Rev. Byron Harris: Hear now our focus text for annual conference from 1 Corinthians, the 16th Chapter, the 13th and the 14th verse.
“Stay awake, stand firm in your faith, be brave, be bold, everything should be done in love.”
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky: To the Greater Northwest shared sessions of the annual conferences of Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences, I’m Elaine Stanovsky, the bishop of the area. It’s with mixed feelings that I face retirement at the end of this year, but with hopeful anticipation of who will become new bishops in the Western Jurisdiction and across the church, to lead us into the future.
So, this is perhaps my last Episcopal Address.
The United Methodist Church has been struggling to move forward after a contentious General Conference in 2019 that put us on a path towards separation into incompatible factions that could no longer live together. Just as we were on the threshold of a global pandemic that no one could see coming, that interrupted every decision-making process of the denomination, and turned the attention of almost all church leaders to the task of learning how to offer online worship and do meetings by Zoom; how to provide pastoral care over the phone or through a window.
And here we are today, with the tension unresolved, the process largely paused as we wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to subside enough to allow the global church to gather at a General Conference. In the Greater Northwest, we are not processing local church requests for disaffiliation this year but we are committed to seeking fair separations due to disagreements about human sexuality before the end of the 2023 deadline for the current provisions.
The ministries of our conference have focused on several priorities during the past year. First, as we’ve mentioned, COVID-19. You may recall that we were scheduled to meet together as three conferences in Puyallup, Washington at the Washington State Fairgrounds, in June of 2020. That didn’t happen. We’ve had virtual conferences for now three years, and the pandemic isn’t over. Two of our executive staff developed COVID this week; Brant Henshaw, treasurer of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska Conferences and Carlo Rapanut, my executive assistant during this transition year in Alaska.
But here we are, a few in person in the room, testing every day, each one of us masking or maintaining distance as best we can. And you you have been amazing finding ways to keep in touch, to care for the suffering, to honor the dead, to listen to God, to respond in faith, for now, two and a half years. It has been a burden, no one has escaped the burden. I pray that we will be able to continue to find a new normal that both protects public health but allows more human contact as we move forward. Hurray for vaccines for young children this week!
I want to thank again as I did last year and the year before the COVID Response Team, which meant so faithfully and offered such strong leadership to us during especially the early days of the pandemic, but also as circumstances changed over time. Truly, I am convinced that you saved lives by your wise guidance. And great appreciation, again, I have to name Becky Platt, a lay member in Idaho, who brought her incredible data management skills to bear and produced weekly risk assessments for each church in four states of our area.
Innovation and Vitality has been a focus of the Greater Northwest since before I came in 2016. Innovation occurs at the intersection of difference, Leroy Barber reminds the cabinet over and over and many of you in a variety of settings.
Let me tell you about a happy intersection of difference. Do you know that Methodist missionaries arrived in the island kingdom of Tonga in the Pacific in 1822? Methodist missionary Jason Lee first arrived at Fort Vancouver in the Greater Northwest in 1835. Did you get that? 1822 in Tonga; 1835 in the Greater Northwest. Methodism was warmly received by the Tongan people, not so much in the northwest. Tongan Methodists are our elders in faith. Many Tongans have migrated since those days to New Zealand, Australia, United States in search of education and economic opportunity, taking their Methodism with them and becoming part of the Methodist connection wherever they took on new homes, wherever they made their new homes.
When the news of the volcanic eruption near Tonga came in January, our siblings at the Lents Tongan Fellowship in Portland immediately went to work collecting supplies and donations to send to their relatives whose lives were upended and uprooted by this natural disaster. In April, Portland television station KPTV, caught up with Pastor Fungalei Taufoou and his congregation as they were preparing to send a shipping container, the first shipping container from their church full of supplies. It’s an inspiring story, and I want you to hear it.
News Report: It has been more than three months since an underwater volcanic eruption caused the tsunami and devastated the island of Tonga. And our local Tongan community hasn’t stopped gathering supplies for those who are left with next to nothing. Fox 12’s Drew Marine spoke with a local church who needs your support.
The Lents Tongan Fellowship United Methodist Church is trying to fill this truck with essentials like food and water because there are still so many Tongans struggling to get by.
This container, of course, it’s gonna, it’s going to help them at least feed them a couple of months.
Members of the Lents Tongan Fellowship United Methodist Church have been hard at work filling boxes with much-needed supplies to send to Tonga months after a tsunami devastated the island. Pastor Fungalei Taufoou’s in-laws are still there and members of the church have family on the island too. He says it was tough for everyone to be so far away.
It’s hard, especially the, you know, the first couple of days after, you know the tsunami actually happened because there was no connection. No, no communications. And they try to keep the calm and the peace. You know, families here were very concerned about you know what was going on. You know, in the island.
They’ve been collecting items for a week now filling a box truck with almost $80,000 worth of food and other supplies. But Taufoou says they’re still taking donations in the 11th hour before the truck ships out Thursday.
Sugar, can fish, peanut butter, mayonnaise, corn, beans, soda, waters, clothes, diapers, shoes. Right now they need help. Right now they need help, they need food. Anything that, you know anything helps.
If you’d like to make a last-minute donation you can come by their church on SE 97th Avenue. In Southeast Portland, Drew Marine, Fox 12 Oregon.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky: That was just the beginning and those efforts have continued and you’ll hear more about them later this evening and on through the week. But you know, intersections of difference are not always happy. There aren’t always good stories. They aren’t always happy places and everything that happens at those intersections is not always healthy, or liberating. The Innovation Vitality work led by the IV team has predictably not been troubled free. It intentionally encourages existing churches that are in decline, to step out of their familiar habits and preferences to engage new, younger, different people in their communities. Turns out that encouragement can put people at intersections of difference that cause conflict. And that conflict can do harm to people and relationships.
But learning to navigate the tensions is part of the change and the growth that we need to continue to be a vital church. Resistance to change comes because many of us, maybe most of us, don’t want to admit that what we are used to doing isn’t working anymore. And we don’t want to have to change ourselves in order to build new relationships. We don’t want to admit that we’re frankly comfortable with racial inequality, that the letters LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC make us uneasy.
IV Team lead William Gibson resigned in March, after developing an area-wide approach to new and renewing ministry development across the area alongside Leroy Barber and Kristina Gonzalez. We will be forever indebted to him for his innovative and bold work. Since his resignation, Kristina Gonzalez has stepped in as Executive Director of Innovation and Vitality working alongside Leroy Barber and the rest of the IV staff to continue support for existing projects and to strengthen the work based upon the learnings from past experience. I’d like you to hear Kristina say a little bit about the work that she’s moving into.
Kristina Gonzalez: Hi, everyone, I’m coming to you from Portland First United Methodist Church, where we’ve just concluded a five-month process to support the congregation in receiving its first pastor of color, whom Bishop Elaine Stanovsky intends to appoint as of July 1 for Portland First. And that is the person of Rev. Karyn Richards Kuan. It’s been a delight to be with this congregation and to work with its leaders in the area of intercultural competency. Many of you know that this is my passion. And this is the work of many years in The United Methodist Church.
So I also come to you with a new title in a new position. Bishop Stanovsky has assigned me the position of Executive Director for Innovation and Vitality, to lead the next iteration of our innovation vitality work for the work of new plants and our existing congregations. I’m delighted by this and honored that Bishop Stanovsky would invest in me in this way and to move forward the work of innovation vitality in our Greater Northwest Area.
We’re working on a change theory. So this won’t be a surprise to you that this change theory’s foundation is in inclusion, in intercultural competency, moving forward to innovation and multiplication. So let me say a little bit more about that. It’s kind of an if/then statement. If we are interculturally competent, if our ministries if our leadership, if our church expressions of work in the community, are about listening to our neighbors, then we have greater opportunity to listen for those innovations that come at the intersection of difference. You’ll notice this from the work of Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, the Director of Innovation for an Engaged Church. So he says that innovation comes at that intersection of difference and so opening ourselves through the work of intercultural competency and inclusion to those differences then moves us into spaces where we might find that innovation occurring. If we’re innovative, then we have the opportunity to multiply our partnerships in community, to look at new ways of engaging, to find those places where God is already at work, and to move those forward in the way that Jesus modeled for us in many of the gospel stories.
This leaning into the change theory will be our next iteration of innovation vitality work, and I will be so honored to be at the lead in this along with my colleagues whose passion is in this area as well. So, thank you, Bishop Stanovsky, for the opportunity to do this work. And I look forward to working with all of you in many of the same ways, as I’ve just worked with this wonderful congregation at Portland First.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky: It is great to have Kristina on board and she’s off and running as you can see.
Beyond the IV work, though, the whole church, the whole nation, the whole world is wracked by conflicts at intersections of difference – racial and cultural differences; embedded systemic anti-black violence in America laid bare with a murder of George Floyd and reiterated time and again by so many other murders, especially at the hands of police, and by people acting out of racial bias and hatred. Hunted down in a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, by an admitted white supremacist supremacist, hate crimes targeting Muslims and Arabs post 911, hate crimes and harassment targeting Asians and Asian Americans during COVID-19.
And at the intersection of difference, we encounter gun violence. The big debate over gun policy reveals a deep divide between people who hold individual liberty as a core value, and those who hold the common good as a core value. Robb Elementary School, Uvalde, Texas. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome? More bigger, more powerful, unregulated, untraceable guns in the hands of teenagers, mentally ill persons, teachers, parents, as a strategy to curb gun violence?
I’ve been trying to think about gun violence through the lens of the Bible. There’s plenty of violence in the Bible – religious wars, invasions, occupations, atrocities, probably genocides. But beneath what is admittedly a violent history, the steady stream of biblical teaching is that people in society should live in ways that promote community health and peace. What are those five books of law at the beginning of the Bible all about if not guidance for how to live together in society for the good and survival of the whole community? Play Fair. Don’t lie, cheat or steal. Share what you have. Care for the poor. Honor your parents; happy Father’s Day. Honor your marriage. Welcome strangers. Eat healthy food. Live your life in the love of a creator who gave you the gift of life and pronounced it good.
Now, I know we don’t all agree about what the best way is to reduce gun violence in our country. I don’t know the answer. What I know is that what we are doing isn’t working. So, if we don’t want to continue to see kids and their teachers dead on the floor of their classrooms, we better try something new. One of our churches has an idea and they want to invite you to join them. Listen to the idea of Olympia First United Methodist Church.
Video from Olympia First: Every day in America, people are harmed by gun violence. Multiple mass shootings are reported each week. And guns are now the leading cause of death for children in the United States.
At First United Methodist Church in Olympia, Washington, we take seriously Jesus’ called to be peacemakers and John Wesley’s encouragement to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.
We believe that prayer must lead to action. One form that action can take is contacting our national legislators to request specific gun safety laws.
Young people are already joining together to raise awareness on the importance of gun control. As a student, the last thing on our minds when we are in school should be, will I be next?
In the past, the Pacific Northwest annual conference has adopted resolutions against gun violence, and have sent these to our US congressional representatives on our behalf.
Unfortunately, even though a letter from annual conference represents 1000s of Methodists, we’re told it only counts as a single letter.
However, if we each send individual letters, together, they become a message that cannot be ignored. With the assistance of the conference, we have established a new webpage, which will help you quickly write a personal letter to your congressional representatives. In the coming months, we will be using this page to provide links to other gun safety resources, including information about nonprofits committed to ending gun violence, resources for congregations and more.
We urge you to join with us as we advocate for gun safety laws that will protect us, the students.
Gun safety affects all of God’s beloved children.
Please use this webpage to help notify your congressional representatives. We hope you will join us in this important ministry.
If your church has a different idea about how to prevent gun violence, or reduce gun violence, see if someone else will join you in it.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky: The truth will set you free. Now, I grew up learning that there was objective truth that there was inter-subjectively verifiable truth, that I could observe something and you would observe it and we would have, we would be able to come to an understanding of what we actually observed. That common assumption is giving way to a notion of personal narrative. Some people call this post modernism. I just call it disordered, and disorienting. People’s personal narratives about objective facts isn’t based upon the facts. It is privately subjective, not socially, inter-subjective. If I’m allowed to choose what story to believe, if I pick it off the internet, or if I hear it in a secret meeting of people plotting to overthrow the government, and I act on it, it doesn’t have to be true anymore. But because I believe it, I may act on it as though it were true. My belief is, my belief in it is the only validation I need to feel justified in acting on it. Now be clear, I’m not really telling you what I think. I’m telling you what I observe.
So people accused Hillary Clinton of running a child sex trafficking ring without a shred of evidence. I heard it, I believe it. It must be true. And a mad mob blames Mike Pence for letting the election be stolen. Even though it wasn’t stolen, and he didn’t have anything to do with it. I heard it I believe it. It must be true. Hang Mike Pence.
If you act on a belief that is based on a lie, you hurt people who are innocent. There is no place to stand from which to judge right and wrong if everybody can choose their own reality. It is the most dangerous relativism.
If everyone writes their own story and lives according to it, there is no such thing as social order. This is what the Bible calls bearing false witness. It’s like perjury, giving your word, your credibility to something that is not true. Do not bear false witness is one of the Ten Commandments. Don’t do it. It’s a sin. And it hurts. Each of us is responsible for verifying the information that we receive, believe and share with others. Or should I say the stories that we hear and pass on to others? If we don’t take this responsibility, we are helping to weave a false narrative that distorts reality and places blame where it does not belong. What was once relatively though never totally harmless gossip, today is becoming full-blown conspiracy theories that appear on everyone’s phone but may have no basis in reality. The line between fact and fiction is becoming alarmingly fuzzy.
Christians are baptized, to resist evil in whatever forms they present themselves. Resist, seek truth, speak truth, call out falsehood.
Now I’m just not making this up. Methodism traces its roots to the enlightenment, which was all about observation of events, and occurrences of interactions between chemicals. It was about science. It was about discovery. It was about trying to find out how the world worked by observation. John Wesley founded a Christian movement that paid attention in a similar way to what was going on in the world around him. Working conditions, public health, economic conditions, health. He believed that based on biblical principles, the church should help shape a social order that cared for the reality of people’s lives. He visited prisoners, he fought slavery, he organized weavers. He educated the poor so that the actual lives of people would be blessed. It’s about blessing. It’s about cultivating fullness of life for all people. It’s not about serving personal preferences, protecting individual rights at the expense of public safety.
United Methodist opposition to unregulated gun ownership, into exploitative employment practices, and its advocacy for free and fair voting rights and responsible environmental stewardship are expressions of core values that are rooted not only in the teachings of John Wesley, the father of Methodism, but in the teachings of the Bible, that creation is a good gift, that people are precious, that people are responsible for one another.
But we can easily see the intersection of difference can be a dangerous place. Oppressions of all kinds grow in the rocky soil of difference. White supremacy, Doctrine of Discovery, European colonial expansion, slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow segregation, war on drugs, disproportionate incarceration rates for Black Americans. Expulsion, extermination of native peoples here and around the world, antisemitism, rise of Hitler, Holocaust, extermination of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, patriarchy, subjugation of women, denial of the vote, property rights, equal pay, sexual control and violence, authority over the reproductive capacity of their bodies.
When differences intersect, that toll can be very high, the harm immeasurable. When differences intersect, we need the wisdom, the power and the love of Jesus Christ to guide us into hard conversations with respect, to gain new understandings and transformation. Sometimes you can’t avoid the conflict if you want to engage difference in a new way. It took a civil war in which 3% of the population of the United States died. For there to be an Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved persons from bondage. It took three years for that proclamation to make its way to Texas. We celebrate the end of legal institutionalized enslavement in America, even though it came at such a high cost, and even though there is so much left, to do.
So, for difference, to make its way from conflict, or oppression, to creative, life-giving innovation, we must as Paul instructs, stay awake to pain whether it’s caused by ignorance or mean spirit or just sorrow. People of faith move toward pain to offer companionship, comfort, justice, healing. Stand firm in your faith, that when God is doing a new good thing, there may be disruption. But there will be a way through it and it will be worth it. Be brave, to speak and act for liberation and justice. Be strong to resist the temptation to spread lies. Do everything God requires you to do in love to care for the health and well-being of God’s beloved children. Remember your baptism and be thankful and live into resistance of evil.