African presence evident at General Conference in Tampa

The presence of African delegates is something to celebrate, according to the Rev. “Guy” Mande Muyombo, president of Kamina Methodist University in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

TAMPA, Fla.—As an African delegate at General Conference 2012, the Rev. “Guy” Mande Muyombo is a face in the crowd.

That’s fine with him. He’s pleased that delegates from his continent are more of a crowd than ever at the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial gathering.

“For Africa to have more delegates to the General Conference is something we have to celebrate,” said Mr. Muyombo, president of Kamina Methodist University in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “To me, it’s a matter of celebration that we are indeed a global family and that the church has done well in terms of mission.”

The United Methodist Church’s growth in Africa, and shrinkage in the United States, has led to a power shift in delegates—one likely to affect how key legislation fares.

In the UMC, churches in Africa, Asia and Europe belong to “central conferences.” At this General Conference, of the expected 987 delegates, 372 are from the central conferences.  That’s up 96 from four years ago.

And of those 372, Africa accounts for 282. That’s 90 more delegates than Africa had in 2008.

The African Methodists were conspicuous at the Tampa Convention Center and nearby convention hotels, as they registered and attended legislation and orientation briefings.

Some dressed in colorful traditional garb. Others enlivened the event in different ways.

For example, during a break at one briefing, a group began to sing a cappella, drawing an admiring audience, as well as several smartphone photographers and videographers.

Many of the Africans are first-time delegates like Cissy Namukose of Uganda, who spent 17 hours on planes to get to Tampa.

She had no trouble explaining why the United Methodist Church is growing in her country.

“We go out in the community, and help with different activities,” the lay delegate said. “We identify a need, and then we go work in that community, and in that process people ask us [about Methodism]. They come to church.”

‘Return on investment’

Central to the story of growing African representation at General Conference is 20-year-old Africa University.

That UMC school in Zimbabwe draws students from across the continent. And at least 20 Africa University alums are here as delegates, with others working as translators or in some other supporting capacity.

“It is exciting because Africa University was created to invest in Africa’s future and create leaders,” said Mr. Muyombo, himself an alumnus of Africa University. “This is a dream which has become a reality.”

James Salley, associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement for Africa University, waved the school flag even more emphatically.

“Whether these graduates, the alumni of Africa University, sit on the floor of General Conference, or they are alternates, or whether they have come as communicators or observer/monitors, they are all over the place,” he said. “The church can see the return on its investment. I think it’s great. I think it’s wonderful!”

That the African delegates have more power than ever, due to their larger numbers, is a given. But will they maximize their strength through bloc voting?

African delegates meet during a break in Tampa.

“In Africa, we are united, and we will vote together,” Ms. Namukose said.

Mr. Muyombo sized things up differently, saying that while Africans prefer dialogue that leads to consensus, he foresees delegates voting independently at this General Conference.

At a legislative briefing put on by the Connectional Table, a day before General Conference, Africans present (some delegates and some not) candidly shared concerns about proposals to restructure the general agencies of the UMC.

The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a Connectional Table member from Zimbabwe, was critical of the Interim Operations Team proposal to bring program agencies under a 15-person board.

He said the plan “is causing everybody else to reform, except the Council of Bishops,” and suggested that more accountability from African bishops was in order if Methodism is to continue to prosper there.

“The so-called vitality you’re seeing in Africa is at risk,” he said. “If you go to Africa today, it is not the Protestant churches that are growing fastest. Pentecostal churches are growing faster.”

David Muwaya, a lay delegate from the East Africa Conference, said he has concerns about allocation of resources and representation of Africans if most of the general church governance is concentrated in a single board.

“There are many unanswered questions,” he said. “We think that this General Conference is not the right conference to make the final decision.”

African agenda

Many will be watching to see if Africans again vote overwhelmingly against liberalizing current positions on homosexuality.

Mr. Muyombo doesn’t favor a change at present, and said that Africa’s pressing problems have tended to keep gay rights off—or at least way down—the agenda.

“People are looking to the church to end poverty, to end malaria, to take on the issue of expanding education and to preach the gospel, so these are the priorities,” he said.

Mr. Muyombo added that he understands homosexuality has divided the U.S. church, and he expects the issue will eventually become a large one in Africa as well.

Extra cost

The growing number of African and other international delegates has financial implications. This General Conference is projected to $8.8 million, compared to $7.1 million for the event for years ago in Fort Worth, Texas.

Much of the differential owes to increased travel and translation costs that come with more international delegates, said the Rev. Alan Morrison, business manager of General Conference.

But the strong feeling among more U.S. delegates here is that the global feel of this General Conference is one of the more hopeful developments for the UMC.

“At our meeting for heads of delegations this morning, we had to wait for translators,” said the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio and a popular UM author. “Twenty years from now, we’re going to have to wait for English translators, if the church continues to grow the way it’s growing. That’s exciting to me.”

Another who is grappling happily with the increased presence and influence of African delegates is Jay Brim, chair of the Connectional Table’s legislative task force and a delegate from the Southwest Texas Conference.

He was on the panel for the Connectional Table briefing for international delegates. And he assured the Africans who raised questions that he was drafting amendments to address their concern about proportional representation for Africa on any single governing board for UM program agencies.

Mr. Brim said afterwards that the UMC must live up to its self-description as a worldwide church.

“It’s just time for us to merge our interests and make it clear that we’re either going to do this together—or we don’t have the thing we think we have,” he said.

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