Monday, April 30, 2012

Arriving at General Conference

I'm now at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Committee work was done last week to work through 1200 petitions for changes to the Book of Discipline. This week is the plenary sessions when the entire 988 delegates consider all those petitions.

To get an early flight from Detroit I set my alarm for 4:30. Alas, I woke up at 3:00 and couldn't go back to sleep. Checkin at the airport wasn't much of a problem at such an early hour. The flight, alas, was turbulent.

Once to the hotel I met my roommate and the communications team. I asked about writing about the results of last week's committee work. They said finding out would take a great deal of research, given the conference petition tracking system. That's why they haven't done it. They welcome original content for the blog, but didn't want anything negative at the moment to avoid it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can understand that. I quickly figured out I don't need to cover official coalition events because those will be covered in the newspaper. Besides, they have video cameras and I don't. So, stories that don't make it into the official blogs will end up here. It also might mean I'm here simply because I want to be a part of a historical moment.

I ad lunch at the Love Your Neighbor Tabernacle, the tent set up across from the Convention Center. They have a series of lunchh time speakers. I wasn't able to take complete notes because my netbook computer decided to have trouble booting. I pulled the battery and tried again. A Palestinian pastor spoke in favor of divestment from three companies seen as supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. He said he sees the horrors of the occupation every day. He said people ask him why not speak in the positive? Why not ask for investment in Palestine? Countries invested in a port in Gaza. Israelis blockaded it. Countries invested in an airport. The Israelis bombed it. What he is asking for is disinvestment.

The next speakers detailed the reasons why we have been asking for disinvestment. Caterpillar sells a bulldozer that is armored and can be remote controlled. The bulldozer is used to raze Palestinian villages to make room for Israeli settlements.

One division of Motorola creates the scanners that are used at Israeli checkpoints. Hewlett Packard is the third company. I don't remember why. I'll have to look in tomorrow's newspaper.

The speaker announced that the Quakers have divested in Caterpillar! They refuse to invest in weapons.

In committee the petition to divest was watered down to remove all mention of action, all mention of individual companies, of all mention of timeline. That made it meaningless. MFSA requests voting to approve the minority report. This isn't an economic action. This is a moral action.

The lunch menu was beans, rice, and pulled pork. The delegates recessed at 12:45 and many came over for lunch. There were many African and Filipino delegates present. I wonder if these were leaning towards this kind of message when they walked into the tent.

George Jonte, a legislative observer, whom I know from Detroit, says the removal of the incompatibility clause (the big reason why I'm here) was defeated in committee. They have asked a “big name” pastor to introduce the minority report in plenary. George hadn't seen the African delegates so vociferous in their opposition. He says he heard a rumor that many African delegates were threatened – if the incompatibility clause is removed, when you return to Africa you will be killed. This is only a rumor. There is no way to tell how a particular delegate voted when voting machine used, which is why the threat is based on passage and not on individual votes.

I talked to volunteers in the tabernacle to get the coalition schedule. That looks like a good place to start each day.

I sat in on the plenary session. Apparently one needs a code book to know what is going on. All petitions are referred by number and page in the delegate book. Very formal, very dry most of the time.

During a break the youth of the coalition performed a flash mob, a song and dance. For those born in the last century, a flash mob is a public performance that seems to spontaneously arise from people in the crowd. The only words that stick in my mind are “You can't stop the ocean.” The enthusiasm contrasted sharply with the stodginess of the proceedings in the hall.

At the end of the afternoon plenary session we staged a “die-in” – some participants lay on the floor as we stood over them. This was at the exit of the conference hall, so the delegates had to pass us. I was surprised how moving it was. I took a couple pictures, then joined the protest, standing silently. I had on my colorful “gay” stole. The session just ending was by the commission on higher education to be followed by receptions by various Methodist colleges. An African choir sang delegates out of the room, a big contrast to the die-in.

I had supper with the executive director of MFSA, a woman I know from Detroit. During the course of the conversation she said MFSA is spending $60,000 for the tent, the communication team, legislative observers, food, etc. The money spent by other coalition partners is much higher. General Conference costs about $6 million for the denomination to put on and the head of MFSA says the system is about as dumb as we could get. Bring in a thousand delegates from around the world and do it only once every four years and expect them in two weeks to make reasonable legislative decisions on 1200 petitions. That amount of work in that short a time does not allow for the kinds of conversations that need to happen to resolve things properly.

The first part of the evening was for Holy Conversations by Continental Gathering. I sat in on an introduction by the Coalition group on cross cultural exchange. Several of us attended the Africa session as an observer or a “listener.”

The topic of discussion was about what it means to be a worldwide church. The leader was part of the Worldwide Nature Study Committee. He went to several countries in Africa, and Philippines. There is a strong desire to remain in connection and lots of common ground. But also serious issues. Many are looking for some change in the structure of the church, yet remain in connection.

There were four questions for small group discussion (which was done in native languages).

What are the advantages of being a worldwide church?

What needs to be strengthened to maximize our fruitfulness and faithfulness?

How can we honor each other's differences while strengthening our unity?

How can we move toward more equitable sharing of power and representation around the world?

These discussions were done in small groups around tables and took more than a half hour. But the answers were not shared to the group as a whole. There went my coalition blog post.

The evening worship service featured an African choir singing in English, an American choir singing in an African dialect, and the scripture read in German.

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