Monday, May 14, 2012

Belated General Conference Reflections

Continuing in the vein in which I have operated all semester, I am belatedly offering my General Conference reflections. These particular reflections come from my journal entries for the first and last day of conference (April 24-May 4). For more reflections from more folks, see the OnFire blog.

Portions of this reflection are crossposted on OnFire.

So General Conference was overwhelming.

I got up early on the first day, April 24, realized I forgot a bunch of important stuff, finally got to Tampa, dropped off my bags, and didn't see the hotel room again for a long time after that. Now, of course, there are people who don't sleep at all during General Conference, so I should not complain, but just the running around without having any clue what is going on is pretty tiring. When I got home from Conference, I slept several 10 hour nights to make up for this and was still tired.

But the thing about any big United Methodist event is that no matter how boring voting on whether we should end at 9 or 9:30 or at the discretion of the committee chair is, no matter how tired you are, and no matter how stressful the day has been, there are these moments of intense, beautiful connection, like when I was standing in the airport and jumped into a conversation with random people because I noticed one of them was wearing UM swag. When a friend I hadn't seen in a while jumped out of nowhere and gave me a hug--- oh and there have been so many hugs from so many people! When a person I had met five minutes before bought me coffee because I was already looking frazzled. When I got a text message courtesy of one of those mass text-messaging organizing tools following a proposed rule to outlaw protests because people know how powerful our demonstrations were before and just how close we are to making the church a more just place. So that last one was a crazy run on sentence, but you get the idea. When me and some seminary friends skipped down the river walk and just breathed in the salty air.

There was a commissioning service for Common Witness Volunteers in the evening that first day in what's called the tabernacle--- a big tent across from the convention center. In it we sang a song by Holly Near:
I am open and I am willing
for to be hopeless would seem so strange
it dishonors those who go before us
so lift me up to the light of change.

These moments of connection lifted me up to the light of change. It reminded me through all the stress and through the fear--- frankly, fear that the church won't change or that it will for the worse--- that we can do beautiful things together. Lifting each other up to the light of change. This is the connectionalism I wrote about when I wrote about why I am a United Methodist.


General Conference was ugly. I have seen Annual Conference before; I know that "holy conferencing" is 99 percent of the time bullshit. But the degree to which we were not church was staggering. Every vote was 60-40, every single one in favor of the status quo. Even after moving speeches from Garlinda Burton and Erin Hawkins of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and on the General Commission on Religion and Race among so many others, the votes were the same. Delegates were not open to the movement of the Holy Spirit at all. Their minds were made up, votes bought and paid for, no returns.

But around 4pm that last day there was an explosion.The General Conference secretary announced that the Judicial Council ruled Plan UMC unconstitutional.

Plan UMC was the attempt to salvage the restructuring plan proposed by the Connectional Table that failed in committee. It was created by an ad hoc group that included IOT folks and Plan B, another restructuring plan. These plans were not goof for women, minorities, or anyone in the Central Conferences, a theme of General Conference 2012. Fed by fear-mongering over the USAmerican church decline and urges to cut spending, though, Plan UMC was narrowly voted through and was to become our restructuring plan, despite the fact that there were major issues around protecting the rights of women and people of color. When the General Council on Financial Administration reported back on it, they swore that the restructuring plan could be implemented within budget. And with a sinking feeling, I thought we were done for. Nice try justice voices in The UMC. The only thing that was to come out of General Conference 2012 would be an institutional move further away from the kindom of God.

But then the secretary of General Conference announced that the Judicial Council ruled Plan UMC unconstitutional.

There was this intense feeling of release, release into chaos maybe, but release. The tension that had been present all of conference over everything, sexuality included, finally exploded as every person breathed out together, whether or not they were pleased by the announcement. I called my roommate and texted my TA for the General Conference class and started to feel this strange giddy sensation of hope. Someone called for a time to caucus, and it was granted, but the bishops themselves were so disoriented the break was extended into dinner time. The General Conference secretary left us with the words (in reference to the rushed creation of the Connectional Table?), "And remember when we come back after dinner that we should be working for quality not quantity..."

Giddy, exhausted, nervous. But I wasn't the only one who felt weird. When I got back to the conference center everyone was weird. People were not making any sense whatsoever, until finally Rev. Laura Easto from Baltimore Washington stood up to chastise everyone. She said she felt the Holy Spirit move with the judicial council decision and the fact that we were still talking about that restructure plan was ridiculous. She called us instead to repentance. It was powerful and effectively ended conversation on restructure and moved us to other items of business. Finally Joey Lopez, my hero, moved to end General Conference, so we did! With a short worship service and hugs from everyone. So General Conference did not end on this horrible note, but we left with hope.

One of the problems lamented by everyone at the beginning of conference was a lack of trust. I myself felt a huge distrust of delegates and the whole process. There was no movement of the spirit (except for in the judicial council decision), no holy conferencing. But I leave the conference with a little bit of trust budding, trust in young people, including myself, WAKING UP. We are going to change the church, even if we have to drag it kicking and screaming.

Taking back the communion table May 3; photo from UMNS