It’s the faces that keep me awake at night at General Conference. I see the faces of millions of United Methodists around the world who are praying for the 864 delegates, that our holy conversation and discernment would be surrounded with grace, hope and Christ-like humility. I see the faces of people across the globe who suffer in the midst of poverty, war and oppression and yearn to live whole and healthy lives. And I see the faces of my fellow delegates who bear the weight of the decisions that face us this week.
I was kept awake one night last week by the faces of the seventy members of my legislative committee. We were electing a chair, vice-chair, secretary and three sub-committee chairs to organize our work and lead us in making decisions about our assigned petitions.
As faithful United Methodists, we were very conscious of the need to elect a diverse group of people in regard to age, gender, ethnicity and country. There were more non-US delegates than US delegates in our legislative committee, and more than one white male declined a nomination in order to ensure diversity. I was so proud of our church.
As we were waiting for votes to be counted for the election of officers, we sang songs, some of them Sunday school songs and others from various countries. One of the songs was:
Who is the king of the jungle (gorilla movement) Whoo! Whoo!
Who is the king of the seas (water flowing) Bubba Bubba Bubba
Who is the king of the universe and who’s the king of me? (point up to Jesus)
I’ll tell you: J-E-S-U-S; yes, he is the king of me. (point to me)
He is the king of the universe, the jungle and of me. Bubba Bubba Bubba
After exhausting all of our songs and starting to sing “Who is the King of the Jungle?” once more, an African-American male stood up and gently said, “I don’t want to be mean, but I need to speak from my heart. The song we sang, nicknamed “The Gorilla Song,” is very hurtful to African-Americans. If you are white, you may not realize that the gorilla sounds in this seemingly innocent song bring up painful images for African-Americans and my brothers and sisters who are delegates from Africa.
“The Simian references to apes demonstrate the remnants of racism in America after the Civil War. In the same way, comments made in recent weeks about President Obama and his wife and daughters as apes after it was announced that Malia will be attending Harvard University are a painful affront to African-Americans and all of the African delegates who are in this room. Fox News listeners even referred to Malia as a ‘little monkey.’
“I know that you may not be aware of this history and did not mean to wound us, but it is an example of how pervasive racism is in our world and in the church. I pray that all of us will be as sensitive as we can to each other at this conference.” An apology was extended, and we prayed for all who have been hurt by racism as well as for the work that lay ahead. It was a sacred and defining moment for our committee, which completed its assigned petitions with grace, mutual concern and passion.
What kept me awake at night is the faces of my brothers and sisters whom we had inadvertently harmed through our insensitivity. The cultivation of cultural competency is a life-long journey for each of us.
It’s the faces that keep me awake at night. Twice a day, when I walk back and forth to the Oregon Convention Center, I pass dozens of homeless men and women at the Portland Rescue Mission. I also encounter many homeless when I am out running. They are lying on concrete, grass, park benches, cardboard boxes, shopping carts, tarps and under overpasses. Their faces haunt me. As I “do the work of the Lord”, I am well-dressed, have comfortable walking shoes and sleep in a warm bed at night, yet I don’t know how I can best help my brothers and sisters. One night I saw a volunteer hand out bag lunches after which a fight broke out because some people didn’t get anything.
The growing city of Portland is very open to the presence of the homeless, but there is a huge shortage of permanent housing and emergency shelter space and low-end housing units are not being built. Estimates are that every night four thousand homeless people sleep on the streets, in shelters, in cars, in transitional houses or on couches of relatives or friends in the Portland area. The Portland rescue shelter provides 330,000 meals a year, 75,000 nights of safe shelter, 780,000 pounds of food clothing and toiletries, safe 24-hour restrooms for men, women and children and nightly chapel services at 7 p.m. and on Sunday morning.
While the city of Portland is growing, citizens are open and welcoming to the homeless and illegal camping is overlooked, low paying jobs are not readily available. CrossBridge, a new experimental United Methodist faith community, is engaged with the homeless in Portland. Discipleship Ministries staff members, who are also walking to and from the Convention Center, have encouraged us to collect toiletries from our hotel rooms and also contribute funds to CrossBridge for their transformative ministry. What keeps me awake at night is the image of a homeless teenager, sitting on the sidewalk, staring into space, cell phone in hand.
It’s the faces that keep me awake at night. They are the faces of our young people, who are deeply engaged in sharing Christ’s love and are already leaders in our church. The Young People’s Address on Saturday was an inspiring example of how young adults around the world are able to be united in love and service despite their differences.
Two speakers shared the address. Peter Chibuabua of the Central Congo Conference grew up as a Muslim but converted to Christianity because of the influence of the Christian school he attended in his village. Chelsea Spyres is a US-2 serving at the NOAH project at Central UMC in Detroit, which empowers low income and homeless Detroiters to achieve stability.
Chelsea and Peter expressed hope for “more representation in the church of the people Jesus actually hung out with.” Young people around the world embrace the Wesleyan understanding of grace and community, and they desire all people to be fully welcomed into the life of the church. Our young people challenge us to be honest about ourselves and our differences but still proclaim the kingdom of God together. They believe it is possible to keep our own identities, yet live, serve and learn above and beyond what threatens to divide.
What keeps me awake but also ultimately helps me to sleep at night in Portland is knowing that even when we get it wrong, grace abounds. Jesus never said that we have to change before Jesus will love us. No, Jesus always says, “I love you no matter what. Now, follow and learn from me.”
God never gives up on us, so I will never give up on others or my own capacity to learn and be transformed. When I see the faces of those whose voices yearn to be heard and whose hearts long to be understood, I am convinced to keep on keeping on. My prayer this week is that each of our delegates will bring their best selves to the process of leading The United Methodist Church into God’s future.