Christianity with an Attitude
"Turn on the light!"
Bishop Felton Edwin May, leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), stood in the grand ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel, crying out to the congregation in front of him. There were nights, the bishop said, when he arose from bed, and as he stumbled across the room, bumping into objects, "I would hear a voice from the bed say, 糎hy don't you turn on the light?' And I would say in my best episcopal tone, 選 didn't want to disturb you.'"
This, he said, was a sentiment he heard all too often from church members. "選 am afraid to move beyond the authority of the bishop,'" he quoted the church members as saying. "選 am afraid to move beyond the saints of the church who have always done things in a certain way. I am afraid.' . . . And we say, 前h, God, I didn't want to disturb you.' Through the ages comes the refrain, 選 am the Light of the world. Turn me on!'"
Behind the bishop, at the back of the ballroom's platform, stood a rock-shaped backdrop with the words "Holy Boldness" imprinted upon them. "Holy Boldness," the Baltimore-Washington Conference's mission to strengthen urban ministries, helped draw 1800 members (delegates) to the 1997 annual meeting of the UMC's local regional unit.
On June 20, the second day of the meeting, visitors crowded into the ballroom to pay tribute to church members who had died during the previous year. "William W. Beale," intoned a reader, and as he spoke, a picture flashed onto one of the screens, showing a man smiling slightly. While a flutist played "Amazing Grace," a white-haired woman with a cane was helped forward to light a candle in the clergyman's memory.
The Service of Light and Life ended, leaving the members scrambling to buy lunch before the afternoon legislative sessions. Some members wandered across the hall to where exhibits had been set up by church organizations. Here Elin Forbus, a volunteer for Heifer Project International, showed passersby how they could donate a trio of rabbits or a share of a llama to communities in need. From her neck hung a pendant of a sheep. "I wish I had a heifer," she said with a laugh.
Nearby, a table stacked with books gave a hint of the UMC's variety. Visitors could purchase a collection of hymns by the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley; volumes of native American hymns, Spanish hymns, and American Sign Language hymns; a book entitled, Please Don't Ask Me to Sing in the Choir!; another book entitled, O For a Dozen Tongues to Sing (on small choirs); and last, but not least, a book-tape set for children entitled, Exodus from Egypt County – The Story of Moses Set in the Old West.
The afternoon legislative session was no less eclectic.
A group of men and women stood on the platform dressed in baseball hats and tee-shirts proclaiming "God's Family at Camden Yards." As they tossed bags of peanuts to the audience, a choir sang:
This is our story, this is our song,
The reference was to a conference rally held recently at Oriole Park, and the sports-garbed Methodists were members of the conference's Council of Ministries, presenting their annual report. The meeting soon settled down to a more sober presentation of resolutions, while Bishop May kept a tight reign on the proceedings. In his own words, "Your bishop is joyous during the service, but he is cool and calculating during the legislative process."
Kevin Anderson, a member of the Commission on Communications, presented a resolution that would require each church to have a fax machine or e-mail capability. He said, "When I told my pastor that I would be introducing this resolution and I asked his advice, he said in his ever-pragmatic way, 糎ear a suit that can be dry-cleaned.'"
The debate was in fact spirited, with resolutions proposed and passed, amendments proposed and defeated, points of order raised, and vote tallies questioned. By the end of the afternoon, the members were well in need of a break for dinner.
Upstairs in Boardroom B, the atmosphere was more serene; the conference had set up a 24-hour prayer room here. At the front of the room were a cross, a candle, a cup, and a plate holding a loaf of bread. On the table were seven copies of The United Methodist Prayerbook, two Bibles (the Revised Standard Version and the New King James Version), and sheets which listed everything from the etymology of the word "prayer" (from the Indo-European root prek-, to ask or entreat) to a list of modern and Biblical quotations about prayer (from I Thessalonians: "Pray without ceasing").
While the conference was taking place, a concrete form of prayer was occurring outside the hotel. On the first evening of the conference, Bishop May had announced a new way of spreading the church's "light": he would send out people to minister to everyone who "sleeps or walks the street selling illicit love" within a five-block radius of the hotel.
Holy boldness returned to the grand ballroom that evening in the form of a group of young women and girls representing the St. Paul United Methodist Liturgical Dance Ministry. "Let us praise his name with dance," proclaimed their banner, and they carried out their mission with enthusiasm, dancing their way down the aisles and earning themselves a standing ovation.
Calvin Bernard Williams, lay leader of the conference, commended the concept of holy boldness – "Christianity with an attitude" – at the same time that he denounced faintness of heart. "There are pastors, God help us—" (he ducked behind the lectern to avoid imaginary thrown objects) "—who think they were called to serve God, and the laity were called to serve them. . . . We have laity who are so protective of their beautiful buildings that they prefer to leave it to the government to take care of the needy who pass by their churches."
What church members needed to do, he said, was imitate "the holiest and boldest action of all": Jesus allowing himself to be crucified for the sake of mankind.
As he echoed the sentiments of Bishop May's morning sermon, the conference's lay leader ended his speech. It was 8:30 p.m. At that moment, only yards away, part of Washington plunged into darkness as a power failure hit the city.
That evening, Bishop May walked the streets of Washington, bringing "light" to the needy.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson