Last week, from August 6 to 9, I was blessed to be able to attend a convocation of progressive United Methodists in San Antonio called Gather at the River. It was both super fun and an inspiring, educational, and spiritually nurturing few days. Much like with my Global Mission Fellows training last month, a blog post can’t really explain the experience or fully do it justice, but I will try to share some highlights and some thoughts.
I heard about Gather at the River some time last semester from a flyer posted outside our chaplain’s office on campus. It was to be an event hosted by the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) and the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). MFSA is a United Methodist agency that serves as a voice and a force for social justice. The agency has a fascinating history, and they currently focus on “issues of peace, poverty, people’s rights and progressive initiatives.” RMN is the group behind the movement for the full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, and for the recognition of the lives and identities and relationships of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people as worthy and sacred.
When I saw the poster, I briefly dreamed about attending a convocation that would feature many people I admire and would concern many issues I care deeply about, and then I wistfully pushed it out of my mind. After all, it was going to be a busy summer for me, and how would I have gotten all the way to Texas, anyway? I resolved to follow the event on Twitter.
Then, early this summer, I got word that the Baltimore-Washington Area Reconciling United Methodists (BWARM) were offering a scholarship for a young adult to attend the convocation free of expenses. I peeked at the dates again and was excited to see that the convocation happened to fall within the only few weeks of the entire summer that I would be free. Imagining how knowledge and experiences gained at the convo could enrich my service in Philadelphia, I sent an email applying for the scholarship, and the wonderful Mittie Quinn, chair of BWARM, told me that I had been chosen to receive the scholarship. (This continued a theme for me of benefiting from the beautiful support and generosity of United Methodist groups invested in ministering with and equipping young adults in the church. I will probably write more about this at some point.)
On to the actual event! The theme for the convo was the idea of gathering for fellowship and renewal and worship at a river, inspired by the location (blocks from the San Antonio River) and the scripture Revelation 22:15:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and God’s servants will worship God; they will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
Reverend Grace Imathiu, who led some of the most engaging and entertaining and thought-provoking bible studies I have ever participated in, led us in a study of this scripture. She spoke of the book of Revelation as a “spoiler,” a chance to look ahead to the last chapter. When we do the hard work of participating in God’s mission of justice and peace, we become very aware of how much injustice there is and how difficult the work is. We can get tired and frustrated and start to feel like our work isn’t making enough of a difference. But when we feel that way, we can renew our hope by flipping ahead to the last chapter, and reading about a world where justice prevails, where the sinful structures have been reversed, where there is healing and beloved community.
This idea went with us as we worshiped, learned, and discussed every day of the convo. On the second day, there was time to attend two workshops. There were dozens of workshops to choose from, with topics from the impact of the Israeli occupation on the lives of Palestinians, to getting your church involved in the Reconciling movement for LGBTQ inclusion, to strategies of nonviolent direct action as a tool for change. I attended “Ending Mass Incarceration – Get Your Church/Campus Involved.” It caught by eye because I had learned that mass incarceration is one of the injustices that affects the people of Philadelphia particularly– in fact, Philadelphia ranks third among US cities in the number of Black men incarcerated. The workshop was sponsored by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and was led by Texas Advocates for Justice. We had a great discussion about how mass incarceration is an intersectional issue, related to racial justice, immigration justice, access to mental health treatment, economic justice, and LGBTQ justice. Many of us were stunned (and quite embarrassed) to learn that, contrary to an assumption that slavery is illegal in the US, the 13th amendment to the Constitution allows for slavery as “a punishment for crime.” Translation: the prison system in the US is a legal, modern form of slavery. This should be especially disturbing to Christians, knowing that when anyone is in prison, Jesus is in prison, and that a core goal of the gospel is the release of prisoners. If you want to learn more about what mass incarceration has to do with racial justice, check out this video that we were shown at US-2 training in a session on how mass incarceration affects families:
The second workshop I attended was called “Hate, Hope and Religion in Africa and the USA.” It featured a panel of three awesome people involved in supporting LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex– the common acronym in Africa) rights activists in Africa. Dennis Akpona is originally from Nigeria, and currently works as the organizer for the African Central Conferences for Reconciling Ministries Network. Joseph Tolton is a New York pastor. Ann Craig is the former Director of Religion, Faith & Values at GLAAD. Both Joseph and Ann are directors for The Fellowship Global, an organization that supports LGBTI folks in Africa and supports “efforts to establish an open an affirming African Christian movement.” It was fascinating and moving to hear Dennis’s story of finding his life at risk in Nigeria where he was doing research on AIDS and HIV for the government. He found asylum in Chicago, and cofounded the Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Partners (CLASP), for others in similar situations. In addition to their work of saving lives, changing policies, and empowering LGBTI leaders in Africa, the panelists and their organizations are trying to dispel the myth that Africa and African Christianity are monolithically against LGBTI rights, an opinion held both by conservative Christians who accuse LGBT activists of racism and colonizing and disrespecting African religion and culture, and by progressives who condemn all of Africa as being irredeemably homophobic. The truth is that there are LGBTI communities all over Africa, many of which are growing and forming movements to advocate for their rights. In fact, the homophobia that is nevertheless strong in the continent is not indigenous, but is the product of historical Western Christian colonialism and missionary work, as well as the more recent deliberate intervention of US Christian figures like Scott Lively, Lou Engle, and Rick Warren. These three men were instrumental in developing and passing the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, which originally proposed that LGBT people be put to death, but then changed to condemn them to life in prison. Three respected Christian leaders (including the guy who wrote the beloved devotional “The Purpose Driven Life”) went into Uganda and preached fear and hate against one of the most vulnerable groups of people, calling for them to be killed… Obviously this is upsetting. And people in the West who are upset by this situation and want to do something to change it face the conflict of whether intervening as a Westerner in justice issues in Africa makes us just as guilty of colonialism. Ann Craig (who recognizes that her whiteness is a strange factor in her activism), when asked about this conflict, said: “Don’t avoid being involved in Africa to avoid being colonialist. You are already involved in Africa by virtue of being a US citizen and a member of the group of people who call ourselves Christians.” To learn more about what it’s like to be an LGBT advocate in Uganda, check out John Oliver’s interview with Pepe Julian Onziema, a Ugandan transgender activist who I heard about through my friend Elise, who worked with him. If you want to take Ann’s advice to heart, I would advise against Oliver’s intervention strategy:
Gather at the River was the first conference-type event that I have attended alone. I had people I was connected to beforehand, like the BWARM folks, but lacking a built-in buddy freed me to connect with new people, something I hadn’t experienced to a great extent at past conferences. Almost every time I sat down for a meal or a worship service or a workshop, I made a new friend. This made for fascinating conversations, lots of spontaneous learning, a growing awareness of how different United Methodists are affected personally by the social justice issues we discussed (particularly LGBTQ inclusion), and the realization that apparently all United Methodists know each other??!?!! I started name dropping whenever I would meet someone new on the off chance that we had mutual friends, and almost always had a hit, whether it was an alumn of the American University Methodist community, a former AU Methodist intern, a Global Ministries team member, or some other connection. The most common and the most exciting reaction, though, was the way so many people would light up when they heard that I would be working with Deaconess Darlene DiDomineck and Rev. Robin Hynicka at Arch Street UMC. It was encouraging to learn that my new church home has such a reputation for justice-seeking.