Jan 19, 2022 | By Heather Hahn | UM News

Virus, visas pose dual challenges to global General Conference

Story updated Jan. 20 to include additional statements from bishops, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition and WCA’s Africa coordinator.

United Methodist bishops and other church leaders are raising alarm bells about an advocacy group’s plan to help some General Conference delegates gain access to COVID-19 vaccines.

On Jan. 7, the Wesleyan Covenant Association announced that it and other like-minded, theologically conservative groups are raising funds to pay for travel so General Conference delegates in Africa, Eurasia and the Philippines can go get their shots.

In a statement released Jan. 18, three United Methodist bishops objected that the plan serves the sole purpose of helping certain delegates attend the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly instead of helping the community as a whole.

“Offering vaccines to General Conference delegates or covering the cost of delegates to travel to places where they can be vaccinated is not an expression of vaccine equity,” the bishops’ statement said. “Rather, it appears as an attempt to benefit those … who the donor wishes to fulfill a certain purpose.”

The plan bears “all the marks of colonialism” and the divide-and-conquer tactics that sowed seeds of chaos in Africa, the bishops said. The statement’s signers are Bishops Eben Nhiwatiwa of Zimbabwe, Harald Rückert of Germany and Rodolfo “Rudy” Juan of the Davao Area in the Philippines. All three hold leadership positions among fellow bishops in central conferences — the denomination’s regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

Late Jan. 19, the Council of Bishops executive committee issued a statement in support of the three bishops.

“We stand with our central conference colleagues and urge all to read their letter and hear the concerns,” the statement said. “These matters impact the entire church and undermine the integrity of the work of the General Conference delegates.”

Juan said Filipino United Methodists have received the bishops’ statement with joy. “They are grateful to the central conference leadership for courageously coming out with a collective stand against the WCA’s ‘colonial’ intervention,” Juan said.

Leaders of the Commission on the General Conference, the body responsible for organizing the international meeting, also have multiple ethical concerns. “The commission remains committed to the health and safety of all participants and will continue to make decisions accordingly,” leaders told United Methodist News in a joint email. 

The Rev. Keith Boyette, Wesleyan Covenant Association president, told UM News that his group’s main aim is to help the twice-postponed General Conference go forward this year. Key to that, he said, is meeting the U.S. requirement that people entering the U.S. be fully vaccinated with World Health Organization-approved vaccines.

Governments worldwide are distributing the vaccines to clinics and hospitals for free. Boyette said the WCA initiative would disburse funds to delegates to cover the cost of travel, room and board to receive the two shots at government-run clinics. Delegates must provide receipts. Boyette estimates the price tag for the whole effort to be $135,000.

“Through our vaccination access initiative, the WCA and other organizations are doing what we can to help faithful United Methodists around the world get vaccinated so they can be present at General Conference,” Boyette said by email. “Their presence is a matter of justice; their voices must be heard as the church considers very important matters impacting their local churches and their lives.”

The Wesleyan Covenant Association has a stake in matters coming before General Conference. In particular, the group is advocating for the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, a much-endorsed plan for a denominational split that Boyette helped negotiate.

Under the proposal, churches and conferences that support restrictions on gay marriage and ordination can vote to leave with church property to form a new traditionalist denomination. The protocol also directs that the new denomination receive $25 million from the continuing United Methodist Church.

The WCA is working to form that new traditionalist denomination, the Global Methodist Church. However, General Conference’s adoption is required for the protocol to move forward as written.

The coming General Conference initially was scheduled to take up the protocol and other legislation in May 2020. However, pandemic-caused venue closures and travel restrictions have twice forced the postponement of the international legislative assembly — now scheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 6 in Minneapolis.

The General Conference commission has set criteria for whether that schedule can go forward. Chief among those guides is that the gathering reaches a reasonable threshold of delegate participation from around the globe. Put another way, the commission agrees that the meeting cannot just involve U.S. delegates.

The commission has researched the possibility of taking the lead in ensuring all delegates are vaccinated, leaders told UM News. But the group’s research revealed logistical, ethical, legal, medical and financial complexities that seem to be insurmountable. 

“As is apparent through the data on the current omicron variant, a focus on vaccinating one member of a family, household, workplace, church or other group while not vaccinating the other members of the group would not ensure that the vaccinated individual would have the most protection from the virus,” the commission leaders said.

“A vaccinated individual could very well test positive for the virus within the required short amount of time before boarding a flight. The same individual could also be a carrier of the virus when returning home to those unvaccinated members of the household or community.”

The leaders have other concerns about the WCA’s plans. These include the unofficial advocacy group’s collection of private medical information and the fact that its fundraising and distribution of resources are not bound by The United Methodist Church’s auditing requirements.

Commission leaders also object to “the appearance of perceived or real influence of the vote of General Conference delegates on any number of matters under consideration; interference and possible disruption in the medical treatment plans of existing public health departments and ministries; liability in the case of an adverse medical outcome or developing condition; and lack of a clear statement related to the use of excess funds in securing visas for non-delegates.”

Vaccination access is not the only obstacle to General Conference moving forward. Many delegates need visas to enter the United States for the length of the nine-day meeting. 

Commission leaders said the ongoing pandemic and other limitations within the U.S. consular system have resulted in a patchwork of approaches by individual embassies, which have the responsibility and sole discretion for issuing such visas.

General Conference organizers are in conversations with the U.S. State Department, but that only goes so far. “Wait times are significant, and some embassies may not even be scheduling appointments due to the pandemic and the backlog,” commission leaders said.

Two years in, the pandemic continues to cause devastation worldwide — including the deaths of at least 5.5 million around the globe.

Commission leaders have opted to work with already existing United Methodist efforts to increase vaccination and combat the disease.

The United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table, a leadership body that coordinates denominational ministries, has made promoting vaccine equity and education a missional priority. The Council of Bishops is supporting that effort.

The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, the Connectional Table’s chief connectional ministries officer and a General Conference delegate herself, said the denominational leaders see this work as mainly education and advocacy for global health. 

Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted, Connectional Table chair, offered a similar sentiment.

“Jesus called us to care for the least,” he said. “Making vaccines available across the globe and receiving vaccination when possible is a simple matter of obedience to Christ’s call and a tangible expression of love of neighbor, and by far more important than our own internal struggles in the church.”

The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries — the denomination’s missions agency — has set up the Love Beyond Borders Advance, a designated fund that helps support UNICEF in its leadership role in procuring and supplying the vaccines. UNICEF is leading the COVAX alliance, which is working with governments to distribute vaccines in low-income nations.

In less than three months, United Methodists have contributed about $240,000 to the Love Beyond Borders Advance.

“Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, Global Ministries has worked to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and minimize its negative impacts,” said Roland Fernandes, the agency’s top executive. So far, the agency has distributed 330 grants in excess of $4.5 million to partners in 57 countries.

“The grants provided PPE equipment, food, cash assistance, handwashing stations and hygiene kits to churches and nonprofit organizations responding to community needs,” Fernandes said.

While Boyette said he expects WCA congregations are supporting the United Methodist Advance for vaccines, he did not see a role for WCA to encourage people to take the vaccines, even among its membership.

“The WCA does not have the expertise to advise people regarding health care matters,” he said. “We are confident our friends and members are making their own informed decisions regarding their health care.”

He also said the WCA would oppose any mandate from the General Conference commission that all people who attend the meeting be vaccinated. He said the group believes it would be inappropriate to impose requirements not in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.

“This initiative is solely focused on a travel requirement imposed by the U.S. government, not by the church,” Boyette said.

To support the initiative, the WCA reached out to other advocacy groups across the theological spectrum, including the Reconciling Ministries Network. That group supports equality for LGBTQ people in the life of the church.

“Like many in The UMC, RMN looks forward to the potential that the next General Conference holds to finally remove the discriminatory language against LGBTQ+ people from our Discipline,” Jan Lawrence, the group’s executive director, told UM News. “However, our priority at this time is to support equitable global health and safety and to focus on our denomination’s efforts to that end.”

The Love Your Neighbor Coalition, which includes unofficial advocacy groups as well as official United Methodist racial and ethnic caucuses, also issued a Jan. 19 statement echoing many of the bishops’ concerns about the WCA initiative. 

Simon Mafunda, Africa coordinator for the WCA as well as a former General Conference delegate from East Zimbabwe, said the group is addressing the need for delegates to reach the cities where the life-saving jabs are distributed. “We have identified that some delegates face transport challenges as the vaccination sites may be far and we have offered to assist them to get to the sites,” he said. 

“It is very important for delegates to get vaccinated in anticipation of the General Conference. It is not fair for those unable to access vaccines to be disadvantaged as they have key decisions to make at GC 2022,” he said.

However, some African delegates say vaccine access is not their most pressing need.

George K. Weagba, a delegate from the Liberia Conference, said most of his conference’s delegates already are fully vaccinated. He said it would be better to fund COVID testing for African delegates at the various points of departures and entries.

“The money to take the coronavirus testing will be the challenging issue that most of us in Africa will face,” he said.

George D. Wilson Jr., another Liberian delegate, said the other big need is visas.

Jefferson Knight, a fellow Liberian delegate, said if the WCA wants to provide funding for delegates, the group “should also allow our family members who will be traveling to the General Conference to benefit from vaccines.”

In their statement criticizing the WCA, the bishops stressed that they have vastly different perspectives on issues surrounding human sexuality.

“But with one accord, we stand together for the cohesion and unity of our beloved United Methodist Church,” the bishops’ statement said. “We will not be dissuaded from seeing one another as brothers and sisters in the church.”

Republished from umnews.org

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. E Julu Swen in Liberia, Eveline Chikwanah in Zimbabwe and Chadrack Tambwe Londe in the Democratic Republic of Congo contributed to this report.

Contact Hahn at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.