I arrived about noon on Friday. I went to the ‘Tabernacle’ where the Love Your Neighbor Coalition folks come for meals and to hang out, have communion, do strategizing, etc. The lunch was wonderful food and great company. And the tabernacle was crowded! Lots of conversation. Most people were wearing the stoles we wear at Trinity on first Sundays. Inside the tent are symbols of the various organizations which are part of the coalition, including the Southwest Texas MFSA banner. Most of the organizations are giving away treats to those gathered, like rainbow bandanas, shopping bags, pens, pins, etc. Outside the Tabernacle there are symbols as you walk through the entry/exit gate. One is the plumb line, symbol of MFSA. Another is a symbol with chains. I think Rowland Curry from MFSA here will be sending photos of various sites. The fence around the Tabernacle is covered with very colorful prayer cloth strips, many from Austin.
The convention center where the General Conference is being held is huge and has been very well set up. Near the doors on the first floor in the entry is a symbolic jail cell set up by those campaigning against private jails and imprisoning so many people. In this entry way there have been many small demonstrations and presentations by various groups, including many from the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. I saw a gathering of young people with guitars playing a wonderful modern hymn as we were having a break in committee sessions. On the second floor were kiosks for information and registration and an area where various sponsors provided coffee etc. for breaks. The third floor was the ballrooms which were being used as the main convention floor and as an exhibit area. The General Conference floor was set up with round tables for 8 people this time, will 1000 delegates; it was a lot to tables! I don’t know how delegates were arranged around these tables. The exhibit area has a huge Cokesbury bookstore and there are display areas for all the general agencies of the UM church and for Methodist Women and Methodist Men. I collected some free books and other printed matter and a water jug from Emory and small flashlight from the Methodist Men!
I was assigned to the Church and Society A Committee as an observer. Janice Curry, also from Austin and from MFSA was also assigned there as well as a pastor from western NY and a very young UM missionary assigned to Germany. We took turns observing and were also all there. This is a committee of about 80 delegates representing 80 different annual conferences. The leader was a district superintendent from Chicago. She had the patience of Job. Friday afternoon was the first session where the whole group got back together after having spent over a day meeting as 3 sub committees. They spent the first hour today arguing over procedures and several other times similar struggles came up. Petitions are presented by United Methodists, various Methodist organizations and churches, etc. These 1000s of petitions are divided among the many committees meeting. There were 2 committees discussion church and society issues. The other group, B, was assigned all the sexuality petitions (LGBT, Women’s rights, and women’s health issues such as abortion and contraception). There was also a group called Finance and Administration which dealt with proposals to change the overall organization of the whole United Methodist Church. In each of these groups, I think there were maybe 20 of these groups. I assume they all operated the same way. The petitions were divided among the 3 sub committees in our Church and Society A group. Often many petitions were very similar and were grouped together and the Sub-Committee decided to only work on one which represented the group. If the Subcommittee thought the petition had merit they could vote to support it before the whole committee. If they thought it needed help , the Sub Committee could propose amendment(s) and vote to accept or reject these. Or if the Sub Committee determined the petition was unworthy, they could vote not to support it before the whole Committee. When I arrived Friday they were beginning to work through all the 100s of petitions assigned to Church and Society A. These were very diverse and included items such as proposing Methodists work to help the US change the basic focus of our economy from war to peace to working to restrict tobacco marketing, to divesting in US businesses in Palestine and Israel. It appeared to me that the group was divided along lines similar to general US population divisions, the tea party types, the middle of the road types, and the progressives. Of the 80 voters in the group only about 14 or less ever voted regressively (from my perspective). Except for some really wildly conservative votes against things like suggesting the United Methodist Church use gender neutral images for God, which was supported but was very close.
Apparently in Church and Society B the deck was stacked very differently. I went over there for one afternoon session and most of the votes were 43 (regressive) to 33 (progressive). Needless to say they were not voting as a committee to support the legislation that is close to our hearts (changing language and policies about LGBT people etc.). Apparently even if a committee does not vote to support a petition before the whole General Conference, a minority group of 20 people can support the legislation in an attempt to bring it before the whole General Conference but those in charge of the agenda may not accept the minority proposal so I don’t know if any of the petitions we want will even be brought before the whole General Conference.
Personal note: I got to see lots of old friends from various parts of the country, such as my old boss from Frankford Group Ministries in Philadelphia and the son of my former associate pastor from Columbia, MO. The majority is not always right. Britt, of Trinity, was there and is doing great in Chicago. Britt is about to begin a year-long internship at a local church that she reports isn’t Trinity but is close. Her partner Jessica wasn’t there but she is also really loving grad school and Chicago. She is in an internship with a gang violence prevention group.
Saturday these committees met from 8 am to 9:30 pm to vote on all the petitions and get the ready for presentation to the General Conference, which started Monday and will be finished by Friday! Every evening about 5:15 there is communion in the Tabernacle and about 9:30 there are sessions to strategize ways to help delegates support petitions the coalition supports.
Sunday were several worship services and I got to attend 2 of them. The Commission on the Status and Role of Women (on which I serve in our annual conference) had a service from 10-12 on Sunday. This was the anniversary of 40 years since this commission was established. They had a beautiful service with 100s present. They had 4 huge, gorgeous banners in iridescent brocades of the 4 seasons, complete with quotes from scripture. In the center of the room was around table piled high with huge burlap bags over flowing with gorgeous loaves of bread and hug jugs of grape juice. They had a wonderful small choir of African American women and dancers and lots of women, including 5 sharing in the sermon. One of the 5 was a very young woman from Ft. Worth, I think a Native American, who did a kind of song, dance, poetry, hip-hop thing as her part. Another was a female bishop from Mozambique and a 3rd was a lesbian UM pastor from Chicago. A fourth was a female Filipino pastor who runs a missionary school in the Philippines. The fifth was a pastor from Kentucky. I left before communion to get across town to the Love Your Neighbor Coalition worship at noon. It was in a theater about a mile away. Most of the leaders were students in seminaries and colleges, the two designers were a college chaplain and a college music director. The young people were great. They did terrific dances and drama and were the communion stewards. Three bishops were involved and the sermon was given by a professor who is apparently famous for writing about black theology. Dr. Cone’s sermon was terrific and also very critical of white privilege. It was about the connections between crucifixion and lynching. I think you can listen to this on the web and I feel it is well worth it. They served glutton free crackers and grape juice in chemistry carafes for communion! All in all it was terrific.
We didn’t leave until 2 pm and it appeared most of us went to Ybor City (where our rental house was about 2 blocks away) to the famous Columbia (Cuban) restaurant. It is apparently the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, seating 1700 people! Dr. Cone and the bishops and their entourages were there. There was a room reserved for the West Pennsylvania annual conference delegation, every table near us was filled with Methodists. It was fun.
Sunday night they had a ‘plenary’ session to celebrate various UM programs. Lots of video and singing from the African University choir, celebrations of the Shalom Zones, a new program to support seminary grads in starting new social justice ministries called Spark 12, something about leadership in African American UM churches, etc. I left about ½ way through to go pack since I left at 5:30 am on Monday!
I pray that even though the committees assigned to review controversial petitions we at Trinity would support, seem to not be supporting them, the General Conference will still find ways to make some improvements in the United Methodist Church.
I assume that Sid will be sending a report of his time at General Conference soon.
I so appreciate everyone’s prayers and hope everyone knows that many, many people are working for change, even if we don’t see much advancement actually resulting from our work. For me it is a personal commitment to support change that I will not give up. Please keep praying.
PS I got to have a meal conversation with a young seminarian from South Korea who came around at General Conference by meeting actual wonderful LGBT Methodists. He was wearing a stole and helped serve communion at the coalition Sunday service. I also met another graduate student from Benin who attended a very conservative seminary (Asbury) but was willing to say that he had seen racial profiling in his country and would support the petition offered asking United Methodist to work for comprehensive immigration reform and against racial profiling such as the Arizona approach. There is hope!