Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Untied Methodist has moved!!

Dear Friends:

Untied Methodist has moved to a new location. The new address is www.untiedmethodist.com.

I hope the new location will be friendlier to the browsers that have had a hard time reading this blog.

Please notice that there is a new feed for short items in the right hand column. It is called "50wordsorless" . This can also be accessed directly at www.untiedmethodist.com/50wordsorless.

At the "50wordsorless" feed, you will need to click a headline to go to the page if you'd like to leave a comment, which I hope you will want to do when something stimulates or irritates you.

I am leaving this site functional for the foreseeable future, but I do not expect to post to it again. Unfortunately, while I transferred most of the posts from here to the new site, I could not transfer the comments.

I appreciate your company. Please come see us at www.untiedmethodist.com. Let me know what you think.



Should pastors have the right to pick and choose members?

Good News has issued a press release taking sides in the case of the Virginia pastor who was placed on involuntary leave of absence as the consequence of his refusal to allow an openly gay man to join his church in spite of his district superintendent's instructions to receive him.

The Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, said the involuntary leave voted by the Virginia Conference's executive clergy session "screams with injustice." He calls the Rev. Edward Johnson "a faithful pastor who was seeking to enforce the policies of our Book of Discipline..."

Given my understanding of sexual orientation (see here, here, and here), I obviously strongly disagree with the idea of excluding anyone from church membership because of her or his sexual orientation.

I think our Discipline could not be any clearer about people being welcome into membership regardless of their sexual orientation. Paragraph 4 of the Book of Discipline says, "The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. Therefore all persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, to participate in its programs, and, when they take the appropriate vows, to be admitted into its membership in any local church in the connection."

Also, in the statement on "Human Sexuality" appearing in "The Nurturing Community," a section of the church's Social Principles, Paragraph 161G, the Discipline says: "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."

So I disagree with the basic assumption behind the press release issued by Good News. What part of the Discipline does Good News think the pastor was enforcing by denying a gay man membership?

But, independently of this, I am surprised by the position Good News has taken because of what it seems to say about the role of pastors.

As a pastor I have always felt it was my responsibility to make reasonably sure that potential members understand, so far as possible, the church's membership questions. If they then are willing to answer them appropriately, I have not assumed that it is my responsibility to judge the sincerity of their answers. I think this would be presumptuous on my part.

Over the years I have doubted the motivation of one or two people who chose to join a church where I was pastor at the time. Once had to do with an insurance salesperson who I suspected was at least partly motivated by greed. I think he saw the congregation as a prospect list. I spoke earnestly to his membership class about what it means to commit ourselves to Christ through church membership, but I did not deny him membership. Why not? Well, I may have been wrong to define his ambition to sell insurance to church members as being driven by selfish motives. I may be wrong that greed, as I define it, is a sin. Then, too, I am not so self-confident about the single-mindedness of my own motivations that I can presume to judge others on this.

Shane Raynor at Wesley Blog has an interesting reaction to this question of judging someone's qualifications for church membership. He suggests that if we are going to accept anyone who presents himself or herself for membership unconditionally we ought to do away with the concept of membership all together. But, he adds, if we are going to continue having members and ask them to say vows, we should make sure the vows are taken seriously.

Doing away with a category of participants called "members" is an interesting idea. My churches have always included people who were not officially members but who were active in the congregation's worship, programs, and mission. Some of these were folk I considered to be the best of members, even though they officially weren't. There were always others who were officially members but who did not participate in church ministries the way they said they would when they joined. What church does not experience this? So why bother distinguishing between members and non-members?

Although I would not consider it an essential characteristic of the church, I think asking people to commit to participation is helpful, and I think membership is an okay way to articulate our commitment. Some churches are beginning to ask people to sign on as partners rather than members, but I don't think this changes the basis principle of inviting people to make a commitment to the congregation.

According to Shane's thinking, if we ask somebody to make a commitment, then someone needs to judge whether that person's commitment is sincere and serious before we accept him or her into membership or partnership or whatever we want to call it. This is where I disagree. I am not sure any of us are qualified to make this kind of judgment about someone else.

And even if I did agree that we ought to judge people's sincerity and honesty, then I do not think it should be the decision of any one person, not even the pastor (maybe especially not the pastor). If we are going to judge sincerity before we receive members, we need a jury to do it. We all have our own peculiar biases and subjective definitions of things like sin. No one should take on such a task unilaterally.

So then we would need a convoluted structure for membership screening and testing and maybe even complaint procedures and trials to determine whether membership promises are being kept adequately. Yuck.

Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 seems instructive. We just aren't smart enough to go pulling up what we think are weeds without risking that we will uproot the good wheat as well.



On the last day (Sunday, July 17) of our time in Liberia, our hostess and guide Frances Porte invited us to attend worship with her. Her congregation, the First United Methodist Church of Robertsports, was meeting jointly with St. Peter's United Methodist Church, a congregation whose building is located a two-hour drive outside Monrovia. The combined service was held at United Methodist University in Monrovia.

The story the Rev. Unisah S. Conteh, the pastor of St. Peter's, told me helped me understand better the dislocation the people of Liberia have experienced. He explained to me that most of St. Peter's members had fled from their homes into Monrovia during the civil war. Their belongings had been looted and their homes damaged. Even though the war had ended in August 2003, almost two years earlier, most of St. Peter's members do not have the resources to repair their homes or to reestablish themselves back in their home community. So they have stayed on in Monrovia, hoping someday to move back home.

Once a month, Rev. Conteh told me, church members rent a bus for L$1,050 (US$21) and drive home to worship in their own church building. The other three Sundays each month they worship in Monrovia wherever they can find space, often in joint services with other congregations.

During the service I sat up front with Rev. Conteh. He asked me to write down my name and the name of my church so he could introduce me to the congregation. I wrote down my name and the name of my church: "Foundry UMC."

He looked at the paper, then he looked at me, then he looked at the paper again. He got up and walked over to where his choir was sitting and borrowed a hymnal from a choir member. It was one of the old Methodist hymnals that had been replaced in most of our U.S. churches 15 years ago when the new United Methodist Hymnal was published. Stamped in gold on the cover of the hymnal was "Foundry Methodist Church."

Foundry's old hymnals had somehow ended up at St. Peter's Church in Liberia. For more than a decade members of St. Peter's had seen the name "Foundry Methodist Church" on the cover of their hymnals but knew absolutely nothing about Foundry except its name and the name of the person listed inside the front cover in whose memory or honor the book had been donated decades ago.

Without knowing about St. Peter's hymnals, Jane slipped out of her seat to sneak up front to show me the hymnal she was using. Stamped on the cover of her hymnal in gold print was "Arch Street Methodist Church," the name of the church in Philadelphia I had last pastored. First Church of Robertsports in Liberia was using the old hymnals from the last church I had pastored.

So here's the thing: Two congregations happen to worship together in a joint service on the Sunday Jane and I happen to be in Liberia and happen to be invited to worship with them. One of the two congregation happens to use old hymnals from the church I currently serve. The other congregation happens to use hymnals from the last church I served.

What are the odds? What can this mean? Is somebody trying to tell me something?


United Methodist is frontrunner in Liberia's presidential race, scholars say

By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone

MONROVIA, Liberia - It is quite likely that a United Methodist will become the first woman to be elected president of Liberia, according to interviews with faculty members and students at Liberia's United Methodist University.

University faculty members and students identified Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, formerly an official with the United Nations, the World Bank, and Liberia's Finance agency, as the frontrunner in Liberia's presidential race during impromptu conversations July 16. The faculty members interviewed included, among others, a political scientist, a theologian, and the university president.

University president J. Oliver Duncan called Johnson Sirleaf a "very strong, very focused leader," and said that many Liberians "are dreaming of bringing forth the first woman president of Liberia."

Johnson Sirleaf, an active member of the First United Methodist Church of Monrovia, is one of more than 50 aspirants who have announced their intention to run for the nation's highest office. Some will run as nominees of Liberia's 30 political parties; others may run as independents. Candidates have until Aug. 6 to fulfill requirements established by Liberia's National Elections Commission to qualify as either party nominees or independent candidates. Campaigning officially begins Aug. 11. The election will be held October 11.

The Rev. Julius Sarwolo Nelson, Jr., dean of the university's Gbarnga School of Theology, said that out of the many contenders only five or six will actually turn out to be viable candidates. He believes that during the final weeks of the campaign, the number of candidates who have a chance of winning will drop to two or three. Johnson Sirleaf will run as "the standard bearer" - a term commonly used in Liberia for presidential candidates nominated by political parties - of the recently formed Unity Party.

Johnson Sirleaf's candidacy is currently being ratified at Unity Party conventions -similar to state-level party primaries in the United States - being held county by county throughout the nation. The numbers attending Unity Party conventions have been exceptionally high, and support for Johnson Sirleaf has been enthusiastic, according to observers.

Blessing Harris, a political scientist on the university faculty, agrees that Johnson Sirleaf will likely be the leading candidate when the campaign officially opens. "Ellen is a capable person; she is educated," he said. "She has had experience working in government in Liberia, and she has worked in the U.N. for quite a while."

But Harris warned that the campaign could include some surprises. Because many of Liberia's schools could not function during the country's 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, the literary rate in the nation is low, Harris said. Some studies cited by university faculty suggest that only two out of 10 Liberians are now literate, a drastic drop from pre-civil-war literacy levels. Harris was not sure the same qualities in candidates that are admired by more educated voters will win the votes of less literate Liberians.

Harris also wondered whether Liberia's young adults might be attracted by the candidacy of soccer superstar, George Weah, who recently returned to Liberia to become the nominee of the Congress for Democratic Change Party. Weah recently transferred his membership from the First United Methodist Church of Monrovia to George Patten United Methodist Church, a growing, youth-oriented congregation located in the midst of Monrovia's market area.

Wyeatta Moore, a young adult studying sociology at United Methodist University, agreed that young adults, especially young men, are drawn to Weah because he is a sports hero. But, she said, in a nation where many feel leaders have been self-interested and corrupt, some young adults look to Weah as a possible alternative to "business as usual" in Liberian politics. "They don't see him as a regular politician," Moore said. "He is the one who is the outsider who is not looking for money because he is already rich."

Young adults, aged 18 to 30, make up half of Liberia's 1.3 million registered voters and are expected to have a significant impact on the election. Moore believes, however, that most young women will vote for Johnson Sirleaf. "Everybody is saying it is time for a woman president," she said. Over 50 percent of those registered to vote in the Oct. election are women, she added.

Ambassador T. Ernest Eastman, dean of the university's College of Liberal and Fine Arts, has been impressed by the response so far to Johnson Sirleaf's Unity Party, but was cautious. "No one wants to bet completely on her, but she may emerge as the central candidate," the former Liberian secretary of state said. "We don't know how the election will go until the campaign."

The professors said perceptions about the ethnic and religious affiliations of presidential aspirants, and their vice-presidential candidates yet to be named, will also affect the campaign. Most candidates are Christians from Monrovia, Liberia's largest urban center by far, yet many Liberians in rural counties are suspicious of urban and Christian people. They identify more with tribal affiliations and non-Christian traditions.

Even though she is urban and Christian, Johnson Sirleaf appeals to some rural voters because she is a descendant of a powerful rural tribe and the widow of a Muslim man, the professors said. Eastman and Nelson emphasized that the results of the campaign will be influenced by each aspirant's ability to select vice-presidential candidates able to reach out to rural and tribal voters outside of Monrovia.

During a brief interview July 15, Johnson Sirleaf said she is optimistic. "We do not have as many financial resources as some other parties," she said, "but I am reassuring the people that the money we are spending is money that has been earned honestly. I tell them we have not mortgaged Liberia's future by taking money with strings attached, and people seem to be responding to this message."

Johnson Sirleaf said her party has developed a strong slate of candidates in local races for seats in parliament, and that local support for these candidates will strengthen the national presidential campaign effort.

According to university faculty members, in addition to Johnson Sirleaf and Weah, others expected to be strong presidential candidates include:

* Varney Sherman, nominee of the Liberian Action Party, the party currently in control of Liberia's interim government;
* Togba Nah Tipoteh, an economist and founder of the popular social change organization Justice in Africa who will run as the nominee of the Liberia People's Party (Tipoteh is also a United Methodist);
* Winston Tubman, nominee of the National Democratic Party of Liberia, the party established by former President Samuel Doe, former U.N. secretary general representative to Somalia, and the nephew of the late President William V. S. Tubman (the Tubman family has historically been strongly identified with the United Methodist Church);
* Charles Brumskine, the nominee of the Liberty Party, a lawyer who once was close to exiled President Charles Taylor but who left the Taylor government and fled to the United States due to philosophical differences (he now attends a nondenominational church, although his father was a highly respected district superintendent in the Liberian Annual Conference); and
* Roland Massaquoi, secretary of agriculture in Taylor's administration, the candidate of Taylor's National Patriotic Party.

Faculty and students agreed that, no matter who wins the election, the new president faces a daunting challenge. The war torn country has been without centralized electricity and operable water and sewage systems for the past 15 years. Because highways have not been repaired and are now pitted with potholes, transports that used to take 45 minutes can now take hours. The rural population fled to the city to escape the rebels and lost their farming equipment to looters, so agricultural production is limited and the cities are overcrowded. The unemployment rate is estimated at 95 percent, and no one is paying taxes. U.N. troops are still stationed throughout the country to keep the peace.

Faculty and students agreed that this will be a critical election for Liberia's future. Eastman said that strong presidential leadership is essential to maintain peace in Liberia. "Our soldiers have still not surrendered all their weapons; they are buried," he said. "They [the combatants in Liberia's civil war] are untrained in anything else but fighting; the only thing they know of family life is war." United Methodist University faculty members estimate that 110,000 Liberians or more are ex-combatants.


Welcome Faithwriter, Steve Swecker, to Methodism's Blogosphere

Steve Swecker, editor of Zion's Herald, has begun a blog at www.faithwriterblog.com/. Swecker is an excellent editor and Zion's Herald is an important magazine. It is good to have him blogging.

It has long disappointed me that United Methodism has such a minimalist independent press. The United Methodist Reporter is independent, sort of. Much of its income comes from annual conferences and local churches that contract with the Reporter to produce their conference newspapers, including pages of national news and opinion provided by the Reporter. Alienate the leaders of those conferences and churches, and your publication could go down the tubes pretty quickly.

Zion's Herald truly is independent. Although it is underwritten by an endowment, it is not obligated to any part of the structures and hierarchies of United Methodism.

Don't get me wrong; I think United Methodist News Service does an excellent job. I am also very impressed by the professionalism of the editors of our conference newspapers throughout the denomination. These are people who love the United Methodist Church and who, at the same time, are committed to the highest standards of honesty, full disclosure, and objective reporting.

Yet, if the bills are paid by the General Conference or the annual conference, there will always be a sense that the news and commentary in our publications will tend to represent the interests of the church hierarchy. Zion's Herald is special because it is beholden to no one.

I wish we as United Methodists were willing to pay reasonable (or even generous) subscription fees to more independent publications so that they could have enough income to pay the salaries of editors and reporters to tell us the good and bad news about United Methodism and to provoke discussion and debate even when it ruffles feathers.

Bloggers help us learn more about the church and stimulate good discussion, but most of us blog in stolen moments. We are not reporters or editors. So I value Zion's Herald, and look forward to reading Swecker's blog. Welcome.

Ganta Mission persistently rebuilds after 2003 bombings

By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone

GANTA, Liberia -- Sampson Nyanti is on his cell phone trying to get building supplies
delivered from Monrovia. Workers are rebuilding Ganta Mission’s elementary school, and he doesn’t want the project stalled or workers idle for lack of materials.

The workers’ salaries are being paid by a grant from USAID for which Nyanti is very grateful --only four Liberian United Methodist schools have received such grants-- but he has to keep the workers supplied with materials. In a nation still disorganized from 14 years of civil war --monster potholes have made long stretches of Liberia’s untended highways barely passable-- getting supplies delivered promptly is demanding work for Nyanti, the associate superintendent of administration for Ganta Mission.

Yet, supervising construction on the elementary school is just a small part of Nyanti’s responsibilities. He is also initiating a poultry project. A thousand chicks are arriving tomorrow from nearby Guinea, and a newly reconstructed chicken shed must be ready for them if they are to survive. A truckload of chicken feed has been delivered but it got soaked by a sudden downpour (it is the rainy season in Liberia) and needs to be spread out to dry.

Passing through the high school’s home economics building to say hello to teachers and students making clothes at pedal-operated sewing machines, Nyanti hurries to see if workers installing a new tin roof on the mission woodshop have everything they need. The multi-room woodshop is one of many buildings at Ganta Mission that lost its roof to missiles shot by rebels from across the Guinea border during the final months of the civil war in 2003.

At the Ganta Mission warehouse, Nyanti checks to see how many bags remain from the last delivery of cement. Bags of cement not immediately needed for reconstruction at Ganta Mission are resold to nearby residents for a small markup. The profits help support the mission.

Then Nyanti stops by the metal workshop to greet welders who are repairing a livestock feeder. He takes a minute to examine charcoal stoves being assembled and welded in the workshop. Charcoal stoves are the primary cooking fixture in most Liberian homes but, since the war, few such consumer goods are produced locally. Almost everything for sale in Liberia is imported from elsewhere and is expensive. Nyanti hopes the sale of the stoves will generate income to help pay mission workers’ salaries.

In a room in back of the metal workshop, he checks in with carpenters using a new band saw and drill press recently shipped from the US. The carpenters are busy making student desks and chairs in a crowded temporary woodshop set up in the back of the metal workshop, one of the buildings that did not lose its roof to the bombing.

Germany’s Methodist Church recently gave Ganta Mission a contract to supply new desks to 20 elementary schools that lost furniture and other supplies to looting during the civil war. The carpenters are also building new chairs for high school students. Nyanti will try to figure out how to pay for them later.

The carpenters are training ex-combatants -- young men who had been drafted by the rebels, sometimes when they were as young as 12 or 13, to fight in the war. They spent their youth fighting and now are eager to learn a trade so they can make an honest living. A small grant from the United Methodist Church in the United States underwrites the salaries of 10 ex-combatants, who are paid one U.S. dollar a day, to learn carpentry. Nyanti wishes he had funds to train more. Finding useful trades for the thousands of ex-combatants -often still in their 20s and 30s -- is essential to the nation’s future stability.

Enterprises such as raising poultry, sewing, the woodshop, the metal workshop and welding equipment, and the building supply warehouse are projects Nyanti hopes will produce enough income, along with the grants, to pay the salaries of the mission’s 70 employees and to create jobs for others in this region of a nation experiencing a 95 percent unemployment rate. He especially concentrates on the projects that will help the mission become self-sufficient and less dependent on grants. Like most Liberian United Methodist church leaders, he knows what it is like to be in the middle of a project and have funding dry up.

In the midst of his busy day, Nyanti pauses to tell visitors from the United States, trailing behind him, about George W. Harley, a missionary who came to Liberia from Durham, N.C., in 1926. Speaking with reverence, repeating the missionary’s full name every time he refers to him, Nyanti tells the visitors that George W. Harley cut his way to Ganta through the bush when there were no roads, believing that God was calling him to serve in this remote community. The ministry George W. Harley began in 1926, Nyanti says, grew to become Liberia’s most sophisticated mission, including one of Liberia’s finest hospitals, until it was nearly destroyed by rebel missiles between June and August, 2003, in a final angry rampage just before the war’s end. Nyanti tells his visitors that George W. Harley’s ashes are buried beneath a stone monument outside the church building at Ganta Mission. The monument used to have a marker honoring George W. Harley, he says, but the rebels stole it.

Nyanti hurries his visitors past a section of Ganta Mission’s more than 400 acres that is not available to be visited. Surrounded by razor wire, it is occupied by a Bangladeshi contingent of United Nations troops who have taken over a complex of Ganta Mission buildings as the base for their peacekeeping activities in the region.

Past the U.N. compound is Ganta Hospital with many of its wings and out-buildings in ruins. Having once provided inpatient care to 250 patients a night and outpatient treatment to another 175 patients a day, Ganta Hospital has only recently managed to restore medical care to some of those who make their way to the hospital from throughout northeastern Liberia as well as from nearby regions of Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.

Williette Bartrea, head nurse of Ganta Hospital, says the hospital, which reopened to just a few patients in April 2004, is now caring for some 60 patients daily.

The hospital’s blood testing lab used to be one of the best in Liberia, Bartrea says, but all of the equipment and supplies were stolen by the rebels. Slowly over the past year the lab has been rebuilt and basic blood tests are being performed there again, although the capacity to do the more sophisticated tests Ganta Hospital was once known for awaits the resources to purchase additional equipment.

Bartrea had relocated to Monrovia when the hospital’s nursing school was moved to the crowded United Methodist University campus in the nation’s capital, far from Ganta, for security reasons. After teaching in Monrovia for almost two years, Bartrea recently returned to Ganta because it is her home, and she worries for the welfare of the region’s people with no access to health care. She is praying, Bartrea says, that the nursing school will soon be able to return to Ganta, but many of the school’s buildings will need to be repaired first.

Last February Liberia’s interim government promised Ganta Hospital a grant to help repair the hospital, but so far it has not delivered on its promise, Nyanti says He had hoped the money would help rebuild some of the hospital’s bombed-out wings.

Because of limited usable space, at times the children’s beds need to be pushed into the hallways, according to the Rev. John T. Togba, Ganta Hospital chaplain. Togba, who stayed behind during the 2003 bombing to rescue a child who was a patient, was the last person to leave the hospital. Bombs were exploding all around him, sometimes in places where he had been standing moments before they hit. He is still amazed that he and the little girl he was trying to rescue survived. “Praise the Lord,” he says, “The little girl God used me to save is doing well today.”

More about Lifewatch, Reconciling Ministries, the United Methodist Building, and Lake Junaluska: Why We Worry

After returning from Liberia I found a letter in my mailbox from the Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth, the president of Lifewatch and editor of its newsletter. He wrote in response to my July 3 post entitled "Lifewatch, Reconciling Ministries, the United Methodist Building, and Lake Junaluska: Why We Worry."

In his letter he gives me permission to make it public, so I will do so here, and then make a few brief comments in response.

07 July 2005
Dear Rev. Snyder:

Grace and peace to you. I trust that your travels to, and in, Africa went exceedingly well.

Yesterday I read through your "Lifewatch, Reconciling Ministries, the United Methodist Building, and Lake Junaluska: Why We Worry." As the author of "What Motivates Lifewatch?" as indicated by the "PTS" at the end of the article, I would like to make three comments in response to your article.

First, please know that Lifewatch actually pays for use of the chapel (for the Lifewatch Service of Worship) and the meeting space (for the Lifewatch Board Meeting) in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill each January. Again, Lifewatch pays for the privilege of annually using space in the United Methodist Building. So the larger denomination is not subsidizing Lifewatch.

Second, methinks there is a significant difference between Lifewatch's commitment to change our church's teaching on abortion and the Reconciling Ministries Network's commitment to alter our church's teaching on homosexuality. The difference is that Lifewatch's commitment is based on the Church's ecumenical teaching through the ages, while the Reconciling Ministries Network's commitment is opposed to the Church's ecumenical teaching throughout the ages. Again, the Great Tradition, which is simply the paper trail of the Church's teaching on the Bible through the centuries, teaches merciful protection of the unborn child and mother, and the disordered nature of homosexual activity. Therefore, Lifewatch stays with the Great Tradition, while the Reconciling Ministries Network is against it.

And third, with you I share deep concern about well-intentioned United Methodists who want to limit or eliminate public, moral-theological discourse in various locations of The United Methodist Church. In my experience over the years in denominational and ecumenical ministries, the left-of-center establishment has at times engaged in "discourse management," shall we say. The same behavior by those right-of-center is, and would be, equally repugnant. The ideal would be for the church faithfully offering her teach[ings] with intellectual sophistication and persuasiveness, and then welcoming voices of dissent; to which the Church would then respond in the Spirit of truth and love. This is the practice of the "generous orthodoxy" that this pastor finds compelling.

If you would like to make this letter public in any way, be my guest.

Thank you for your courage and good cheer in grappling with some of the most difficult matters facing The United Methodist Church today.

Be faithful in all things.

In Christ,

(The Rev.) Paul T. Stallsworth

Pastor, and President/Editor of Lifewatch

This is a letter written tenderly and kindly, I think, without the writer sacrificing his deepest commitments and values or suppressing areas where he or I might disagree. I greatly appreciate this, and am touched by it. Here are just a few thoughts in response to the letter.

First, I said in my post that I would be surprised if Lifewatch paid rent to worship in the United Methodist Building. Turns out I am surprised. I would have thought the General Board of Church and Society might allow a United Methodist-related caucus to worship in our building. Maybe it is appropriate that a caucus rent meeting space, but worship space is different. I appreciate this clarification, and am left feeling as if the board ought perhaps to be more generous. Either we ought to allow this group of fellow United Methodists to worship in our building or we ought not, but we shouldn't let rent money be the deciding factor.

Still, it does not change the underlying point I tried to make in my post. Lifewatch is paying its own way in the United Methodist Building. The Reconciling Congregation Network is paying its own way at Lake Junaluska. If one of these is okay, the other ought to be okay as well. I don't think Rev. Stallsworth disagrees with this, but Good News and the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) seem to.

Secondly, I find myself somewhat in awe of the idea that "the Great Tradition" of "the Church's ecumenical teaching throughout the ages" supports Lifewatch's position on abortion, while the Reconciling Ministries Network's position is contrary to it. Wow. Isn't this somewhat presumptuous? (I am trying to remember which of the ecumenical councils addressed abortion and sexual orientation. And I am wondering what "the Great Tradition" has to say about the divine right of kings, class systems within society and the church, the role of women in church and society, the rights and responsibilities of children and youth, and the place of the laity in church governance.)

The Greatest Tradition that I am most aware of says: "Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself." The implications of this greatest tradition for our understandings of abortion, sexual orientation, and other concerns is the question, I think. Otherwise "the Great Tradition" could be used to justify all sort of unjust and even barbaric social practices.

Thirdly, yes, let neither those left-of-center nor those right-of-center limit discourse. And let us continue to hold one another accountable for fair, honest, open, and undistorted communication.

Rev. Stallsworth, my brother, thank you for your letter.


United Methodist schools determined to educate Liberia’s children

By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone

BUCHANAN, Liberia – “Give me pen, not gun” reads a hand-written poster on the cafeteria wall of J.F. Yancy School at Camphor Mission near Buchanan, Liberia. The slogan is not hyperbole. Beginning in the early 1990’s, boys as young as 12 and 13 were recruited or forcibly drafted into rebel armies, given guns, and deployed to fight and kill other Liberians for more than a decade.

Since Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor finally stepped aside in 2003 and the United Nations has deployed peacekeeper troops, Liberia’s deadly 14-year civil war has largely subsided and order has been restored to much of the nation. Yet, the chaotic war took countless lives and has left the nation’s buildings, roads, schools, businesses, and government in disarray. Liberia has had no centralized systems for providing electricity, sanitary water, safe disposal, or trash collection for a decade-and-a-half now. Unemployment is estimated at 95 percent.

In an election scheduled for October 11, Liberia will select a new president, and hopefully, the nation, once considered the “jewel of West Africa,” will be able to rebuild.

In the meantime, Liberian United Methodists are eager to get the nation’s children back into the classroom. As the 2004-2005 school year drew to a close in July, Richard Clarke, director of the Department of General Education and Ministries for the Liberian Annual Conference, reported that its 120 schools are at least partially back in operation, although some of them are meeting in church buildings because classrooms vandalized during the war are unusable.

To recover the scope and quality of education that characterized its pre-war school programs, the Liberian Annual Conference must overcome overwhelming challenges: ruined school buildings; insufficient funds to pay teachers; the need to train new teachers; shortages in basic school supplies and school furniture; and inadequate resources to cover costs for families who cannot afford the modest tuition (the equivalent of U.S.$12-67 per year, depending on the school’s location).

Circumstances at J.F. Yancy School and two other United Methodist schools in the Buchanan vicinity in southeast Liberia illustrate the desperate lack of resources in the nation’s United Methodist schools.

Yancy School is a boarding and day school located on the grounds of Camphor Mission a few miles outside Buchanan. Its faculty and students were forced to flee Camphor when the popular boarding school’s campus was overtaken by rebel soldiers. Since the war’s end, the school has reopened and now serves 184 elementary and junior high students, a fraction of its former enrollment. Only a few students live at the school; the majority live walk to school from villages as far away as two or three miles.

Other programs at Camphor Mission that serve the school's students and families as well as the larger community include a health clinic, a church with a congregation of 300, and a fledgling agricultural project that includes soap-making, vegetable growing, and raising pigs and chickens.

Arthur Jimmy, director of Camphor Mission, is eager to repair Camphor Mission’s schools and other buildings so its educational and other programs can become fully functional again. As Jimmy guided visitors from the United States around the school and mission grounds July 12, he talked about the need for books, salaries for teachers, and repairs to the buildings. Then he added, almost in a whisper, “We have another obstacle, a big one.” The mission’s only source of water is an untreated shallow stream.

As Jimmy led his visitors down a narrow muddy trail through the bush to the stream, he explained that the mission desperately needed a source of clean potable water for the health of the school’s students, but also for the thousand nearby residents who depend on the Camphor clinic for health care and midwifery.

Without a well or reservoir, students and mission personnel must carry water from the stream100 yards up a steep hill to the dorms and cafeteria. The stream is so shallow that a bucket can be filled only half-full at a time. Because the water is untreated, students and faculty often suffer from gastrointestinal illnesses and even cholera. The cost of building a reservoir where water can be collected and purified -- about U.S.$60,000, Jimmy said -- is almost inconceivable in an economy where families can afford to contribute only small tuition payments and where many are not able to pay tuition in full from the small incomes they make selling their meager crops.

Five bumpy miles away --Liberia's roads have had no maintenance forthe past 15 years-- is the Brighter Future Children Rescue Center, a United Methodist school system currently serving more than 500 students from first through twelfth grades. Built with funding from Operation Classroom, a program sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the W.P.L. Brumskine High School constructed in the early 1990s as the civil war was beginning is already overcrowded.

During the war, the school property was occupied by refugees driven from their homes. About 2,500 refugees were crowded into the school’s buildings, according to Chapman L. Adams, Brumskine’s principal. After the displaced families had been resettled by the United Nations, the school’s teachers returned to repair and repaint the buildings.

As the school year was ending this July, Adams worried about where he would put students in September when classes begin again. The high school has four classrooms. This year the school had one senior class with 50 students, a junior class with 50 students, and two sophomore classes with 50 students each. Next year he will need two sophomore and two junior classrooms, as well as a classroom for seniors. The year after that, he expects to need six classrooms.

The campus includes a large metal frame structure that was once covered with a tent, until refugees tore it apart to make makeshift shelters. The large tent had provided space for three elementary classes. If Adams could erect a new tent on the old frame, he could move elementary classes into the tent and expand the high school classrooms. To do so would cost about $2,000, he said. Barely able to pay teachers’ salaries, he has no idea where he will be able to find the money to rebuild the tent by September.

The third school, the J.C. Early United Methodist School, is located inside the city limits of Buchanan in a neighborhood called Gbehjohn. The school was begun during the war for students who were forced to flee from Camphor Mission into the city. Faculty and parents built a makeshift school out of dried reeds and bamboo in this urban community, less vulnerable to rebels than Camphor Mission because of the city’s population density. Once Camphor Mission reopened, Buchanan clearly continued to need a school, so the makeshift school has become permanent. It now serves 316 students in elementary and junior high classes.

Recently the school administration recognized that the bamboo buildings constructed in haste 11 years earlier would not serve the needs of a permanent school. With almost no resources, the school is being rebuilt literally one block at a time. Dirt is carried to the school from nearby landfill sources in wheelbarrows, then dampened with water and pounded into an oblong wooden frame template. Each dirt block is then dried in the sun and used to build new walls.

It is a slow process, said vice-principal Abraham K. Wilmot, but with no money to buy building materials, it is the only option.

One of the corollary benefits of a United Methodist school continuing in this Buchanan neighborhood after Camphor Mission reopened is the birth of a new congregation. The school buildings are used on Sunday mornings for worship and Sunday School by Gbenjohn United Methodist Church, a congregation begun by the Rev. George Mingle eight years ago. Despite the return of its earliest worshippers to Camphor Mission, the congregation has grown to more than 200 worshippers.

United Methodist schools in other rural communities throughout Liberia are trying to educate students in circumstances even more dire than those faced by the Buchanan area schools, according to Clarke. As the person responsible to oversee and support the United Methodist school system in Liberia, his highest priorities are training enough teachers to keep the school system supplied, finding scholarships to allow poverty-stricken families to send their children to school even when they can not pay full tuition, and getting the school buildings repaired. The difficulty of meeting this last goal especially troubles him. “In the rural communities, especially during the rainy season, it brings tears to your eyes to see where students are sitting,” Clarke said.


Leaving for Liberia

Tomorrow I leave for Liberia with a study team that will meet with workers and leaders of the Liberian labor movement. We will hopefully help to build a stronger relationship between the workers of Liberia and the United States.

Next Sunday Jane will join me and we will spend a week visiting with our United Methodist brothers and sisters in Liberia.

United Methodism, like the United States, has a special relationship with Liberia. Most of the freed slaves, sponsored by the American Colonization Society, who migrated to establish the Republic of Liberia were Methodists. One of the first things they did upon arriving in Liberia was to build Methodist churches.

You can find a report of our last trip to Liberia in February here and a very helpful and touching interview with the Rev. Sabah T. Dweh-Chenneh, a pastor who works with youth and young adults in Liberia, here.

More information about United Methodism in Liberia is available from the General Board of Global Ministries.

Jane and I are grateful to Bishop John Innis for facilitating our visit. He is a friend of Foundry Church, and our friend.

I hope to post from Liberia, but you can never be sure. Liberia depends on gasoline-fueled generators for electricity. We appreciate your prayers. We expect to return July 19.

Also, please keep Foundry's Volunteers In Mission who leave tomorrow morning for Zimbabwe in your thought and prayers.


Lifewatch, Reconciling Ministries, the United Methodist Building, and Lake Junaluska: Why We Worry

The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, or Lifewatch, is a caucus within the United Methodist Church that wants to change our church's stance on abortion.

An unsigned editorial in its June 2005 newsletter entitled "What Motivates Lifewatch?" states:

"Why does Lifewatch exist? Why does Lifewatch do what we do? Why does Lifewatch witness within The United Methodist Church today? A few critics might contend that Lifewatch is
nothing but a small band of United Methodist malcontents who cannot get along with the larger
church and who enjoy stirring up a little trouble within the denomination. A few others might claim that Lifewatch is a group of Republicans who are dedicated to pushing United Methodism in a more Republican direction. To be sure, Lifewatch probably does attract a few malcontents and people primarily interested in partisan politics."

The editorial goes on to say that, in spite of this, the taskforce is theologically motivated. The editorial concludes by explaining that being loyal to the United Methodist Church means trying to change its policy on abortion. It says:

"Loyalty to the church is not, and never has been, blind loyalty to the church as it is. Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church demands that the truth be spoken and written about life and abortion, that love and respect be displayed toward all in the church, and that moral falsehoods and blind spots in the church be identified
and corrected. Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church involves truth and love at all
times, and disagreement and discipline at some times."

However I might feel about this specific issue, I understand and resonate with Lifewatch's logic. Being loyal to the United Methodist Church does not mean agreeing with every position in the Book of Discipline as it is currently written. The taskforce has put it well: "Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church involves truth and love at all times, and disagreement and discipline at others."

This past January 24 the taskforce held its annual service of worship. As is normally the case, the service was held on the same day and in the same city as the national March for Life, "a time for prolife people to gather and peacefully protest the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton," according to a group called Right to Life of Michigan which sent busloads of marchers to the event.

The preacher for the taskforce's service was Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Whitaker introduced his sermon by calling the United Methodist Church to "a truer and more faithful witness" on the issue of abortion. We should not assume that the current position stated in the Book of Discipline settles the question, he suggested. "Nothing is ever settled in the church," he said.

Again, the principle laid out by Bishop Whitaker is compelling. As a church we cannot ever be satisfied that we have reached final truth. All our positions must be open to "a truer and more faithful witness." The bishop put it well: "Nothing is ever settled in the church."

Now, what I want us to notice is that, even though the goal of The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality is to change a position passed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the taskforce held its annual worship service in the chapel of the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. (See here.) The taskforce has held its annual service in the chapel of the United Methodist Building for a number of years --at least since 2001. Every year it has held the service there on the same day as the national March for Life protesting Supreme Court decisions.

So far as I know, no one has suggested it is inappropriate for a caucus that intends to change a position voted by General Conference to meet in the chapel of a United Methodist-owned building. So far as I know, no one has objected to a bishop of the church participating in a service that encourages a change in a position duly voted into existence and established by General Conference.

Compare this to the fierce objections by the Good News Movement and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) against the Reconciling Ministries Network's Convo 2005 being held at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a conference center affiliated with the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

Mark Tooley of the IRD has issued a statement entitled "Lake Junaluska to Host Pro-Homosexuality Rally." The Good News Movement has endorsed Tooley's statement by posting it on its e-zine.

First, let us note Tooley's misleading and inflammatory tactic of calling a convocation a "rally." If you read Tooley's statement you will note other exaggerations, such as calling Reconciling Congregations "a lobbying group."

But even if we were to ignore the exaggerations and distortions in Tooley's statement, consider his objections to the Reconciling Ministry Network (RMN) holding its convo at Lake Junaluska. He objects because the group disagrees with a position passed by General Conference and because it advocates for a change in the church's stance.

According to Tooley's own statement, Lake Junaluska is not underwriting the RMN convo. Tooley quotes Lake Junaluska administrator Joetta Rinehart: "Lake Junaluska is renting the facility to Reconciling, not subsidizing 'Hearts on Fire' [the convo]. She said The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) had been consulted, and GCFA agreed that the disciplinary prohibition against funding of pro-homosexuality advocacy is not being violated."

I believe The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality uses the chapel of the United Methodist Building for free. Through the General Board of Church and Society, the United Methodist Church has been subsidizing this annual gathering purposed to change a position passed and approved by General Conference. No one who disagrees with the taskforce's agenda has complained. Yet RMN renting space at Lake Junaluska is a hot issue.

A friend sent me a copy of a letter written by James V. Heidinger II , president of the Good News Movement and publisher of Good News magazine. According to my friend the letter has been distributed widely among leaders within the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Because I trust my friend, I will reproduce Heidinger's letter here:

June 16, 2005
Dear United Methodist Friend:
This letter comes to you as a leader in the SE Jurisdiction, to let you know of an event scheduled for Labor Day weekend at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I want you to have the information about the event and ask that you pray about this matter and consider writing a letter or sending an email about it.

The conference “Hearts on Fire,” is being sponsored by Reconciling Ministries, one of the several caucus groups within the United Methodist Church that advocates for the acceptance of homosexual practice. You may wish to visit the Reconciling Ministries web site at: http://rmnetwork.org/.

The web site includes this mission statement: “Reconciling Ministries Network is a national grassroots organization that exists to enable full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, both in policy and practice.”

Under Reconciling Ministries Clergy, there is this statement: “The RMN is comprised of persons called to ordained ministry with the UMC who summon the church to a deeper level of spiritual and theological integrity in relationship to persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities and their full inclusion in all aspects of the church’s life.”

The reference to “full inclusion in all aspects of the church’s life” has in mind, of course, ordained ministry, which the Book of Discipline strictly and carefully forbids. The network also indicates it is dedicated to “teaching, organizing, strategizing, resistance and support for one another . . .” What is being “resisted” is the church’s present standards concerning homosexuality. What is being taught, organized, and strategized are ways people can circumvent and ultimately change the Book of Discipline on this issue.

The “Hearts on Fire” brochure states “Together, we will be . . . Singing out God of Rainbow, Fiery Pillar, leading where the eagles soar as a rainbow community of faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual disciples committed to justice!” (You can view the brochure at the RM web site by clingin on “Convo information page.”)

Many things concern me about this weekend. Quite troubling is the fact that speakers will include two active bishops, Bishop Minerva Carcano and Bishop Susan Morrison, and one retired bishop, Bishop Richard Wilke. This is troubling because our bishops are charged with implementing the standards in our Discipline, not dissenting from them. Also listed as a leader is Rev. Beth Stroud, the lesbian clergywoman from Pennsylvania who declared herself “self-avowed and practicing,” lost her credentials in a church trial, and then had them reinstated upon appeal. We are awaiting the Judicial Council to review the case and expect it will sustain the guilty verdict.

Another program leader mentioned is Rev. Karen Oliveto, the clergy woman from San Francisco who performed eight same-sex ceremonies, seven at City Hall and one at the Bethany United Methodist Church. These were done during the time when the City Hall in San Francisco was considering such marriage legal.

Some will claim the RMN is just another caucus similar to Good News. But there is a significant difference. Good News and other evangelical caucuses actively support the Book of Discipline with regard to homosexuality, Reconciling Ministries is working to undermine and change the Book of Discipline.

We are writing to encourage folks who are concerned about this conference to speak out about it, both to your own bishop and district superintendent, as well as to the Executive Director at Lake Junaluska. He is Jimmy Carr and can be reached at SEJAC Office, P.O. Box 67, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745. Email him at: info@sejacumc.org

As you express your concern, do so in a gracious and respectful way, but also firmly in suggesting that such groups should not be permitted to use Lake Junaluska for such purposes. We certainly affirm the Discipline’s statement that all persons are of sacred worth, while we continue to acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (Par. 161).

Since the 2004 General Conference, the United Methodist Church has been reflecting and thinking about the theme of Unity. Bringing such a conference into the headquarters of the SE Jurisdiction will only further jeopardize the fragile unity of our church. This is not something folks across the SEJ can possibly feel good about.

Thanks for your concern and for whatever you might be able to do.
Yours in Christ,
James V. Heidinger II
President and Publisher

Does anyone else notice any inconsistency here? The Good News Movement has happily endorsed and promoted the subsidized services held by the The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality in the United Methodist Building. In a notice entitled "Celebrate Life," the November/December,2000, issue of Good News magazine encouraged its readers to attend the service "when you come to the March for Life in Washington, D.C." The taskforce services held on United Methodist property arguably really are part of a "rally."

But now Good News and IRD are up in arms because RMN convo attendees have rented space --paying their own way-- for a convocation on United Methodist property?

Friends, this is why we worry that if Good News and IRD and their supporters take over the denomination, professors and students will be told what they may and may not discuss, teach, and learn in United Methodist seminaries. This is why we worry that the United Methodist Publishing House will be told which books they are allowed to publish and which are to be censored. This is why we worry that bishops, pastors, and lay leaders will lose their freedom to disagree. This is why we worry that pastors will be told what we may and may not preach from our pulpits.

Those with a liberal spirit value the free exchange of ideas. They believe that freedom of thought and speech leads to greater learning and insight. They are not afraid of ideas differing from their own. So what if the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality disgrees with General Conference? Let's invite them into the United Methodist Building anyway. Let's listen to what they have to say. We may learn something. At the very least, we will have had the opportunity to fellowship together.

Given the outcry from Good News and the IRD, it is hard not to conclude that their attitude is exactly the opposite: Silence those who disagree with us. We have the truth already. Why should we listen to what anybody else has to say? If you disagree with us, go away and stay away.

This is why a liberal spirit is inherently healthier than the spirit that Good News and IRD appear to be articulating. I believe most United Methodist evangelicals are more open than this, and that they should let Good News and IRD know they do not appreciate these kinds of efforts to exclude and drive away those with whom they disagree.