On the floor of the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, important debates will be had and important decisions will be made. These will not only affect our church but the lives of many people inside and outside the church. These debates and decisions are live streamed and written about on Conference websites and posted on social media. Across the denomination, the activity that takes place on the floor of the conference will be the center of our attention.
There is much, however, that takes place off the floor of General Conference and will not be seen by those who are sitting in front of their computers or watching Twitter on their phones. When Conference is in a large convention center with multiple floors and rooms, as in previous years, delegates and observers could wander shelves of books form Cokesbury, booths from General Agencies, get their health screened, and spend time quiet prayer rooms or even getting a massage. While an occasional diversion from the activity of the proceedings, these also provide valuable self-care over more than a week of meetings.
General Conference 2019 is different. It’s shorter. It has one major focus. And the venue — an indoor football arena with one accessible concourse level — doesn’t provide the space or the warmth of previous settings.
However, off the floor, United Methodists are taking care of each other and providing space for some of that self-care needed to get through the work of our days. Cokesbury is here, with a limited selection. There are stadium concession stands, with all the nachos, pretzels, hot dogs, and chicken tenders you can eat if you are willing to pay the stadium prices. There are support areas for those who need translation devices. And at various places along the walkway there are stations for prayer and reflection and support. As you walk along you will find groups gathered for fellowship and old friends catching up and small clusters of people praying.
Across form one of the concession areas you will find a “Conversation Couch” brought by M.I.N.D., “Methodists in New Directions.” This is an organization based in New York that is “working to to end our denomination’s doctrinal prejudice and institutional discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and committed to living more fully into God’s radical welcome right now and right here.” This group was concerned that, out of 864 delegates, only 2% are members of the LGBTQI community and that, even as we vote on matters related to this community, many delegates will not have an opportunity to talk with anyone who identifies as LGBTQI.
In order to provide “prayerful, honest conversation with those whose place in the UMC is up for a vote” they have provided a “Conversation Couch.” This is a place to chat with members of the LGBTQI community, including clergy. And part of the goal is to see ministry, and these decisions concerning ministry, as something that is not merely about LGBTQI individuals but with them. They are directing those who stop to chat to follow up with their web address: www.withnotabout.org.
Further down the concourse, there is a whole prayer space with multiple stations. The large cross in the center is easy to spot as people pass by. This has been a constant when The United Methodist Church has gathered, recognizing that we need to be a praying people at all times, but especially when we gather from around the globe. This section is staffed with volunteers who can provide those seeking to pray with an orientation to the several stations throughout this space.
While General Conference is taking place in a football stadium, those who designed the prayer center have worked hard to make it as holy a space as possible. Curtains cover many of the walls. Stained glass images hang throughout the environment. Participants are encouraged to be respectful of those who are praying. Here you will find a collage of written prayers on one wall, “Prayers & Broken Pieces.” There is a quiet area, closed off from some of the noise of activity from much of the concourse. There are stations for prayers of healing and prayers of confession, recognizing that these are important as the future of our church is discussed. Further into the prayer center, there are spots for spiritual direction and a large prayer labyrinth to center heart and minds on God’s presence in the midst of some anxious days.
Demonstrations also happen away from the stage and tables that take up most of the space inside “The Dome.” Many people here are fully aware that the decisions of this body affect the lives and ministry of LGBTQI people who are laypeople in our congregation or serve in the role of pastor or bishop. While some displays from members and supporters of the LGBTQI community are sing-a-longs in the hallways, others are are designed to disrupt and call attention, reminding those on the floor what is at stake with the decisions that will be made. Said one involved person: “What you saw was a cry of response from the Spirit. Please don’t call it a protest.”
All of this is inside of the Convention Center Dome in St. Louis. But outside, with hotels and restaurants around, there is activity as well. As delegates and observers make their way into the facility in the morning, there are groups providing a welcome, including members and friends from the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area handing out “Love In Action” welcome bags. And, at the close of the day there have been protestors shouting anti-LGBTQI slogans and proclaiming judgment. These, also, have been a regular occurrence at General Conference.