I returned late Sunday afternoon from Puyallup, WA where I attended the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Conference of United Methodist Churches. It was a big deal with 550 clergy, lay delegates and conference staff in attendance with the Bishop presiding, in this case a woman of remarkable talent, who managed to work out each glitch with great patience and sense of fairness over the three days.
The Conference was held at the state fairgrounds. We all parked in the huge parking lot and crossed the street to enter te Blue Gate which opened into a spacious pavilion scattered with trees and benches and surrounded by permanent vendors. I remember how the big yellow sign above the Carmel Apples store kept drawing my attention as the pastor, Marcella Baker, and I made our way into the Showplex which was a mammoth gathering place. The Conference was ready for us with a huge stage flanked by two cinema-sized screens and a panel of overhead lighting all of which was handled by a crew of savvy media people who could, with little notice, throw most anything up on the screen. In another corner, the Conference had set up the dining space, with coffee and tea available at all times. Each day lunch and dinner were served buffet-style with ample seating at large round tables nearby. In the open area between the the meeting area and the dining area there were a large group of tables with displays and information on many of the denomination’s projects. Cokesbury Publishers was also a large presence with three long rows of tables loaded down with books and other merchandise to look at and buy.
Before we had gotten too far into the first day’s agenda we learned that during WW II this very site, the parking lot and pavilion, had been where our government had first brought the Japanese families for internment. This fact did not go unnoticed as we focused on the current treatment of immigrant families. In fact, early on Sunday morning, the final morning of the Conference, a contingent actually drove to a government detention site (complete with cyclone fencing and buildings that looked every bit like a prison) to protest the imprisonment and the lack of compassion.. I would have gone but it was too early and too long a trip after two days of meetings. But I was there in spirit.
“Do What and Live?”, based on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, was the Conference theme this year. It could not have been more timely forcing us, forcing me, to think through some of the critical matters we’re facing now as responsible citizens and committed Christians. When we read Luke 10:25-37, we see that Jesus has directed the lawyer to love God and neighbor. “Do that and you will live”.Jesus’ follow-up story, the parable, gives a more specific example, defining clearly who the “neighbor” is, i.e., anyone in need who we can help, spending time and money, if necessary, to see that the need has been met, the issue resolved. The more I entered into the events, the more I deliberated on the issues, the more relevant the theme became. The beautiful worship service honoring the lives of those clergy who had died in the past year was in part a salute to their effort to love unsparingly as did the Samaritan but the Conference theme applied as well to the inspiring worship service on Sunday morning in which so many men and women were ordained and commissioned to serve Conference churches. I was deeply moved at various times during the three days but especially during the ordination service. Tears of thankfulness filled my eyes and do now again as I write about it. It was as if I was being ordained again myself, connecting with the life of the church once more. Astonishing, really, to find myself here. I have no way of knowing where this leads, of course, but I remain open to miracles of any kind.
The Conference’s study focus was the book “Anatomy of Peace”. Each of the three lectures was followed by small group discussions which I thought were constructive and helped to make new friends within the Methodist community. I enjoyed as well the table discussions Marcella and I had over breakfast each morning and often at noon as well, giving us a chance to become better acqainted. Several petitions were presented at the plenary session all of which were passed unanimously. Never was I more proud to be a Methodist than when at this point, the Conference stood 100% behind the Poor People’s Campaign which had its beginning in 1968 under the direction of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference and the resolution to request the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to immediately cease the practice of indefinitely detaining families suspected of border or immigration violations, to immediately reunite all children separated from their parents…and to ensure that all those detained…are provided with basic human rights and have the opportunity to receive legal counsel.