Pastor confronts a cultural divide in Rutherfordton

When Rev. In-Yong Lee arrived at First UMC in Rutherfordton, the Asian-American pastor wasn’t sure how she would be received by the congregation and community.

Three years later, Rev. Lee feels right at home in this small town in the Foothills. She’s embraced her role as a community leader by teaming with local clergy to foster healing and reconciliation across racial lines.

Rev. Lee brings a unique perspective. Not only is she the first non-white senior pastor in the church’s nearly 200-year history, she’s also the first woman to hold the position.

Thirteen Asian-Americans serve in clergy roles in the Western North Carolina Conference, including 10 Elders in Full Connection, two Provisional Elders and one Part-Time Local Pastor. However, Rev. Lee is the only female Asian-American clergy person, according to Conference Archivist and Historian Jim Pyatt.

“The reception has been excellent,” Rev. Lee said in a recent interview. “I have been supported and loved and affirmed by the congregation all this time.”

First UMC Rutherfordton defines its mission as “sharing Christ’s Light to Main Street and Beyond.”

Two initiatives reflect Rev. Lee’s commitment to this call, particularly on the subject of racial justice:

The Foundation has supported Rev. Lee’s ministry going back to her time at Cokesbury UMC in east Charlotte from 2015-2019. She’s a graduate of the Reynolds Program in Church Leadership, a one-year leadership development certificate program offered to United Methodist clergy in six conferences.

Some have pushed back against Rev. Lee’s emphasis on racial justice work.

“They were saying there is no racism in America any more. Why are you stirring things up?” the pastor said. “I saw how successful racism has been in blinding people.”

In the video posted above, Rev. Lee describes her passion for racial justice during a conversation with Matt Garfield, the Foundation’s director of communications.

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