More than 1,000 United Methodists, black and white, met with their bishop in a Silver Spring church yesterday to air their grievances about the charges of racism and sexism that erupted when a church court tried and convicted a black pastor of charges involving sexual harassment this month.
But nearly 100 angry black church members, who said they were not ready to join Bishop Joseph Yeakel in the worship service that preceded the heated discussion at the Woodside Methodist Church, demonstrated and held their own prayer vigil outside.
On Sept. 17, the Rev. John Carter, 36, was found guilty of charges brought by three black and two white women who had worked for him in a church-sponsored antipoverty project. He was suspended from the ministry for three years, advised to undergo counseling and directed to ask forgiveness at a public worship service.
Carter, who was present at yesterday's session but did not speak, has filed an appeal with the church's next highest court. A trial date has not been set, said the Rev. Irvin Lockman, Carter's counsel.
The protesters filed into the church for the open discussion and peppered the forum with questions, emotional statements and impromptu sermons. There were more blacks already in the congregation inside the church than those who had protested outside.
Most of the questions raised during the forum, often accompanied by angry and emotional speeches, revolved around the issue of racism. The congregation included several hundred blacks.
"The issue really isn't John Carter. The issue is, if it had been a white man, the trial would not have happened," said the Rev. Bernard Keys, a black pastor who went on to scold the conference, as the regional unit of the church is called, for alleged racist practices.
"The Baltimore Conference of the United Methodist Church is a racist conference," declared Jim King, a black lay leader. "Wherever there is a group of people who are insensitive to the needs and desires of another group . . . that's racism."
The bishop, who is white, was criticized by several speakers for not reconciling the conflict before it came to trial. But the parties declined to come together, he said.
The conflict "was not initiated in the bishop's office," Yeakel said. "Remember, there can be no trial unless there are those who bring the complaint" -- in this case, the five women who charged Carter.
Once the charges have been filed, he said, "the issue is not reconciliation, the issue is exoneration. When you exonerate one, you condemn the five. It's easy when you choose sides and walk with one. It's not easy when you have to walk with both sides."
Paul Seaman, a white lay member of Foundry United Methodist Church, said he "didn't hear anything about the trial that was not in accord with procedure" specified in the church's Book of Discipline.
Gladys Mitchell, a black woman, said, "The trial was not on racism. The trial was on sexual harassment." She rebuked those who "wanted the bishop to sweep it under the rug" and was applauded when she asked, "Why do you stand here and try to switch what was sexual harassment into a racial issue?"
The Rev. William Polk of Baltimore, noting that whites also experience the "pain" of racism, challenged the church to "go forward with our Christian beliefs . . . to say we are going to try to work together . . . . We can meet each other and do what needs to be done. I can be honest with you and you can be honest with me."
"It's a beginning," George Duvall, a black lay leader from Gaithersburg, said after the session ended with a hymn. "If five people will start talking, that's a beginning."