Photo:The Rev. David W. Brown, Deacon, (center) joins newly elected Bishops LaTrelle Miller Easterling (left) and Cynthia Moore-Koikoi in serving Communion during their consecration service at First UMC Lancaster July 15, at the close of the NEJ Conference.
Creator, we dance for healing. Hear the prayers that the jingles sing out together. We dance the prayers of your people. [Prayer sung and shown on-screen during Act of Repentance jingle-dress dance.]
The last became first through much of The United Methodist Church’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, where nearly 300 delegates and bishops from 10 annual conferences met July 11-15, in Lancaster, Pa.
The first plenary session, held on Monday night, honored peoples too often thought of last in our church and society. It featured Native American songs and a family of jingle-dress dancers, poetic liturgy, painful history, and ceremonial gift-giving during a solemn Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.
Later the jurisdiction’s delegates elected two African American women as bishops. The Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and the Rev. LaTrelle Easterling became the first elected since 2000, when Bishop Violet Fisher became the only woman of color bishop ever elected in the NEJ.
Meanwhile, the conference enthusiastically endorsed two dramatic, related calls for action–one to remedy a growing prevalence of racism, injustice and violence vexing the nation, the other to support initiatives for racial healing but also the survival and growth of black churches and black leadership.
The conference theme, Quilted by Connection, evoked images of colorful quilt patches sewn together. And that theme came alive in words and deeds throughout the conference–from Monday’s Bible study on Ephesians 4:16, to the multiracial and multi-talented praise and worship band, from the diversity of youth representatives who actively participated and bishops who presided and preached over three days, to the 13 diverse candidates who sought election to that highest office, most of them enduring extensive vetting interviews and balloting.
The NEJ College of Bishops opened the conference with a bold, sweeping statement of repentance and reconciliation, declaring its members’ intention to actively oppose the fear, injustice and deadly violence being stoked across the nation by racism, homophobia, hate, privilege and other sources of oppression.
“Black lives really do matter, and the lives of all persons of color really do matter ” proclaimed College president Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball (right), of West Virginia, to a resounding standing ovation, as her fellow bishops stood behind her. “The lives of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters really do matter.
“The NEJ College of Bishops believes that in the midst of the chaos, fear, and violence, there is a rich opportunity for the church to be the church,” she asserted, promising that the bishops would be accountable for engaging church leaders in candid discourse and a determination to foster social healing and transformation. “We seek to be the leaders of this church. We seek justice, repentance and reconciliation. We seek not just to love peace, but to be peacemakers.”
Another, similar Call to Action was offered by several black NEJ organizations–Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), Black United Methodist Pastors, (BUMP); and the Black Leadership Forum–with support from some black delegates and the NEJ’s Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry. Presented by the Rev. Joseph Daniels (right) of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, it challenged bishops, jurisdictional leaders and conferences to become more pro-active and move “from rhetoric to action” to remedy “the wounds caused by unchecked racism, white privilege and internalized oppression.”
The approved resolution, to which each delegation and bishop stood and pledged commitment, called on the NEJ to evaluate and address the impact of structural and institutional racism on people of color. It targeted in particular the closing of black churches and “how current ordination processes in annual conferences affect black persons interested in ordained ministry.”
Annual conferences are asked to encourage “genuine relationships and partnerships” and to report on their efforts, experiences and plans to the NEJ Committee on Episcopacy, the governing Vision Table, the Multi-Ethnic Center and the 2020 NEJ Conference. Goals include increasing representative black leadership, strengthening the viability of NEJ black churches, and starting a new faith community involving black youth and young adults in every episcopal area with a significant black population.
The quest for more black leadership took a leap when Moore-Koikoi, a district superintendent in Baltimore, Md., was elected on the first night after leading the field for 11 straight ballots. Easterling, a district superintendent in Boston, Mass., trailed just behind her until her election on the 17th ballot the next morning.
Behind them most consistently was the Rev. Derrick Porter, who, until this month, was a district superintendent in the Peninsula-Delaware Conference. And rising to third place in later ballots was a write-in candidate, the Rev. Rene Perez-Avalos, a district superintendent in the New England Conference.
Perez and another candidate, the Rev. Irving Cotto of Eastern PA, joined other Latino members in presenting an emotional statement to the conference on Thursday. They thanked the delegates for the opportunity to be considered for the episcopacy and assured them that they would keep pushing for the election of the first Latino bishop in the NEJ. They cited the fast-growing Latino population in the region and the lack of Latino leadership at all levels of the church. A group of Asian-American delegates offered a similar statement calling for more racial inclusiveness the following day.
The NEJ Nominating Committee also wrestled with the “Quilted” theme when challenged to offer a more diverse slate for the jurisdiction’s governing Vision Table, after presenting its original slate of board and committee members. They returned with changes the next morning, replacing Clarita Krall as Eastern PA’s lay representative on the Vision Table with youth representative Jose Tirado, a member of Nuevo Creación (New Creation) UMC in Lancaster.
However, while many of the annual conference delegations were diverse in several ways, it became clear from critical votes that the majority leaned ideologically and theologically toward a more liberal or progressive position on one key issue: church law that forbids ordaining LGBTQ persons for ministry and conducting marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples.
The Jurisdictional Conference resolved to ask the Council of Bishops’ new study commission on human sexuality and church law, now being formed, to recommend allowing jurisdictions to independently adapt the Book of Discipline in accordance with own ministry contexts and prevailing views.
During emotional, at times painful, debate, delegates approved that and two other resolutions in disagreement with the denomination’s Book of Disciple. One, which called for “non-conformity” to church law, passed but was later ruled out of order by the Presiding Bishop Peggy Johnson. Some delegates then invited the bishops to consider “being out of order with us.” The College discussed the invitation during a dinner break but later declined.
“We know that we are all not of one mind,” said Johnson. “We honor the work of the body, where 60 percent were in favor of this,” said Bishop John Schol, her assistant presider. “And, we also honor the 40 percent who disagreed.”
A third resolution encouraged annual conference councils on finance and administration to agree that there is “no money” for church trials. It was eventually ruled in order after it was amended and its unlawful “Stop the Trials” title was removed.
The Rev. Jeff Raffauf, Eastern PA Conference delegate, asked Presiding Bishop Mark Webb of Upper New York for a ruling of law on the passed, untitled resolution, based on several Discipline paragraphs and Judicial Council decisions. Webb said he would study it and issue a ruling in 30 days.
Some delegates denounced the controversial resolutions as dishonest and potentially destructive of the United Methodist connectional system. Others defended them as principled and protective of LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) members seeking full acceptance and inclusion in the church.
Other jurisdictional conferences also wrestled with the Discipline’s prohibitions through resolutions, statements and debates, not willing to wait for the Council of Bishops’ study commission to make recommendations to the next General Conference.
Finally, the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference found much to celebrate in the ministries of its annual conferences and in the contributions of its one retiring bishop and several bishops and bishops’ spouses who died since the last quadrennial conference.
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the New England Area delivered the State of the Northeastern Jurisdiction Address on behalf of his colleagues, using the conference theme and quilt symbol as a motif for his enthusiastic message about being in radical, creative mission for Christ. He celebrated and portrayed through visuals numerous examples of the 10 conferences’ ministries among various population groups and in diverse settings.
“What an amazing quilt!” he proclaimed. “All across the Northeastern Jurisdiction, the rich fabric of our United Methodist heritage is being woven into new and amazing faith communities and ministries that reach out into the future.”
He called on the jurisdiction to stop doing “business as usual.”
“We as a church need to be the clear and loud voices of the voiceless, poor, marginalized, LGBTQIA community, and imprisoned who cannot speak for themselves. We cannot keep silent when black lives are being lost in our neighborhoods, and some people are saying we need more walls when we, the church, should be challenging them to tear down all kinds of walls and helping to build bridges.
“We cannot remain silent as a church,” he further admonished, “when heroin addiction is destroying families and communities, gun violence is threatening our very being, and genocide and terrorism continue to add to our refugee crisis….There is work still to be done; we are still unfinished.”
Bishop Marcus Matthews was celebrated with gifts and accolades in his retirement, especially by the conferences he has served: Eastern PA, Peninsula-Delaware, Upper New York and currently Baltimore-Washington. He also preached at the opening Memorial Service, which celebrated the lives and legacies of Bishops Martin McLee and Frederick Wertz and bishops’ spouses Eunice Jones Matthews and Lois Yeakel, all of them deceased since 2013.
The Memorial Service special offering went to support LUMINA, the Lancaster United Methodist Inner-City Alliance, a mission of the Eastern PA Conference and its Southwest District, serving in ministry with the poor in Lancaster County.
Episcopal area assignments announced at the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conferenceto begin September 1:
Links to NEJ Conference documents, images and the livestream recording
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