By Woody Woodrick
FORT WORTH, Texas -- For Ashley Hewitt, the 2008 United Methodist General Conference provided an opportunity to see theory turned into action.
Hewitt attended the legislative event for several days as an extension of a Millsaps College class on United Methodism.
"It has been very eye-opening more than anything," Hewitt said of seeing delegates set policy and ministry goals for the next four years. "I had been to annual conferences before, but this is more intense in a wonderful way. You can see how things happen in real time."
Hewitt attended the conference with the Rev. Lisa Garvin, a United Methodist deacon and chaplain at Millsaps. This semester, Garvin and T.W. Lewis taught "At the Extreme Middle: Doctrine and Teachings of The United Methodist Church." Garvin said the course is offered every two or three years at the United Methodist-related college in Jackson, Miss. The goal is to offer the course often enough that any student has the opportunity to take it during four years at Millsaps.
As it turns out, the class was offered during a term leading up to the April 23-May 2 General Conference gathering. "Fort Worth is within driving distance and this is what we studied," Garvin said. "I think it was important for students to see the process in action."
Hewitt, who graduates from Millsaps on May 10, was the only student able to attend, however, because the conference coincided with the final week of class and exams. She and Garvin arrived April 26 and stayed through April 29. They also represented Millsaps at the Higher Education and Ministry dinner held April 28.
Hewitt, the daughter of a United Methodist pastor, said the conference made a strong impression.
"Being here and experiencing the differences where both sides (of an issue) are so impassioned and both believe to their core they are living out God's will has been humbling," she said. "That is one of the best experiences I will take home from this."
Hewitt of Mandeville, La., is the daughter of the Rev. Pattye Hewitt, who serves Slidell (La.) First United Methodist Church.
An aspiring teacher, Hewitt said she's been pleasantly surprised at how committees dealing with issues related to homosexuality can debate intensely without animosity. "It's so easy to think the person on the other side of any issue is so ignorant," she said.
However, she said it was clear that those in the debates believe they are living out God's will, just as she does.
Hewitt said most of the Millsaps class focused on Wesleyan history and doctrine. Her classroom discussions enabled her to recognize that many who speak of "Wesleyan heritage" don't really know what it means.
"So often delegates say, ‘I don't think this is Wesleyan,' and I think, ‘That's not what we learned,'" Hewitt said. "People are claiming things in the name of Wesley, but sometimes they don't really know if it is or not."
Hewitt admits she had only limited knowledge of Wesleyan history before taking the class but thought she would be well-versed in more current history.
Taking the class on Methodism helped to strengthen her faith, Hewitt said, because it allowed her to take a step back and see the big picture. She said having passion about a subject can sometimes cloud one's view of other matters. "One issue does not make The United Methodist Church," she said.
Attending General Conference can be confusing for any first-time participant -- both observers and delegates -- but the class helped Hewitt prepare. "We learned a good bit about what it takes to get things passed. It was good preparation for coming to General Conference," she said.
Hewitt was also ready for the politics she witnessed. "I was in high school the first time I encountered (church politics), and I was devastated," she said. "My mother looked at me and said the church is made up of people.
"Now I find that is one of the more beautiful aspects of the church -- it is people and they have passion. But at the end of the day, we are all United Methodists."