Grand Rapids District Superintendent and Delegation Chairperson Rev. Laurie Haller shares her daily experiences at General Conference
Monday, April 30, 2012
The back row
“The yellow card – way, way back there!” We’re in the middle of a plenary session about term limits for bishops, and Bishop Schol calls upon a delegate to speak. The reality is that the delegate is only ¾ of the way back. I am sitting in the very, very, very back row of the voting area of the Tampa Convention Center, where the people on the stage look like flesh-colored ants.
Like back row lifers in local churches, we are rather anonymous. However, unlike most back pew sitters, we really do want to be noticed. We want to be recognized so that we can be a part of the process and share our wisdom. We know that our leaders do care about us. It’s just that we’re so far away no one can see us. It’s almost futile. We can wave our yellow, orange, and white cards. We can rise from our seats, ask others to stand with us, and even do a song and dance, with absolutely no effect.
My back row buddies and I have discussed our dilemma, and we have decided that there could have been a better arrangement of the plenary space. Tables could have been arranged in a semi-circle, the rows could have been wider and shorter, and the leaders’ table could have been elevated a bit higher. We could also benefit greatly from spotters in the back who could relay information to the presiding officers.
To be fair, life in the back row does have its advantages. We can see the neatly coiffed backs of a lot of heads, we are close to the peanut gallery of observers, and we can nod off without too many people noticing. The marshals and pages are nearby to make sure we are not disruptive, but the trade-off is that we are the first ones out for snacks and bathroom breaks.
I’ve heard somewhere that the last will be first, and the first will be last. Not so in this case. As delegates wait for one glitch after another to be resolved, I’ve been fantasizing about tours I’ve been on where everyone moves two rows forward every day. Now that’s an idea!! Alas, I’ll never be called on to propose it as a motion, so I am resolved to remaining in the back row all week.
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a worship service where Dr. James Cone preached. Dr. Cone, who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, has spent his life speaking truth on behalf of the marginalized, the oppressed, the forgotten, and the victims of racial injustice. In his latest book, a memoir called The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Dr. Cone explores the symbolic connections between Jesus’ death on a cross and the crucified people of history.
How could whites lynch blacks on trees in the name of the cross of Jesus while blacks clung to that same cross as a symbol of salvation? How could whites relegate blacks to the back seats of busses and theaters while blacks found hope in their very blackness? How can churches proclaim the inclusive love of Jesus Christ when the vast majority of churches in our country have no racial diversity at all?
Another worship service took place last night at Washington Nationals Baseball Park. It was a “Night of Hope with Joel and Victoria Osteen,” part of an 11-city tour. Tens of thousands of people streamed into the park for a 3 hour super-sized extravaganza from America’s current icon of encouragement, positive joy, and the prosperity gospel. Osteen said, “You know when restaurants ask you whether you’d like to supersize it? That’s what God’s like. He wants to supersize it. He wants to supersize your joy.”
Unfortunately, those who are intentionally relegated to back rows of real life don’t often have much joy to supersize. The slow, the poor, the troublemakers, the left behind, the intimidated, and the cast-offs are not guaranteed the shallow, supersized joy that counts on one’s own worldly success.
This is exactly where my analogy breaks down. I may be in the back row, but I still have a vote. I may be in the back row, but I still count. I may be in the back row, but I still remain within the bar. I will never know the fear and despair of those who still experience the lynching tree/cross, those who are utterly powerless against their oppressors, those who cannot choose whether to be crucified with Christ or not. The back row has much to teach me this week.