Storms, nets, worldwide assembly dominate 2008 for United Methodists


By Kathy L. Gilbert
United Methodist News Service

Despite devastating storms, a disappointing economy and declining membership, United Methodists found many reasons for joy and celebration in 2008.

Insecticide-treated bed nets will keep millions of children in Africa safe from malaria due to generous donations from United Methodist congregations, organizations and individuals around the world.

The United Methodist Church joined with other partners in the anti-malaria campaign Nothing But Nets in 2006. Since that time, the campaign has raised more than $23 million and distributed more than 2 million nets across Africa.

The church's Texas Annual Conference alone raised more than $1 million for Nothing But Nets and helped distribute some 855,000 nets free of charge during a health campaign in 18 health districts in Côte d’Ivoire. The Nov. 11-15 campaign included nationwide free vaccinations against measles, de-worming tablets and doses of vitamin A to strengthen immune systems.

2008 General Conference
During the denomination’s top legislative gathering last spring, United Methodists vowed the church and its congregations would nurture the poor, sick and lost across the globe.

The 2008 General Conference met for 10 days in Fort Worth, Texas, and delegates voted to focus on engaging in ministry with the poor; creating new places for new people and renewing existing congregations; stamping out diseases of poverty by improving health globally; and developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.

In a conference more focused on the world outside the U.S. than in previous years, Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a United Methodist and the first female president of an African nation, delivered the keynote address. The Hope for Africa Children’s Choir of Uganda, made up mostly of children from displaced persons’ camps, brought delegates to their feet with energetic singing and dancing.

The United Methodist Church in Côte d’Ivoire, the largest regional conference of the worldwide denomination with almost 700,000 members, received its full rights and responsibilities.

African delegates also were at the center of a controversy when members of the Renewal and Reform Coalition provided 150 free cell phones to delegates from the church's central conferences, which lie outside the U.S. Some charged the coalition with using the phones to sway votes, while members of the group said the phones were provided to give the central conference delegates the same access to communications and material as U.S. delegates.

The worldwide assembly also approved a $642 million budget for the next four years, created a hymnal revision committee and generally retained the church’s stances on homosexuality.

Prayers for the world
United Methodists hailed the election of the first U.S. African-American president as a "gift" to the world and a bridge-builder among cultures, social orders and national ideologies.

The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries was able, for the first time in many years, to reach out to the people of Cuba when the U.S. granted the agency two licenses for relief work. The licenses will allow the United Methodist Committee on Relief to provide short- and long-term assistance to Cubans affected by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in September.

In Mozambique, a newly launched distance-learning center will help train future United Methodist leaders in Africa. After three years of planning, the Africa Training and Learning Center was dedicated in March as a satellite campus of Africa University, a United Methodist-related school in Zimbabwe.

United Methodists from five annual conferences attended a summit to discuss sending urgent help to the suffering people of Sudan. Days after the church's Holston Conference raised $185,934 for southern Sudan, a gathering was held to connect other United Methodists who want to serve in the same region. In November, a United Methodist youth group from Houston participated in "Tents for Hope," an international campaign calling for peace in Darfur.

United Methodists and other Christians participated in a worldwide day of prayer for Zimbabwe on June 22. UMCOR worked with Bishop Ivan Abraham and the Methodist Church in Southern Africa to help provide shelter and food in the Johannesburg area for refugees there, many from Zimbabwe.

UMCOR coordinated medicines and medical supplies through U.S. government-sponsored emergency airlifts to the conflict zone in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Rising water, swirling wind
Torrential rains, tornadoes, cyclones, earthquakes and hurricanes left many dead and homeless in 2008, while the church's disaster relief agency stretched its resources to respond.

In February, a rare midwinter storm spawned tornadoes in the southern U.S. that killed dozens of people in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Families affected by the Feb. 5 tornadoes suffered an ice storm two weeks later and devastating floods in March.

In May and June, storms and subsequent flooding plagued Midwest states including Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Two major hurricanes — Gustav and Ike — roared through Haiti and Cuba and flattened parts of Louisiana and Mississippi already devastated from Katrina and Rita three years ago.

Louisiana residents spent Labor Day nervously watching trees and power lines fall as Gustav lashed the state with high winds and rain. Soon after, Ike damaged more than 100 United Methodist churches and parsonages in the denomination's Texas Conference.

The U.S. was not alone in cleaning up after disasters. Rain that began Christmas Day in Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe forced thousands from their homes in southern Africa.

The United Nations estimated that 2.4 million people were impacted by the May 3 cyclone in Myanmar, which left 134,000 people dead or missing. Following the cyclone, the government of Myanmar (Burma) blocked most foreign aid workers from assisting the survivors. A prolonged lack of access to relief supplies created a "second wave of disaster," according to Church World Service.

Ten days after a massive earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province on May 12, the death toll stood at 51,151, according to the Chinese government, with 288,431 injured and another 29,328 missing. The estimate of those left homeless by the quake is a staggering 5 million.

Guns and war
As the Iraq war entered its sixth year, the costs extend far beyond the more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and 600,000 Iraqis who have died in the violence. Thousands have been left wounded in their bodies, minds and souls — and face a lifetime of struggles related to the experience.

"I am deeply concerned about the returning troops and the mental and physical wounds they have sustained," said the Rev. Laura Bender, a United Methodist Navy chaplain who served in a field hospital in Iraq. "This all-volunteer force has borne the full weight of this war through multiple, back-to-back deployments and has done so at great cost."

General Conference approved a petition calling for an immediate end to the war.

The church also continued to help society grapple with the impact of violence, particularly a disturbing increase in shootings in schools and on college campuses in the U.S.

On Feb. 14, a 27-year-old graduate student at Northern Illinois University opened fire in a lecture hall on campus, killing five people and injuring 17 others before killing himself. One of those killed was Ryanne Mace, 19, granddaughter of two retired United Methodist pastors.

Two United Methodist agencies, disappointed with a U.S. Supreme Court decision on handgun ownership, urged church members to advocate for legislation that would tighten federal laws on gun control.

In a joint statement July 1, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and the Commission on Religion and Race said they were "deeply disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision to strip local municipalities of the right to enact sensible and necessary gun restriction laws." A week earlier, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that a Washington, D.C. ban on handgun ownership was unconstitutional.

Immigration raids separated families and crippled the economy in several U.S. states during 2008.

Iowa's United Methodist episcopal leader, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, responded to a May 12 raid that resulted in the arrests of nearly 400. He called for an end to raids and urged U.S. government leaders to pass a comprehensive immigration policy that recognizes the contributions of migrants to the U.S. economy and culture.

In Nashville, Juana Villegas’ trip to the doctor for a prenatal visit became a nightmare when, at nine months pregnant, she was stopped for a minor traffic violation, jailed and ended up giving birth to her son with two sheriff’s deputies standing guard. Villegas' story gained national attention after advocates for immigrants, including many United Methodists, began circulating e-mails about her arrest.

Issues of sexuality
While General Conference voted to retain its stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, numerous individuals, churches, conferences and jurisdictions took gay-friendly stances.

Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., changed its policy to recognize same-sex unions in special ceremonies that fall just short of an official wedding. In a pastoral letter to the congregation, the Rev. Dean Snyder announced his plan to begin leading services that "recognize and honor lesbian and gay committed relationships."

In an ecumenical service at a United Methodist church in Baltimore, Annie Britton and Jenna Zirbel received "extraordinary ordination" after being blocked from ordination as United Methodist ministers because one is a legally married lesbian and the other disagrees with church rules on homosexuality.

The Oct. 19 "ordinations" were called extraordinary because "they went against 'ordinary' policies in the United Methodist Church that deny ordination to otherwise qualified candidates because of sexual orientation or inclusive beliefs," according to the Church Within a Church Movement, sponsors of the service. The United Methodist Council of Bishops later said the "extraordinary ordination has no official status."

On the other U.S. coast, the church’s California-Nevada legislative assembly approved a resolution in June commending retired clergy who offered to perform same-sex weddings. A month later, Bishop Beverly J. Shamana later issued a ruling declaring the statement "void and of no effect." Meanwhile, an organizer of the retired clergy said the bishop’s ruling would not deter the pastors from performing the ceremonies.

In July, the church's Western Jurisdictional Conference approved four statements challenging the United Methodist stance on homosexuality. The statements were aimed at changing denominational policies and beliefs on human sexuality.

Economic woes, membership trends
While praying for the best, United Methodist finance leaders braced for the possibility of less as they awaited giving results for the final two months of 2008 during one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history.
Preliminary data shows that giving through local United Methodist churches stayed generally on target for the first 10 months of 2008—before the world's stock markets began a downward spiral. However, the full financial picture won’t become clear until late December and early January. Local churches, regional conferences and the general denomination typically receive 40 percent of their annual income in November and December.

The United Methodist Church, with almost 8 million U.S. members and 11.5 million members worldwide, continued to lose more members than it gained, with its parishioners increasingly moving to evangelical Protestant churches or choosing not to affiliate with another religious group at all. That portrait of United Methodism was presented in a landmark study of religion in America released in February by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Mirroring most other mainline U.S. denominations, United Methodists are generally older, whiter and wealthier in a nation that is increasingly populated with young adults, people of color and families with modest incomes, according to studies.

Bush Foundation, Indiana Conference, temperance dispute
Following almost two years of debate, the George W. Bush Presidential Center appears poised to be built on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The church's South Central Jurisdictional Conference, which owns the campus, voted 158-118 in July to affirm the private school's lease for the Bush library, museum and policy institute. The jurisdiction's executive committee, called the mission council, initially gave the green light in 2007 to lease the land to the Bush Foundation.

Critics had questioned whether protocol was followed, as well as the appropriateness of the center's placement on the campus of SMU. But in August, Oklahoma Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr. ruled that a request for a decision of law about SMU's right to lease the property is "improper, moot and hypothetical."

In Indiana, clusters and cooperation were the touchstones for a new streamlined Indiana Conference approved by more than 2,000 United Methodist Hoosiers in a special session in October. The uniting of the South and North Indiana conferences comes at the conclusion of more than two years of work by task forces and a team made of clergy and lay members from both conferences to streamline the administrative structure and place resources closer to local churches.

Meanwhile, a decades-old story of money, temperance and power is winding its way through a District of Columbia court, and the ending may affect the future work of The United Methodist Church’s Board of Church and Society, the church's social advocacy agency. A superior court judge is weighing testimony and reading reams of historic documents to determine if donations given for the construction of The Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in the early 1900s were intended for work in temperance and alcohol only. A decision is not expected until early 2009.

Bishops elected
The year also was highlighted by election of United Methodist bishops, which are the denomination's top clergy leaders.

In the United States, delegates elected and assigned eight new bishops and re-assigned the rest during jurisdictional meetings held in five regions in July. It was an often-intense week as delegates worked to fill leadership vacancies created by seven retirements, one resignation and a death.

Elsewhere in the world, the Rev. Joaquina Filipe Nhanala was elected in July as the first female United Methodist bishop in Africa. Nhanala, 51, was the pastor of Matola United Methodist Church in Mozambique and succeeded Bishop João Somane Machado, who retired as the leader of the Mozambique area.

Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa was re-elected to lead the denomination’s Zimbabwe area in a nation challenged by political and economic upheaval.

United Methodist Bishop David Kekumba Yemba was re-elected to oversee the church's Central Congo Area after four years of service. With his re-election, he is now a bishop for life.

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, 53, was re-elected to lead the church's 65,000 German United Methodists in 500 congregations.

United Methodists in the Philippines elected two new bishops and re-elected a third while celebrating their 100th anniversary as an annual conference. Elected were the Rev. Rodolfo Alfonso Juan and the Rev. Lito Cabacungan Tangonan, while Bishop Leo Soriano was re-elected.

United Methodist Bishop Kefas K. Mavula of Nigeria died in January of an undetermined illness, less than a year after his election as bishop. He was 40.

Martha Cooper "Twick" Morrison, 76, a champion of racial justice and reconciliation in Mississippi and across The United Methodist Church, died in February at home in Vicksburg with her family, following a 20-month battle with lung cancer.

Bishop Homer Ellis Finger Jr., a former president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and a Mississippi native, died in May from heart failure. Finger, 91, of Givens Estates in Asheville, N.C., was elected to the episcopacy in 1964 and served in the denomination’s Nashville Area for 12 years and the Holston Area, based in Knoxville, for eight years.

United Methodist Bishop Ernest W. Newman, the church's first African-American elected bishop in the southeastern United States, died in August in Atlanta at age 80. He served as bishop over the church's Nashville Area from 1984 until his retirement in 1992.

The Rev. Harry Long, a Muscogee Creek Indian, retired pastor and respected United Methodist leader on issues related to Native Americans, died in early December at age 87 in Muskogee, Okla.

Bishop Ralph Edward Dodge died in August at age 101. He was the church's last white bishop in Zimbabwe and an outspoken advocate for justice during that country’s colonial era.