The Eastern PA Conference sent 21 delegates to the UMC’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, July 11-15, in Lancaster, Pa., determined to learn something about the art of quilting.
After two days of preliminary meetings and episcopal candidates’ interviews in various rooms of the Convention Center, they settled into the vast Heritage Room for a nearly three-day marathon of plenary sessions. Facing the stage from the front row, they and about 250 other delegates, along with bishops, staff, volunteers and spectators, witnessed and participated in long, drama-filled days of presentations, debates, elections, worship services and more.
“Quilted by Connection” was their theme. And their assembled body–its proceedings at times prophetic, poignant and praiseworthy–must have felt for some like a big, colorful, sprawling quilt being carefully pulled and stitched together, one distinct patch at a time into a marvelous whole.
At our request, seven delegates generously agreed to share their thoughtful reflections on this memorable experience and what it meant for them. Five offerings follow here–some brief, some lengthy but deeply personal and revealing.
We have published two more in-depth reflections, shared by the Rev. Tracy Bass and the Rev. Jeffrey Raffauf, as separate articles. Their ardent concerns are worth reading and pondering in connection with some of these views. And we may publish more reflections if they are provided.
These are only glimpses of the NEJ Conference experience. But you can witness it for yourself through the live-stream video recording for as long as it’s available on the NEJ website.
Racial Inclusiveness: I understand the frustration and heartbreak of our Latino, Asian, and Native American delegates. Strong candidates were put forward across the racial caucuses. Yet, we didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate diversity and inclusiveness to the world. It disheartens me that NEJ is entering another quadrennium lacking Latino representation in our executive branch. Also, Native Americans remain voiceless on the Council of Bishops. Despite the three seats available in South Central College, David Wilson, a Native American Elder in Oklahoma, was not elevated to the SCJ of Bishops.
Episcopal elections process: We made history and the world was watching. However, what was most important was our duty to make God proud. I look forward to the fruits of our holy conferencing and discernment. We still have more history-making opportunities ahead, which makes me all the more excited for 2020.
Bishops’ opening statement on “justice, repentance and reconciliation”: I’m glad they acknowledged the pain that led up to NEJ Conference. I believe their commitment to justice, along with the Call to Action, will help put an end to the racism and oppression that has been rapidly progressing for years.
I’m also happy that in August, Bishop (Mary Ann) Swenson promised to take the call back to the Council of Bishops and the A.M.E. Church’s General Conference. I didn’t fully feel the impact of what was done until two older black delegates came forward with tearful eyes and trembling voices to thank the church and to encourage our bishops to share this with our other brothers in Methodism who face the same racial struggles.
This was my sixth Northeast Jurisdictional Conference, and there is always an excitement about the election of new bishops; this time was no exception. As pastor of the host congregation, I could not have been more pleased with how the consecration service went; it was moving, and Bishop Park’s sermon struck just the right note, highlighting the many positive ministries and missions which we as United Methodists around the world have been engaged in over the years, and continue to pursue.
For me the positive highlights of the conference included the bishops’ statement and the resolution we passed, both of which call upon us to work for an end to violence, and to continue to address the enduring effects of racism in our midst. A disturbing part for me were the efforts to have the NEJ declare itself non-compliant with our Discipline and effectively declare its autonomy from the larger church. Thankfully, most of these efforts did not succeed. I look forward to working with Bishop Peggy Johnson for four more years.
As I looked over the resumes of the 11 candidates I noticed that many of them were young and could serve many years. As a rule, we often said, “They need to wait a while before becoming bishop.” But as I listened to them answer our questions, it seemed that me that they had the energy and enthusiasm to move the church into the future. They weren’t trying to get us back to the good old days, but ready to see where God is leading the church now.
The Act of Repentance ceremony: It is important to remember and ask God for forgiveness for atrocities against others, even if it is conducted by ancestors. What transpired against our Native American brothers and sisters was horrible. It is my sincere prayer and hope that our act of repentance will help promote peace in the churches represented and our area.
Interview and elections of episcopal candidates: All of the candidates are anointed and gifted individuals. The interviews were engaging and provided insight into each of them. I join with others and give thanks to God for the individuals who allowed God to work through them in this process.
The election of two African American female bishops is historic in the life of our jurisdiction and denomination. What a day of celebration! Our College and Council of Bishops will be enriched by their presence, witness and love for Christ.
The Bishops’ opening statement on “justice, repentance and reconciliation”: With so much going on in this country, I would have been saddened if the College hadn’t issued a statement. The recent occurrences, in Dallas and Minnesota have focused our national attention on racial tension and racism with new urgency. Additionally, the massacre of police officers is unjust, heartbreaking and concerning. The NEJ College of Bishops’ statement was prophetic and a call to the people called United Methodist in the NEJ to be the church; to be people of God’s reconciling love and justice.
If we go back to our churches and serve as the bridges in our communities between the police and the communities, holding town hall meetings, prayer vigils for peace, places where young people of all colors to find love and nurturing, our country will be better and more people will come to know the transforming love of Jesus Christ. If each of our congregations intentionally reached out in ministry to people of diverse cultures, what would happen?
The Call to Action by NEJ BMCR, BUMP and the Black Leadership Forum: The time has come. The time for action is now. Something has to be done. I truly believe God wants to work through God’s sons and daughters to be agents of justice and peace making. Racism is sin. There is only one race: the human race. We are the ones who need to confess this sin to God and ask God to work within our hearts and lives to make things right, to help us love as God loves.
The adoption of the Call to Action represented, to me, a move to God, supported by people of all colors and backgrounds. It was a joy to hear the amendments offered which all strengthened the document. It was a joy to be a part of it!
The statements by Latino/Hispanic and Asian American delegates: The U.S. is an increasingly ethnically and culturally diverse nation; yet our denomination is still predominantly Anglo American. We have to be reminded to appreciate and embrace people who are different from us.
Bishop Marcus & Barbara Matthews’ retirement celebration: Bishop Matthews has provided exemplary leadership to our Jurisdiction and denomination. Each annual conference he served was strengthened as a result of his ministry–in church vitality, spiritual strength and congregational growth. He will be missed as an active bishop. He will still no doubt be busy in his new role with the Council and Africa University. The presentations demonstrated the appreciation of the areas served by Bishop and Mrs. Barbara Matthews.
Overall, my experience of being a delegate to the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference was very positive, with many God-filled and grace-filled moments. There were joyful, celebratory events, and opportunities for my own personal growth and faith-stretching.
Praise Music: The music offered by the Rev. Lydia Muñoz (praise band leader and Eastern PA Conference delegate) and other musicians was outstanding. It was at times filled with such joyful praise, causing delegates to clap and dance and sway. During other reflective moments it brought worshippers nearly to tears with the beauty of the melodies, lyrics and voices.
Act of Repentance: Whenever I participate in an Act of Repentance ceremony I am moved to think about all the reasons I have need to repent, to all the persons I have ever harmed. While I understand this ceremony is a corporate repentance of historical significance, the repentance ceremony is always a reminder to me of the personal wrongs and hurts that I have caused others. I am in awe of God’s forgiving Spirit, but also in awe of the forgiveness granted by the communities from whom we seek absolution.
I am also reminded of the wrongs that we who benefit from white privilege have perpetrated on other communities of color. And I can only pray for the days in our future when the Church universal, and The United Methodist Church in particular will find ways to repent to our LGBTQIA+ sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, daughters and sons, neighbors and friends.
Bible Study: When Dr. Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Seminary, challenged delegates to be unified in Christ in the way that the parts of a body are joined and knit together by ligaments, I was reminded of how much work we, as members of the Church universal, have to do to dismantle all the walls of false piety which keep us from being united in Christ. If we do not love each other, how can we be witnesses of Christ’s forgiving and life-affirming love to those who are not a part of the church community?
Episcopal candidate interviews: I appreciated the candidates’ willingness to answer difficult questions and scenarios posed to them, and hearing their personal stories and journeys. I felt they all were able and qualified to give leadership to the jurisdiction should they be elected.
Personal Growth: On Thursday morning I learned I had been nominated by the NEJ Nominating Committee to the Vision Table as the lay representative from the Eastern PA Conference. I was excited about being able to serve the jurisdiction over the next four years and the opportunity to work with and get to know others from around the NEJ.
However, when the time came to approve the Nominating Committee report, it was noted that there was not the diversity of representation the gathered body had hoped for. At that moment I realized I should be willing, as an older, white female, to have someone different than me elected. The Nominating Committee was charged by the body to go back to work and find a way to make the report more inclusive.
I was disappointed, sad and in some emotional pain, though I understood fully the concern that had been expressed. By the time I went to bed that night, I was also harboring a bit of anger at the situation. My evening prayers were petitions to God to dissipate my angry thoughts, to help me come to grips with my own disappointment, pain, and sadness at my personal loss of opportunity. I prayed that God would use this situation for the best possible outcome for the Northeastern Jurisdiction and help me to “get over it.” And, we know, as believers, that God can do just that, even when we have a little doubt.
On the final morning I learned that the Nominating Committee had replaced my name with the name of young José Tirado. I could feel my spirit leaping with joy and wonder at such a brilliant outcome!
Here was a Latino youth, a high school student and church member from the Lancaster area, who would have this opportunity to serve. He might learn and grow into this jurisdictional work and might even discern a greater call on his life to do God’s work. My heart was truly thankful and at peace! God answers prayers!