On the last day of General Conference 2012 I went by the information booth. I was on my way to my last official responsibility and I wanted to make sure I knew where I needed to go. Our wonderfully kind United Methodist volunteers from the Florida Conference were there serving us all with their smiles and extraordinary hospitality. I went up to a volunteer at the booth, she greeted me with great warmth and asked how she could help me. As she asked, I realized that there was a beautiful little girl by her side, so small that she was hidden by the front booth half wall, but there she was, waving at me and smiling. It was clear that she felt part of the welcome team and was doing her part to welcome and help me. I said hello to her trying to match her sweet and loving spirit. How I wish that all of our churches had this kind of welcoming spirit.
The little girl then went off and I began to receive the help I needed from the woman at the booth. Before the adult volunteer could fully direct me to where I needed to go, though, the little girl returned with a small plastic box and lifted it up to me. It was full of band aids. I looked at her and I know she saw the puzzlement on my face because she then lifted up her box a bit higher and told me I could take one. I wondered what she had seen, looking at my hands wondering if per chance I had a paper cut. I didn’t see anything on my hands or my arms, but I took a band aid, and watched as the little girl smiled even bigger as she fulfilled her task. I walked away and somewhere down the hallways of General Conference I realized that this child had sensed woundedness and was responding to it. It wasn’t my woundedness, it was our woundedness. Our 2012 General Conference showed the world our woundedness as United Methodists.
Many good things happened at General Conference. They did not necessarily happen through legislative processes though some of the good came through our legislative work. Establishing a global theological education fund to help prepare persons for ministry, our commitment to mission and ministry around the world supported by a strong financial plan, the commissioning of missionaries to serve in a great variety of settings, our continued commitment to US racial ethnic plans, our ecumenical work, and certainly our Service of Repentance and our clear covenant to repair the cruel offenses we have committed against indigenous peoples, were all good things that came from our General Conference. I also rejoice in the great diversity we saw at our General Conference 2012. I heard many more voices from young people and persons from Africa, the Philippines and Europe. There were, in my opinion, deeper conversations on the floor of General Conference about what it means to be the church than in previous recent General Conferences. But here is where I saw our woundedness. We bared our woundedness through our fear of failure, our racism and sexism, our homophobia, and our U.S. centric attitude.
I support our direction for renewed ministry among our congregations in the U.S. Our Vital Congregations efforts to help our churches become more fruitful in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world are critical and important, but our efforts should never compromise our integrity out of a fear of failure. What I saw in the effort to pass the Call to Action and IOT recommendations felt to me like a manipulation of the process and rules of decision making that govern our General Conference. We are in decline in our U.S. ministry, a decline that concerns all of us, but if we allow a fear of failure to so dominate our thinking and our work that we are willing to lose our integrity in order to pass a piece of church legislation, then we have lost already; lost our way, lost our purpose and mission, lost our faithfulness. I believe we must have serious conversations about what happened at this General Conference starting with conversation at the table of our Council of Bishops.
Our renewed racism and sexism was captured in the words of a delegate who in an effort to eliminate our Commissions on Religion and Race and Status and Role of Women rose and stated that she was a pastor and received the flyers of training events of these commissions and they weren’t helpful to her one bit. Her language was derogatory of the work of these commissions who have long labored to help us be faithful to our commitments to overcome our racism and sexism, obstacles to our fully being the body of Christ Jesus. In a denomination that continues to be over 94 percent White, this delegate is right; it’s going to take more than monitoring and training, it’s going to take a conversion of our hearts to address our racism and sexism.
Our homophobia was blatant as we heard delegates compare homosexuality to bestiality, and voice other dehumanizing expressions against our LGBT brothers and sisters. Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed that their anti-homosexual stand was what U.S. missionaries taught them. I sat there wondering when our African delegates will grow up. It has been 200 years since U.S. Methodist missionaries began their work of evangelization on the continent of Africa; long enough for African Methodists to do their own thinking about this concern and others. Our conservative U.S. United Methodists continue to depend on the conservative vote of African and Filipino delegates to maintain our exclusionary position on homosexuality, a position I believe would be changed for the inclusion of our LGBT sisters and brothers if a U.S. vote for a U.S. context were taken. The manner in which we deal with the concern of homosexuality affects all of ministry in the U.S., and we are the poorer for it. It is time for us to let go of our wrong position and be the church of Christ Jesus, a church that excludes no one.
Then there is the U.S. centrism that has forever led our General Conferences, from our insistence on the use of Robert’s Rules of Order, a system of decision making used in the U.S. but nowhere else in our global church’s decision making processes, to lengthy discussions of U.S. issues with no comparable discussion of issues relevant to ministry in other places of the world. I for one was terribly embarrassed and even ashamed when much time was again given to a discussion about our U.S. clergy benefits. It is not that our clergy do not deserve to be supported through equitable compensation, health and pension benefits. It is that we in the U.S. have benefits that others in our connectional church do not have. Why should our sisters and brothers from the Philippines, Africa and Europe be subjected to our long discussions about such matters? It felt to me like salt in the wound of a church that is inequitable and that reflects the economic values of the world rather than the economic values of the kingdom of God. Our Central Conference Pension Initiative is on the right track. All our clergy around the world should have the caring support of the church as they strive to serve Christ Jesus. United Methodist laity at every place in the world should be able to count on the support of The United Methodist Church as they minister in the world in the name of Jesus.
I have heard over and over again the statement that without the U.S. church the rest of United Methodism around the world will fail because the U.S. church foots the bill. I no longer believe this U.S. centric statement. We have much to learn from United Methodists in other regions of the world who give sacrificially, for whom serving Christ Jesus is primary, and who believe that above all, we are citizens of the reign of God who has come among us with grace and mercy through Christ Jesus, and who does stand as the Sovereign One above all powers and principalities.
One day during plenary in the middle of a particularly difficult discussion, a delegate expressed concern about the witness the body was giving. The delegate said, “The world is watching us.” A few minutes later another delegate rose and said, “If we think the world is watching us, we are delusional!” Well, the next day the New York Times reported on our General Conference discussion! The world is watching! Let’s deal with our woundedness, so we can focus on the woundedness of the world. Let’s pray to the Lord for our healing so that we can be His church in the world, agents of His grace and mercy. In our healing we will find our hope and the joy of being, truly being, Christ’s own church in the world. But even as we wait for our own healing, let us be faithful disciples of Jesus the Christ, wherever we may find ourselves.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño leads the Desert Southwest Conference. This essay appeared first on the conference’s “Desert Connections” Website.