Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Willy's First Day in Texas

Thanks to a 5:45 am drive to Logan this morning from my neighbor Sean (thanks Seano!) I had no trouble making my flight, although I slept most of the time. There were only two occasions when I was awake. The first time, a glance out the window confirmed that we were indeed flying over the United States of America... I recognized the land. The second time I woke up, I looked to my left and noticed a man two seats over was reading the Second Book of Kings. I assumed he was headed to the same place as me but it turns out he was simply a Texan: Baptist. Don't get me wrong, I see people reading the Bible on the T in Boston at least once a week and I know a number of people to turn to at the non-profit where I work if I need to borrow a Bible. I was just making assumptions about this guy and thought he must have been a Methodist. See where assumptions get you?
After touching down at DFW, I almost immediately saw someone who I felt very safe in assuming to be a Methodist. She was wearing a blue vest that said “A Future With Hope” and she was holding a poster board with the United Methodist cross and flame logo on it. (Sometimes you can just tell when someone's a Methodist.) However, apparently I wasn't so easy to identify. After I shook her hand and introduced myself to her she looked at me a little blankly and said, "Are you here for General Conference?" People must be really friendly in Texas because I'm pretty sure that after the way I had approached her, she should have been confident that I was here for Conference. In most places holding a cross and flame poster board and wearing a vest that quotes the prophet Jeremiah normally wouldn't invite people to start a conversation unless they knew what they were getting into. But for some reason I confused her. I’m guessing it was my eye-liner.
After talking to her for a few minutes, a second woman came up to me who could have been her twin. The only difference was in her outfit. Instead of wearing a blue vest over her clothes, she had on a brightly colored rainbow stole. These rainbow stoles are one of the unofficial trademarks of the Reconciling Ministries Network- although yellow boas are also big. So there they were, a Reconciling volunteer and a volunteer from General Conference each trying to see who could show a better welcome to people arriving at the airport. I thought it was cool that RMN has people at the airport greeting delegates.
Out on the sidewalk, another man was waiting for the shuttle too. It turned out that he wasn’t’ coming to General Conference but was instead going to hear the president of Mexico speak. I told him why I was in town and he instantly pulled out a business card. He asked me to please do all that I could to advocate for the rights of immigrants who are being detained by the United States government and don’t have access to visitors or proper legal representation. I instantly felt responsible, not guilty or complacent (although I suppose I'm those things too) but responsible in the sense of having the authority and the power to make a change. The work of General Conference is going to have real impact on people’s lives and people who are vulnerable know it best. I promised the man that I'd do every thing I could to advocate for immigrants who are being detained. He gave me a big smile.
But on the shuttle ride we weren't talking about a world that needs the power of God to change things, we were talking about ourselves. It was a wonderful and frightful introduction to the level of networking that goes on. The first person I met was a senior citizen who introduced herself by holding out her hand and saying, “My name is Laurel and this is my fourth General Conference, I’ve been coming since 1992 in Louisville. I’ve also been a board member of the General Board of Church and Society for two terms, well actually more like three because I had to fill out the board term of another member who got selected to serve on the Jurisdictional Districting Committee so she had to step down.” How’s that for a warm welcome? It got worse from there.
I was in the back of a fifteen person van with a man who's son plays football at the University of Alabama. I froze when this came up. You see I've been preparing like mad for this conference. I have read the proposed petitions, I’ve been studying Books of Discipline and Resolutions going back to before I was born and I've spent way too many hours on endless conference calls. But in all of my efforts, I had forgotten a key component of southern culture and networking: I have never learned all of the positions on a football team. Still, for the sake of church unity, I took a risk and continued the conversation... “What position?” It worked! I asked it the right way. His son is a long snapper. I would have sworn that was a type of fish, but appartently it’s something to do with the “special teams.” I responded to this information by shaking my head confidently and saying "Sure, sure, yep." However I think I gave myself away when I noticed two people passing us on motorcycles who were wearing bandannas. I'm pretty sure my eyes bugged a little and I said, "Wow. No helmet law in Texas?" No one answered.
As the shuttle snaked through the downtown Fort Worth, I was shocked by how many United Methodists I saw walking around. Identifiable mainly by our official United Methodist name badges, United Methodists have taken over Fort Worth. All in all they'll be about 5,000 of us. (992 delegates plus Bishops, volunteers, agency staff, pages, marshals, musicians, worship leaders and the hospitality team). We are everywhere.
I arrived at my room which is an apartment I’m sharing with a friend a little under two miles from the convention center. Because a very large hotel wasn’t completed in time (actually it looks like it was barely started) we are extremely short on rooms and in a bit of a crisis. So I'm staying in a nice complex that is fully furnished. The irony of this is pretty bitter because I work as a housing advocate who helps homeless people find affordable housing. But because I'm a delegate to General Conference, I could pretty much waltz in and get an apartment for two weeks.
At the convention center and at the temporary HQ for Reconciling volunteers, I saw many many many familiar and friendly faces. I'd guess that Reconciling has about 100 volunteers who are already hard at work to impact conference. Their work covers everything from offering delegates meals to tracking legislation in sub-committees to distributing news letters. Last General Conference, this is what I was doing. I must have been a good volunteer because a few months later I was asked to be on the Board of Directors.
I also had a little bit of time to look at the display area at the convention center. (a.k.a. The Mall of Methodism) This you’ve got to see to believe. It’s a Texas sized display area with probably sixty foot ceilings and is bigger than two football fields. Not even a long snapper for Alabama could snap (?) a ball across it... Not unless she was really good. The displays for the church agencies are very flashy. United Methodist Communications has six flat screen t.v.’s all running advertisements. All of the displays have fancy furniture to invite delegates to take a load off so they can learn more about the particular agencies work. There are displays for the GBOD, GCCORR, GCCUIC, COSROW, The Committee for Strengthening the Black church for the 21st Century and anything else you could name. Then there’s an opening in the wall and it lead you to our official church bookstore display. This is the part of General Conference where I would suggest the Daily Show should report from. Let me just say that if you want me to buy you General Conference 2008 “A Future With Hope” cuff links, please text me. They have everything you could imagine. It’s hilarious. There are also about forty round tables set up to create the feel of a cafĂ©.
The last thing I want to mention is that I went into the area where we’ll be actually meeting in plenary session. It was way creepy. Bishop Christopher was rehearsing her Episcopal Address that she’ll deliver Thursday morning but the five- thousand seat arena was empty save for about five people working technical equipment. So she was standing on the stage with one of those over the ear microphones (I called them Madonna microphones, they’re like the ones we use at the church where I work if you’ve ever seen them). She was apparently reading off of two of those invisible prompters that look like salad bar sneeze guards that the President uses. And her face was projected on five enormous screens spread throughout the hall. All of the lights were down beside the light on her. It was creepy to see her talking to an empty hall with all of the special effects. I have to admit, it made me think of some of our churches that have five people in them on Sunday morning. I wondered if there would ever be a day where we're still spending a large fortune on General Conference (this year's cost 6.6 million dollars) and going through all of the motions, but people have just stopped showing up...
I am thrilled to get to work. Tomorrow I have orientation for delegates under 30 and the first plenary session. Hope to post again tomorrow night.

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