Today we began the work of considering the massive amounts of legislation coming to the full plenary session of General Conference. The day also began with a celebration of the audacious goals the UMC has set for the next 4 years: to train 3 million new Christian leaders, to reach 1 million new people, to form 400 faith communities that are specifically trained to address issues of poverty in their communities, and to reach 1 million children with life saving health intervention.
If you wonder why we should stay together as the UMC when we have strong differences on some important issues, I would ask you to pose that question to one of the children who will be alive next year because we are the UMC. Or ask that question to someone who has found meaning and hope through their new found faith in Jesus Christ through the UMC. Or ask that question to a family that has lifted themselves out of poverty with the help of United Methodist ministries.
During the legislative sessions, the General Conference approved a study of the Central Conferences in Africa to prepare for 5 new Bishops to be appointed to the African Central Conferences in 2020 to give leadership to the rapidly expanding United Methodist churches in Africa.The General Conference also approved work on a General Book of Discipline and General Social Principles to be brought back for approval to the 2020 General Conference. The General Book of Discipline with General Social Principles would seek to take the US-centric sections of the Discipline out and leave only a Discipline that can be applied in a global context. If the General Book of Discipline is approved in 2020, the current US-centric parts of the Discipline will most likely remain policy for the church in the United States in a new publication meant only for the USA.
A rare Constitutional Amendment passed easily this afternoon to insert a phrase indicating that the United Methodist Church is officially in favor of gender equality and opposed to discrimination in any way, shape, form, or fashion against women and girls. While this has long been a part of the social principles of the United Methodist Church, but the General Conference desired to make it a part of our Constitution to express our desire to end discrimination against women and girls in the strongest possible manner. I was proud to have been able to be on the floor when this amendment came before us, so I could vote for it. This Constitutional Amendment now goes to the Annual and Central Conferences to be ratified.
A protest delayed the work of General Conference for several minutes this afternoon. The protest took the floor of the conference under the banner of Black Lives Matter. After a few minutes, the protestors turned their focus to LBGQT inclusion. Then they began chanting, “Love, not hate.”. They concluded by chanting while drumming on the large altar table in the middle of the convention hall.
The presiding Bishop was extremely respectful towards the protestors. When the protest ended, the Bishop offered a prayer in sympathy with some of the concerns expressed by the protestors. A lone protestor interrupted the prayer repeatedly with shouting.
I wish the protestors could have seen my legislative committee last week in which we added language to several pieces of legislation to ensure we spoke out as strongly as possible against police brutality. We also passed legislation identifying and opposing the criminalization of communities of color and mass incarceration. In fact, the United Methodist Women have made addressing the problem of the criminalization of communities of color in the US to be one of its 4 most important goals for the next 4 years.
I support the right of those who feel strongly to share their voices, but I felt that disrupting the work of General Conference and shouting during prayer were inappropriate. More disturbingly, I felt it was counter-productive. As a moderate, who has great sympathy with the concerns of the protestors and who has taken risks to try to address those concerns, I found myself becoming less and less sympathetic to their causes because of the offensive ways they presented their grievances. I had to calm myself down and remind myself not to let my adverse emotional reaction to the protest to affect how I felt about the issues and the Iives they affect.
I admit I am not personally affected by the issues that the protestors represented. I do not know the great pain and anger caused by the having these problems affect my identity and sense of personhood. I do know that the reason for protesting is to help change things for the better. If others had the same reaction to the protest that I did, then the actions of the protestors made things worse rather than better by deepening divisions and distrust rather than encouraging healing and transformation.
There are gracious ways to protest and tell your story. We desperately need to hear those stories. However, disrespecting sacred religious practices and accusing others of hate do not help us hear those stories and find common solutions.
I ask those who you who read this blog and feel the blood boiling under your skin by the offensive nature of the protest to do what I have done: take a few deep breaths and calm down, recognize that these issues affect others in ways they do not affect you, and pray for your church and society to make each person feel loved and valued.
I ask those of you who are supporters of the protest to find ways to pray for and see Christ in those who disagree with you and recommit yourselves to finding ways to share your story and concerns in a manner that invites dialogue and demonstrates mutual respect. I know this is possible because I have seen many delegates model it beautifully this week.
Friends, it is quite possible that these protests today are only the beginning of the strains we will experience at this General Conference. I now fully expect we will encounter more intentionally divisive protests and more heart wrenching decisions as the week progresses. We may find ourselves divided by many things, but God is not divided. God’s love is not divided among God’s children. Our experience of God’s love is multiplied as we share it with each other. Though we might get everything else wrong, let’s get that right!