Letter from Conference Co-Lay Leader: General Conference 2016 - Ten Days of Contrasts

 Ralph Thompson, Conference Co-Lay Leader

Ralph Thompson, Conference Co-Lay Leader

For ten days, the Rio Texas General Conference Delegation experienced the many contrasts of cultures, ethnicities, ideologies, and theological interpretations that comprise the United Methodist Church.  For ten days, we shared worship and food, entertainment and fellowship, cultures and learning, and, of course debate…debate over issues both mundane and far-reaching. 
 
In many ways, this was like any other General Conference, with five days of legislative committee meetings that addressed the thousands of pages of petitions that are the essence of why we meet every four years, followed by five days of discussion and debate over the petitions that could not be resolved by the legislative committees. 
 
It was obvious that many delegations arrived at Portland, Oregon, with definite “game plans” regarding the subjects of human sexuality, UMC structure, and annual conference/local church affiliations. It was obvious that delegations had their minds set on taking home the “victory” and the “game ball”, after scoring a definitive “win” in Portland. But, I truly believe that God had other plans, as the axiom “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” was proven true in the final days of GC2016!
 
I’ll not waste my final few words recounting what happened in Portland. Instead, I prefer to use this space to share another contrast that was quite evident for the entire two weeks that I was in Portland.
 
One morning, I gave a few dollars to a homeless person who was perched outside the coffee shop. That was the first glimpse of what soon became obvious…Portland’s overwhelming homeless population.
 
A simple Internet search (Portland Oregon Homeless) will reveal what every delegate to GC2016 saw, whether on sidewalks or in alleys, along roadsides or under bridges, in parks or in empty buildings, and in open fields or even right in front of the place where we met: THOUSANDS of people living under tents, boxes, blankets, or just out in the open with no shelter at all…people of all ages, races, cultures, ethnicities, ideologies, and, yes, theological interpretations…those about whom I thought, “But for the grace of God, there go I!”
 
What I want to share is what broke my heart on the flight back to Texas. As I reflected on the events of GC2016, I am certain that it was Almighty God who forced other images into my heart…images of the countless homeless people who, regardless of their politics, sexuality, backgrounds, opportunities, or even their sins hungered and shivered outside, while we argued over who is or is not worthy of God’s salvation through the nurture and ministries of the United Methodist Church.
 
I thought about people who would have been glad to eat from the hundreds of pounds of garbage that we generated every day, while we complained about issues, many of which had little to do with God’s Kingdom, nor HIS plan for HIS Church. As we debated human sexuality, I can imagine that people just blocks away dealing with pregnancy without healthcare, diseases without medications, sexual abuse without defense, and other situations too grievous to mention.
 
My heart wept to think that the Church that reintroduced me to Jesus Christ is debating whether or not to stay “United”, while there is a world right outside our doors that is aching for a relationship that they, themselves, cannot even define. They need a Love that the world cannot give…the Love that we profess to have in abundance!
 
It is not my place, nor is this the time, to judge who is right or wrong, who God loves most or least, and who is or is not worthy of God’s Kingdom. But I would be remiss if I did not end with one simple question: What meaning of Matthew 28:16-20 is the United Methodist Church called to live out?
 
Ralph Thompson
Rio Texas Co-Lay Leader