I came home from Fort Worth four years ago with a T-shirt that said, “I walked with the world at General Conference 2008.” The first day I was there, I met and talked with women from Zimbabwe in the bookstore. I loved seeing and listening to the amazing variety of international delegates. The best part was personally meeting (thanks to Kathy Campbell-Barton) a delegate from the South Congo Annual Conference. As a direct result of his meeting with our delegation, I found myself on a trip to the DR Congo in the fall of 2009. Seven of us from our conference met pastors and lay people, visited churches and mission projects, met families and children, and ate (and ate and ate) in the homes of United Methodists. Even with issues of language and translation, the conversations were lively and fascinating. It was clear that these were people who love God and love the United Methodist Church as much as we do.
My initial interest in general conference came from my desire to change the official positions of our church regarding homosexuality, and I still have that passion. But of course, when you start getting involved in something, you find out how much more complex it is than you thought when you started. At first my impression of delegates from central conferences, especially Africa, was that they were my adversaries in that struggle. Of course I knew that life is never that simple, but it took this kind of personal interaction to start to break down my assumptions and stereotypes. I found that not all African United Methodists are opposed to full inclusion, but I learned much more. I saw churches that are growing and churches that are busy meeting needs, being the hands and feet of Jesus in their part of the world. I got a vision of what the “transformation of the world” might look like if we really put our trust in God and the teachings of Jesus and stretch ourselves to work beyond nation, culture, and language.
The more I learned, the more I see that the structure of the UMC is an antique throwback to the colonial era. Changing it to something that allows us to be the church I think we’re called to be is not a simple proposition. There are competing plans at General Conference to move us toward a truly global, inclusive, and powerful force for love and justice, but as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” I don’t know yet which ideas I think are best, but I know I will be paying a lot of attention and trying to listen very carefully, especially when different languages and cultures make listening most difficult.