General Conference 2008 opens with worship
On the 40th anniversary to the day of the creation of The United Methodist Church, and within 40 miles of where it happened, United Methodists from 129 annual conferences and 50 countries gathered at the Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center for the start of the 2008 General Conference.
More than 6,500 people filled the arena Wednesday night for a two-hour worship service. The rousing worship featured praise bands, a full orchestra, choirs, music, prayers and Scripture in many tongues, and symbols of the Christian faith using ordinary elements of glass, wood, bread, fruit of the vine and water.
Bishops Gregory Palmer, Iowa Area, and Janice Riggle Huie, Houston Area, led the service of Holy Communion, with the Lord's Prayer being offered by each worshipper in his or her own native language.
Gathering around a table in the middle of the nearly 1,000 delegates seated on the arena floor, the gospel was read, the bread broken and the cup poured out.
The wood used to create the pulpit, the altar and the table was taken from the "hallowed grounds" of Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss., noted McFee at the start of the worship service.
Amid the pageantry, pomp and circumstance as bishops, banners and believers bedecked the arena, Bishop Huie's sermon sounded a clear call that, even in the midst of a world filled with AIDS, malaria, violence, global climate change and fear, United Methodists are called to live a life with hope - resurrection hope.
Preaching from Romans 8:18-28, Bishop Huie said that today, the word "hope" was becoming a "marshmallow word. It sounds soft. It looks sweet and appealing. Get it close to the fire, and hope melts off the stick and drips on the ground."
Interrupted by applause on several occasions, Bishop Huie said that hope is not only the theme of this 2008 General Conference, it is the "nerve center" of the Christian life.
"It is impossible to live without hope," she said. "Show me someone without hope and I will show you someone who is either dead or so desperate that they are capable of the most awful violence."
"Resurrection hope transforms lives and changes the future," the bishop said. "Tonight, through us, the people of The United Methodist Church gather around this table filled with resurrection hope.
"Hope is the nerve center of the Christian life," said Bishop Huie. "Love is the heart. Faith is the muscle. It is impossible to live without hope."
Ward expresses hope for General Conference
In e-mail E-pistles sent from Fort Worth, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward shared her hopes and thoughts on the opening day of General Conference:
"Last month, I was asked by Newscope to reflect upon my hopes for General Conference and these sentences came forth from my spirit.
"Tonight, as General Conference begins, I continue to carry this hope onward:
"We gather in Fort Worth as God's people, like-minded. Infinitely more unites us than divides us. We can have high hopes for the conversations at the water fountain, for the dialogue over meals, for the personal connections made, for the friendships that will be established. It is in these moments that the connection will be enlivened.
"Perhaps this is the General Conference when we will discover the need for an spacious way forward, a way marked by more dialogue and fewer decisions, more silence and less noise, more mystery and less clarity, more humility and less certainty, more attentiveness and less insistence.
"In this General Conference, may we do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God."
Delegates oriented on 'hows' and 'whys'
The "hows" and "whys" of the General Conference were the focus of several special orientations on April 23 before the opening evening worship of the legislative body.
Orientations were offered for delegates from countries outside the United States as well as for women delegates, racial and ethnic minority delegates and delegates under the age of 30.
In the morning, a ballroom full of international delegates was ringed by a half-dozen people translating basic information about General Conference into German, French, Portuguese, Swahili, Spanish, Russian and Korean.
Church can be key to fighting AIDS crisis, speakers say
When it comes to solving the global AIDS/HIV crisis it is time to "pray and pay," said the Rev. Donald Messer, author of Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence--Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis.
Messer shared the sobering statistics of the virus during the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee's "Lighten the Burden II" event at First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, April 22.
On the eve of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination has only raised $2.5 million of an $8 million commitment made in 2004 to help put a stop to the world's greatest health crisis, according to the executive director of an ecumenical global AIDS action network.
The $8 million goal established by the 2004 General Conference represented a $1 commitment from every United Methodist in the United States. Messer, executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, reported as of 2008, 32 of 63 United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in the United States have not contributed anything to the fund.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward has designated the 2008 Mississippi Annual Conference Mission Offering for the UM Global AIDS Fund.
Messer said raising funds has been hampered by fear, theological taboos and stigma surrounding the epidemic.
Bishop Joao Somane Machado, episcopal leader of the Mozambique Annual Conference, told seminar participants he lives with the consequences of the diseases of poverty - AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis and malaria - every day.
In Mozambique, the epidemic has reduced life expectancy from 41 years in 1999 to 38.1 years in 2004. Millions of children are orphans because one or both of their parents have died from the virus.
"Millions of people have nothing to eat," he said. "They can't take medicine when they have nothing to eat because it becomes a poison." The drugs used to treat AIDS/HIV are harsh on a person's system and cannot be taken on an empty stomach.
Rev. Shane Stanford told the gathering his first-hand experiences as a "person living with AIDS." Stanford, a hemophiliac, got AIDS from a blood transfusion when he was 16. When his doctor told him he was HIV positive he said he had to make a choice to live or die.
"I decided to fight."
Stanford (right) has faced many obstacles because of his disease. A Mississippi church rejected him as their pastor when they learned that he was HIV positive. That congregation later apologized for its action.
He is the teaching pastor for Main Street United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., and is host of The United Methodist Hour's Time That Makes the Difference, a television program airing in more than 5 million homes weekly.
"We all deal with some condition, we all have broken edges," said Stanford. "We can't do everything but everyone can do something."
Kay Warren, an author and AIDS activist, told participants, "God has a plan, and God intends the church to be the answer" to the AIDS/HIV crisis.
"The church is the missing link and must take a seat at the table to solve the problem," she said.
Warren started the HIV/AIDS Initiative at Saddleback Church, a Lake Forest, Calif., church where weekly attendance exceeds 22,000. She began the initiative after she read an article describing the effects of AIDS and how 12 million children had been orphaned by the crisis. "I wondered what was wrong with my faith when so many were suffering and I didn't know anyone with HIV/AIDS."
"Six years ago, I didn't care about HIV/AIDS," she said. "I thought it was a gay man's disease and therefore I didn't have to care. I am embarrassed to admit that."
She said she became a "gloriously ruined woman" when she learned about the millions who are suffering and dying.
"I hope that shatters you, too," she said. "We have to be seriously disturbed before we are compelled to do anything."
The Hope for Africa Children's Choir from Kampala, Uganda, performed during the event. "The children were all orphaned and ill and hungry before being gathered in by our church," said Bishop Ward.
Warren outlined how every local church can get involved and "crawl, walk or run" to stop the HIV/AIDS virus from killing millions more.
General Conference convenes every four years and is the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church. The 2008 conference runs April 23 through May 2. For more information, go to www.gc2008umc.org.