An evening to celebrate global accomplishments
By Neill Caldwell*
General Conference delegates heard a varied and far-reaching update on the mission and ministry of The
United Methodist Church April 29, concentrating on the Four Areas of Focus approved four years ago.
“Tonight’s plenary is a celebration of challenges and achievements in the history of mission and ministry in our
United Methodist Church,” said Bishop Joaquina Nhanala, of Mozambique, in introducing the program.
Four bishops each led a segment of the plenary presentation on one of the four areas that is particularly near and dear to their hearts.
Ministry with the poor
Bishop Joel Martinez said that ministry with the poor is also about “receiving from the poor, the gifts they
bring, the gifts of yearnings and dreams for a future with hope. (About) walking with people who are poor in material terms, or poor in spirit, or both.”
Martinez introduced one of his pastors, the Rev. Lorenza Andrade-Smith of San Antonio, who said she is “appointed by my bishop to ‘do nothing,’ but share the love of God.” Her ministry with the homeless population is unique, in that she sold her possessions and lives in solidarity with homeless on the street.
Andrade-Smith told of seeking refuge in a homeless shelter one night when she was refused “because they said my Communion set could be used as a weapon. … My communion set is a different type of weapon, more of a force. It witnesses to the very presence of Christ, who calls us to be in ministry with the poor. Ministry with the poor simply means following Jesus.”
Martinez praised the 400,000 United Methodists who have made mission trips. “We’re all trying to respond to the call to be in ministry to the poor. One way is by getting dirty, putting our work boots on and cleaning up after disasters, working with those who have lost everything. And ‘with’ is the key word.”
The bishop also introduced a video describing the work done by the denomination among the Roma people in Hungary.
Bishop Thomas Bickerton walked onto the stage carrying a large insecticide-treated bed net, saying,
“Sometime in the near future this net will be given to a family in Africa, and for the first time they will feel safe. This net will be the one millionth net from The United Methodist Church!”
The bishop said that in Africa he’s acquired a nickname, ‘Mr. Malaria,’ doing “this work that I do day in and day out. … When The United Methodist Church began this global health journey four years ago, a child died every 30 seconds. Now it’s every 60 seconds. Still, one death from this preventable disease is one too many.”
Bickerton announced two new partners in the war on malaria, Variety magazine and retired basketball star Shaquille O’Neal.
Beatrice Gbanga, a missionary in Sierra Leone, reported that they are starting United Methodist churches there “simply because we care enough to provide bed nets.”
Bickerton also brought on stage two youngsters from East Ohio who sold lemonade to raise money for bed nets. Logan Martins, age 11, said, “If we all get together we can wipe malaria out.” He also applauded the reduction by half of the worldwide malaria death rate, but asked, “Why can’t it be never?”
“There’s still so much that needs to be done,” concluded Bickerton. “But millions of lives have been saved because you care.”
Developing Christian leaders
Developing the next generation of leadership is an extension of John Wesley’s original Methodist movement, said Bishop Grant Hagiya.
“Leadership is at the core of discipleship and defines our future as United Methodists,” said Hagiya. “There are a lot of definitions, but leadership is a noun, not a verb. It’s what we do, or not do. When you think of leadership as an action word, we think of it in terms of effective results. We are constantly looking for those leaders who will enable us to grow and be vital in God’s mission to the world.”
Hagiya recounted that “at a seminary gathering, a student asked me ‘How will UMC help me stay passionate about my ministry?’ What a great question! … That question continues to haunt me. Will the church continue to be a place where our passions thrive? I don’t have an answer. But I do know that this is the time to experiment wildly at every level of the church!”
New places for young people
Bishop Mike Lowry held up a brick and said that when people used to talk of new church starts, they talked about brick-and-mortar churches. Since the last General Conference, there have been 612 churches started in the United States, Lowry said, to exceed 650 by the end of the year. More than half of those are racial/ethnic congregations, he said, “meeting in borrowed spaces, homes, schools.”
Lowry highlighted the Urban Village church in Chicago, which is “people-focused before being property-focused. … They go wherever people gather to share the gospel. The church meets in three sites and, get this, plans to add seven more in the coming years.”
Lowry said that the denomination continues to add new faith communities in places like Central Asia, the Nordic countries and the Philippines, at an average of 12 a month. “This is the connection at its best.”
“Cookie-cutter approaches simply do not work. Each of these new places for new people has their own unique fingerprint,” Lowry added, “but the common DNA is the sharing of the gospel of Christ’s grace in love, justice and mercy, meeting people where they are. … Methodism has again become a grassroots movement in sharing the love of Christ.”
Lowry showed a video about Denver’s After Hours church, which meets Monday nights in pubs around town, where members “dip their toe” in the mission field by making peanut butter sandwiches to distribute to homeless people in a park.
In addition to the Four Focus Areas of ministry, General Conference delegates also heard about a number of other key program initiatives on Sunday night
“Tonight I’ve heard some of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard in a long time and I’m proud to be a United Methodist,” said Bishop Bickerton.
*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate and a member of the United Methodist News Service team at General Conference.
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