by Chris Ritter
As stated in Part One, our African delegates faced deception and colonial intimidation as they came to St. Louis to defeat a plan that would have caused irreparable harm to the only growing branch of United Methodism on the planet. Some delegates have the privilege of official organizations to advocate for their interests. This is my own humble effort at providing the same for people I have come to admire greatly. Let’s continue…
African delegates arrived in St. Louis only after overcoming the border fences of language, culture, technology, and political pressure. As you read in Part One, Tom Berlin encouraged them not to vote. Here in the U.S., we spend a good deal of time talking about voter suppression. We do not support ID requirements for poor people because it might create a barrier to their participation. Think about all the barriers that African delegates had to overcome to participate in General Conference. Think about the sacrifice, the travel, the spotty translation, and the strange technology we use. [Thirty delegates were not able to attend at all due to visa issues.]. Think also of the arguments made that those who do not financially contribute to our bloated institution should not be allowed to be part of the decision-making. Here in the U.S. we call these various poll taxes “pay to play”… and it is evil. Voter suppression at General Conference is wrong, too.
I knew we were in serious trouble when our leading statesmen turned to vilification. Adam Hamilton’s “stand if you support the OCP” moment seems designed to show that all the cool kids in the middle school cafeteria were on his side. I was never so proud to sit with the poor losers in my life. First World temper tantrums about the sexual expression of financially kept clergy ran into the patient ferment of God-fearing servants who know what it means to suffer for Christ. Imagine living in a part of the world where churches are under attack. Imagine having Boko Haram operating in the neighborhood where your daughter is trying to go to school. Imagine working full time for literally nothing in the way of financial compensation. The people standing would not do for a day what some of the people sitting do every day. To me, that moment showed the difference between funded and faithful. White privilege was on full display. How about a little solidarity with God’s humble servants instead of making them feel like a turd in the punch bowl? In our advocacy for one group we need not tread upon another.
Carlene Fogle-Miller, a lay delegate from Florida, rose on Tuesday to say: “I have heard rumors, and I have heard other delegates have heard them too, that there has been bribery. There has been the giving of money in exchange for votes in this body!” This was a public airing of clamor circulating on Twitter that African delegates were being paid off to support the Traditional Plan.
Bribing an African delegate to vote for the Traditional Plan is sort of like bribing me to eat bacon. I have been called a liar for saying that the Africans will vote uniformly for the Traditional Plan. But I don’t hear that anymore. This is why they were sent by those who elected them. Celebrations were set off across the continent when the plan passed. Delegates will be greeted at home like a winning football team returning from the World Cup. Why? The One Church Plan was an existential threat. As I have been saying for some time, passage of the OCP would have scandalized the church in Africa and severely hindered their ministry. They would have had no choice but to break away and form the UMCA (keeping the good name they have built on the continent but showing distinction from the American Church). People here didn’t seem to understand that. Or, much worse, maybe they did.
United Methodist New Service tweeted yesterday: “The Committee on Ethics brought in several people for conversation. At this time, the committee is unable to substantiate the allegation.” The investigation, I am told, centered around a trustee at Asbury Seminary, a delegate, who gave envelopes to cover the travel costs of African delegates who registered to participate in a training event while in the U.S. Documentation was produced of the intent of these funds and this, I assume, satisfied the committee.
Other accusations were anecdotal. One story stems from an African delegate who had $900 in 20s and wanted to trade them for 100s because he would get a better exchange rate for these back home. A Mississippi delegate helped him out, as did a bishop. Some onlooker interpreted this as a payoff. Another story: Good News puts on breakfasts during General Conference for everyone who wishes to come. This year more Africans than ever attended. Some were saying that they were being bribed with food. Come on, people. As one delegate told me, “I don’t need a muffin to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Innocent gestures were viewed through the lens of mental profiles and interpreted as corruption. More troubling to me are reports that delegates were offered money by their bishop to support the One Church Plan. But the rumor mill needs to halt production, and those with actual first-hand reports need to come forward. As I have likely contributed to the rumor mill, I apologize.
Until we clean up the floor of General Conference, it will be difficult to call the rest of our church to a higher plain. We failed to honor one another. We failed to advocate for the poor. We failed to listen. We failed to foster understanding across racial and ethnic lines. Now we reap the fruit. The One Church Plan was a legislative bulldozer intent on forcing unwelcome change on the majority of the church. Let’s take a much different approach should we have the opportunity to hold another General Conference together again. It is too early to tell whether that opportunity will be afforded us. But, as Ash Wednesday approaches, there is opportunity to begin the process of repentance.