to a racial-ethnic congregation for worship services, then church leaders stationing several members to watch the visitors to make sure they do not litter, steal or worse.

Racial profiling is defined as "any time stereotypes are used to deprive someone of their basic human rights, or when they are denied services because of appearance or accent or skin color," said Jones, quoting the Rev. Eliezer Valentin-Castanon, the commission's assistant chief executive working with the church's Hispanic/Latino constituency.

Fears affect membership

The Rev. Hope Cummins witnessed the pains of racism and racial profiling as a United Methodist minister to migrant workers in New Castle, Pa. The Pennsylvania clergywoman drives a church van to local orchards and farms to pick up migrant workers - mostly Guatemalan and Mexican men - to take them to Sunday afternoon worship, then to Wal-Mart for weekly supplies. If the men need to go to the hospital, pharmacy or grocery store, Cummins assists.

These men are mostly living here without families, sending financial support to wives and children in home countries. Some are documented; some are not. Cummins doesn't ask. She sees the church as a place of hospitality.

The ministry has become difficult because the migrant workers increasingly fear hostility on the road to worship. Well-publicized immigration issues have directly affected attendance of the Latino ministry, she said.

"People who used to attend were arrested and deported. Some were reluctant to be seen in our van," she said. The Latino men fear if police or immigration officers see them together, they will be stopped and searched - whether they are in the United States legally or not.

Bill Mefford (at left), director of civil and human rights at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, has encountered similar experiences. Visiting a clergy friend in Oklahoma in 2007, he observed the care with which the Hispanic woman drove, then realized that Latinos are the new target for potential racial profiling. The possibility carries trepidation for many, even if they are documented.

"People feel fearful of even going to the hospital now. People in her parish and church were all very, very careful about going outside, going to church, going to the hospital. Hospital employees were reporting and turning over information to INS, even information about people who were documented," he said.

Whether it is a place of worship, camp or another church institution, faith structures are not exempt from racial profiling, according to the Rev. David Wilson, district superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

Wilson (photo below) recalled how a white man experienced such racism first-hand during one of the conference's United Methodist youth camps. "We put kids in vehicles to take to a swimming pool in a nearby affluent town," he said. However, police stopped the church van caravan because "one driver was Anglo and all the passengers were Native American." The police, he said, profiled them as Latinos.

"The assumption was that he was transporting illegal immigrants," he said. For many youth, it may have been an introduction to what would happen at some point in their lives outside church walls and off tribal lands. In Oklahoma, the majority of the 37 tribes have license plates designating their tribal affiliation. "It's easy for police to pull you over," said Wilson, referring to Native Americans who leave for more affluent neighborhoods or geographic areas. "They can identify you not only because of the color of your skin, but your tags."

The profiling happens when stereotypes are forced on a person because of an identifiable characteristic such as race.

"When Native American colleagues get up to speak, they're often told by Anglo listeners, 'you're so well spoken and articulate. Where did you ever learn that?'" Wilson said. "People make assumptions that we don't have the same type of experiences or qualifications as other people," Wilson said.

Questioning assumptions

Mefford recalled serving as a youth pastor at a small church in Texas where an African-American woman "almost stopped the service" when she walked into the sanctuary.

"The only people of color who came into our church were youth or there to clean," he said. "...They didn't know what to make of it and people went out of their way to welcome her."

The over-enthusiasm of people to welcome her, obviously because of her racial difference, caused Mefford to ask questions about assumptions and stereotypes.

"What if 20 African Americans had come in? What if a family came in and began to get involved in positions of leadership and wanted to recruit others? Then, what would the dynamic be for a church that was predominantly white?" he asked.

"It's not just attitudes. There's action that goes along with those stereotypes," Mefford said about how racial profiling happens.

Racial profiling became real during fall of 2007 for Erika Granados-De La Rosa, who was at the time a United Methodist student representative to the church's Hispanic-Latino caucus.

In her first weeks at Loyola University in Chicago, De La Rosa was socializing with three African-American classmates outside the school's welcome center when an incident involving a white campus police officer led to two internal investigations, counseling for the students involved and diversity training for all campus security officers.

According to The Phoenix, Loyola's student newspaper, one of the black students was sitting on a railing and lifted himself up to stand on it when the officer told him to get down. Granados-De La Rosa said the student immediately complied, apologized and showed his student ID when asked. The officer allegedly used racial slurs and accused the group of being part of a gang. "You people come to this campus and ruin our campus," Granados-De La Rosa quoted the officer as saying. The incident escalated until four officers were called for backup and diffused the situation.

"I feel like it made all of us involved in the incident see the world with more defined color lines," Granados-De La Rosa said later. "After it happened, we felt alienated because it was so emotionally heavy for us, but it felt like no one else cared or understood."

Addressing racism head-on

Kirk Perucca, founder of Project Equality, is the president of a consulting firm that trains corporations and institutions on diversity/inclusion, cultural proficiency and prevention of sexual harassment.

Perucca was consulting with a local college on expanding recruitment, when one recruiter said, "I'm not going into an urban area unless I'm carrying a gun." Calling the recruiter's statement "blatant racism," Perruca responded by noting that potential urban recruits met the academic standards and "paid with green money."

To address racial profiling, including incidents that occur in Christian institutions, Christians must do "hard work around racism" - far beyond what's been done, according to Perucca.

Addressing issues of racial profiling starts with a cultural proficiency audit that analyzes quality, procedures and marketing to see how culturally aware the institution really is. Then, it involves honest monitoring of self and others.

"I can't change others, but I can impact how myself, as a white male, interacts with people of other cultures. That's my responsibility as being a male in a dominant culture - monitoring how I work and how I work effectively with others," he said.

If the church and its institutions do this, racial profiling can be nullified, he said.

For Casanova, his experience at Simpsonwood is still troubling at times.

"It did not change the way I look at the U.S. or the church," he said. "It just confirmed what I knew from previous experiences, much reading, and stories of other people."

*Martini is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.


Read the other stories in this

 three-part series:

"Racial Profiling in Society Broadens"

and "Church Leaders Suggest Ways to Overcome Profiling."