The hard work of diversity

May 19, 2016
Bishops Hope Morgan Ward, Hee-Soo Jung, and John Yambasu shout, "Go," after the commissioning of missionaries during Thursday worship. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

This is my third General Conference. It has been the most international in its worship, its makeup, and its functioning. One sign of our diversity is that there has been simultaneous translation for all participants, so it does not presume that English is each person's primary language. We have all been using our headsets to listen to one another. Our music and scripture readings have been in multiple languages. It is a beautiful church.  

Today, we blessed and commissioned 29 missionaries that will be deployed all over the world to offer Christ (including Rev. Daniel Yang, an elder in the Minnesota Conference). We heard about the work we are doing to address global AIDS, end malaria, and start new churches in places like Germany. This is what I love about being United Methodist—that, in fact, we are a worldwide church, and I can be a part of changing and saving lives of people I will never meet in places I will never go, yet I am there because I am part of a global movement.

But these past 10 days have also highlighted the challenges that diversity brings. I was talking to one person from another part of the world, and he was asking how the U.S. understands the issues before us. I shared my perspective and then asked him what he thought the U.S. ought to do. He said with humility that he believes it should be left to the U.S. to determine that since he does not have enough understanding of our context to make an informed decision. I know I felt that very same way when some delegates from Africa were speaking about a situation in their home conference, and I was glad I was not in a position to vote on the issue since I was clueless about the dynamics he was raising.  

We bring 864 delegates from around the world, who name themselves as United Methodist, together for 10 days and presume that means we have enough shared identity and shared purpose that we can just show up and do good work together. We underestimate the shaping power of culture, and how much we see and act through our worldview. Many have reported that the fault line in The United Methodist Church is around human sexuality. If we were only a U.S. church, then I would say that might be true. I think the deeper challenge is: Will we be a worldwide church in more than name only? It is easy to say we will when it does not cost us much or fundamentally change our practice. But right now, the structure and polity of The United Methodist Church is clearly predicated on U.S. culture and context. That is not surprising since it was birthed as an American movement. And we have been with all good intention trying to accommodate our increasingly international context—but that is the key word: accommodate. We have not fundamentally changed how we live and work in light of this new reality, and it is time.  

Forty-three percent of delegates came from outside of the U.S. for the 2016 General Conference. Since it is proportional, that shows the growth of the UMC beyond the U.S. What I have observed is a creaking and moaning of an antiquated U.S. political process that is not responsive to our global reality. Our fault line is whether we are willing and committed to do the hard work of becoming a truly diverse church, and that means going back and examining all of our operating assumptions, asking if they are serving us well in this new time, and exploring what might be a better way

It is always easier to keep doing what you know, to hang with people who are like you, or to think that because we are nice and polite, we are truly welcoming. I dare say it will be uncomfortable, and even more—for some whose power is rooted in the way things are now—threatening to truly embrace becoming a worldwide church. But I hope that does not stop us and that we don't give up trying to live into this possibility God has placed before us when it becomes too hard. We have a great opportunity to be a witness to our world that people from different places, histories, and cultures can come together and be one in heart and ministry, even as we are unique and beautiful in our diversity.  

John Wesley, who proclaimed, "The world is my parish," would ask no less of us as the people called Methodist.

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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