By Woody Woodrick
Mississippi United Methodists were challenged to do more than talk about loving God Monday night.
Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa challenged those attending the 19th session of the Mississippi Annual Conference to put their love for God into action.
“At this Annual Conference, we need to move beyond words into action as we respond to God’s call to arise, shine, rejoice,” he said, invoking the conference theme. “Our hearts have not been warmed if it doesn’t lead to an extended hand of welcome.”
Abrahams spoke at the annual Mission Service, which also featured children and youth of the conference.
It was Abrahams’ second sermon of the day. Earlier he preached the Memorial Service.
The day started with members of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi joining United Methodists for Holy Communion. Episcopal Bishop Duncan M. Gray III preached the sermon.
The second day of the conference, held at Jackson’s Christ UMC, also saw four lay delegates and three clergy delegates elected to represent the conference at the 2008 General Conference.
Abrahams recounted how Jesus’ mission was to the poor, outcast and disabled. He said those we often seek to exclude were the ones Jesus sought to include.
A popular Christian song talks about the light of Jesus’ face making the things of the world grow dim. Abrahams takes a different view.
“When I turned my eyes upon Jesus, it introduced me to his friends,” he said. “They were those struggling against apartheid. They were the poor. The things of the world didn’t grow dim; they became abundantly clear.”
Abrahams challenged the Mississippi Conference to always be in service to the poor and weak, saying that failing to do so puts one’s faith in question.
“We may not be a poor church, but we must be a church of, with and for the poor,” he said. “We can be the hope for the world by going where Jesus would go and doing what Jesus would do.”
Three youth – Amber Burke, Callie Stewart and LaKeadra Coffey – shared some of their experiences from the recent youth trip to Zimbabwe, part of the Chabadza Covenant between United Methodists in Mississippi and Zimbabwe signed at the 2006 Annual Conference. “Chabadza” is a Shona word meaning to join someone already at work.
The mission offering collected Monday night raised $97,325.05 for youth and children’s ministries in Mississippi and Zimbabwe. Sunday night’s offering to support ministerial education raised $6,214.
Most of the day’s business was given over to hearing reports of various ministries and working toward electing delegates to General Conference, which will be held April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth.
Lay delegates elected include Turner Arant, David L. Beckley, David Stotts and Bill Smallwood. Clergy elected include Steve McDonald, Joe May and Bill McAlilly. The laity took four ballots, while the clergy took five.
Arant, Beckley and Smallwood are all veteran delegates. Beckley was a delegate to the 1996, 2000 and 2004 General conferences. Smallwood served at the 1992, 2000 and 2004 events, while Arant was elected for the 2000 and 2004 conferences.
Arant was elected on the first ballot. The other three were elected on the third ballot.
All of the clergy delegates are repeat choices. The Rev. Steve McDonald, who has been appointed to Meridian Central UMC after serving as Greenwood District superintendent, was elected on the second clergy ballot. May, pastor at Anderson UMC in Jackson, and McAlilly, the Seashore District superintendent, were chosen on the fourth clergy ballot.
Bishop Gray called the effort to build stronger ties between the Episcopal and United Methodist churches a “radical, counter-cultural act.”
“We live in a culture divided in every single way,” he said. “Even worse is that we encourage that division.”
Gray said the desire for division is the “manifestation of the Evil One’s desire to convince us that we do not need each other.” The bishop called on those in attendance to bring themselves as churches to the communion altar.
He said he can understand church members having questions about building ties with another denomination.
“Methodists are saying ‘with all of their internal conflicts, why do we want to move closer to that crazy Episcopal Church?’ Episcopalians say, ‘Grape juice?’” he said, referring to the use of grape juice in United Methodist communion instead of wine.
“It is a foolish and risky thing we do today, but it is a God-commanded thing we do as well. May God’s peace, God’s spirit upon us guide us through our common walk in the fellowship of God’s holy spirit. May God not merely warm, but inflame, our hearts with the power and courage and vision to be God’s instruments of grace, healing and hope in a world that probably will never understand what we do,” he said.
An afternoon report on Safe Sanctuaries prompted a lengthy debate. After accepting a report from a task force created to establish a conference-wide policy to protect children, youth and vulnerable adults in churches, the matter was called for reconsideration. After discussion, an amendment was offered and approved changing the title and thrust of the report from a requirement at the local level to guidelines. Some members questioned whether the requirements of the policy were attainable by small-membership churches.