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Reflections on Annual Conference (COB 2012)

​Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence. -Ovid

After more than two decades of filling out forms, filing appeals, staging witnesses and initiating endless conversations, the inconsistency and injustice of BMC’s absence from the exhibit area was finally acknowledged, and BMC had its first booth at Annual Conference. Our double wide booth, lovingly designed by Vanessa Davis, was by far the most active and visited booth in the exhibit hall. Hundreds of people stopped by the booth to express their joy at our presence, to offer their support, and/or to simply hang out in the welcoming space. It was not uncommon to see people deep in conversation spilling out from the booth, while young kids ran around playing with the stress balls that BMC had available as a give-away. The booth offered a place of sanctuary and welcome for lgbt people, parents, supporters, and even for individuals who were experiencing their first Annual Conference and were simply seeking a warm and inviting place to meet people. Of course, there were those individuals who felt it necessary to challenge us, but those conversations were few and far between and handled respectfully and kindly. Overall, the atmosphere was one of celebration, welcome, and an enticing sense of community. In a word, it was great! The power of persistent drops of water to transform stone was the theme of the BMC worship during Conference, which was held at the Centenary United Methodist Church located several blocks from the convention center. In a very moving service designed by Susan Boyer, Shawn Kirchner and Zandra Wagoner of the La Verne congregation, participants were given necklaces with tiny vials of water that they later filled with sand from the booth representing the power of water to wear down the hard rock into soft sand. In addition to its booth, BMC also presented an insight session featuring a panel of individuals who are members of congregations that are part of the Supportive Communities Network (SCN), recruited volunteers to help serve breakfast at the Bridge, the name of the outreach program for people who are homeless that the Centenary United Methodist Church sponsors, hosted a dinner, and collected a whole car-trunk full of donated personal toiletries for guests at the Bridge. It was a wonderful affirmation of the values of community, education, service, worship and hospitality. With very cautious optimism, it might be said that we are starting to turn a corner within the Church of the Brethren. Most Conference participants were not eager for a repeat of last year’s ugliness. The round tables in the business sessions fostered a better sense of dialogue and engagement and inhibited the ability of certain individuals to strategically place themselves at the microphones for easy access. Tim Harvey was a gifted and well prepared moderator. Contrary to what some might have been expecting (or maybe hoping for!) the conference center roof did not collapse because BMC had a booth. It appears that the symbolic barrier that the booth represented has been broken, probably for good, although experience has taught me to resist such proclamations. This is not to say that it is suddenly smooth sailing within the Church of the Brethren. Up until the day before Conference started there were concerted attempts being made to disallow the booth. Hurtful and ignorant things were said both at the mikes and at the tables where delegates sat. The dysfunctional behavior of the Ministry and Mission Board in their rescinding of BMC as a Brethren Volunteer Service project was compounded by the misnamed Standing Committee document, “A Way Forward.” It takes but a moment of logical reflection to realize that implying that BMC somehow mislead the board in its project description is absurd, particularly given the scrutiny to which we are subjected. It would have spared denominational leadership the need for deception and confusion if it has simply and honestly admitted that the denomination was not ready for BMC. I appreciate Stan Noffsinger, the General Secretary, for acknowledging as much on the Annual Conference floor. In addition, it was disturbing the way that the La Verne query regarding gender equality was addressed and rather perfunctorily returned. The bruising that On Earth Peace took because of its statement of inclusion was painful to witness. It seems clear that the clarion of “accountability” is the new buzzword to punish or challenge any staff member or ally who dares to step out on behalf of inclusion, a trend that is notable in both the Church of the Brethren and the Mennonite Church. I suspect that this reflects a recognition and fear that negative attitudes towards lgbt people are changing significantly, that supportive allies are not as intimidated and are more vocal about their values and support, and that it is increasingly less socially acceptable to be blatantly or crudely homophobic. Certainly there is enough work to occupy us for some time. It remains to be seen if the Church of the Brethren as an institution is healthy enough to engage in the kinds of conversations and risk taking that is necessary to ensure a viable future. Regardless, when I think about the energy and the gifts of the more than 35 individuals who staffed our booth, led our worship, participated in our volunteer project, or spoke on our panel; and add to that the strength and good will of the hundreds who stopped by our booth with a word of support, affirmation, and openness, the strength of our community and the rich possibilities we embody are wonderfully apparent. Our persistence and longing for justice, welcome, grace and healing are hollowing out the stone of hard hearts and closed systems, opening new paths and possibilities. Thank you to everyone who made this Annual Conference a great success! I would welcome any comments, observations and insights as we move into a new year, and especially as we contemplate possibilities for the next Annual Conference as well as the upcoming Mennonite Church USA Assembly.

Carol Wise

August 2012

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