Convicted Pastor Offers Acceptance Speech As GC Delegate And Hopes For Appeal To Allow Him To Go
I'm writing this from Dekalb, IL at the meeting of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. We're in the midst of this four day regional meeting of our denomination. A main item on the agenda this year is the election of clergy and lay delegates to our national denominational meeting (the General Conference) scheduled for May 2000. It will be at that meeting scheduled for Cleveland that the church will revisit issues around sexual orientation including the rule that led to my trial and conviction. About 1000 delegates go to GC from Annual Conferences around the world. The Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) was eligible to send 6 clergy and 6 laity as voting delegates. (With two alternates to fill in for vacancies should they occur.)
The competition is very heavy for election. Each delegate must receive a majority of those voting (clergy for clergy, laity for laity). Even with electronic balloting it's time consuming and tension producing. The NIC like the GC has about 1000 eligible members -- half clergy, half laity -- representing UM churches from across northern Illinois. It usually takes a while to develop a majority. The last election (1995) I was elected first alternate on about the 12th ballot. I considered it a pretty great honor.
This time in response to a question before balloting began, the Bishop ruled that while I was eligible to be elected, I could not be seated with the delegation if my suspension was in effect in May 2000. All we could contend was that there was an appeal scheduled between now and then. But we (the Methodist Federation for Social Action and a lot of other supporters and strategists) were not naive. Even without the complication the competition was going to be very heavy and there would be people deeply committed to stopping my election and stopping the possibility that I would be one of those representing the Conference and northern Illinois United Methodists. Early on we heard misgivings from some potential supporters about misgivings over "throwing away a vote or position on someone who wouldn't be seated anyway."
The voting began and I emerged on the first ballot in 4th position. The ballots continued with more and more persons elected (including Larry Pickens, my trial counsel! That was in itself a coup.) I dropped from 4th to 5th and then to 6th. Finally, we got to the 6th spot with me leading for it but not able to get a majority. Ballot after ballot resulted in no election but not much change of position either. We were clearly "log-jammed" with no one knowing what exactly to do. In previous elections the jam cleared itself by supporters crying, "enough!" and going to another candidate or by a deal being made. I can't remember an election that took the 17 ballots ours took -- especially given that the first clergy elected was elected on the first ballot! (Tallulah Fisher Williams, my District Superintendent.) I've never seen people hang in so tenaciously, supporting me and one another sometimes when things looked more than bleak. Jade was here Friday, Sat. and Sunday and she and I were both worn out with the tension and the effort when she left to get home to get to work on Monday.
Finally, just before ballot 17 the number three vote getter still remaining - Myron McCoy, an African-American pastor who normally is elected first or second, made an incredibly gracious speech asking that people not vote for him but use their integrity to make their choice for the final delegate position. The next ballot was taken and after spoiled ballots were discounted the needed tally to win was 172 votes. I received 172! The next person received 132.
Let me tell you something. The trial was easier than this election in a lot of ways. (At least they let me testify at the trial!) But the election should not be misunderstood. Certainly it was to some extent it was about me as a candidate. But everyone -- me first among them -- knew that this was not in the first place about a candidate at all. It was about a vision of the church and a vision of ministry and a vision of faithfulness. And it was about having the disciplined commitment to bring that vision closer to reality. This was about people who wouldn't quit in spite of the odds, who worked tirelessly lobbying for votes, trying to convince people, making sure they were there when the balloting happened. This was about Dick Tholin, my campaign manager, who worked with Nina Nichols and so many others to make this happen. This was about two clergy women (Marsha Hott and Dorie Baker, some of you know them) who traveled from Washington, DC with Dorrie's small baby. They are members of the Conference but that's a long way to drive. They came only because they wanted to vote for me. I talked to them about what I understood about their being there when I saw the vote total on the last ballot. One could argue that if I hadn't gotten in on #17 I might not have made it at all. An attendance shift was in process. One vote made the difference.
A lot of people were in tears at the announcement of my election (to be fair, not all happy ones!). Many came up to me with smiles and tears and said, "You did it! Congratulations!" And I said, "No, you did it. Thank you. We all win today!" And we do. We're a long way from a final victory for justice. But this was more than a step. Today sends a message to the whole church and beyond. Five of the six clergy delegates are explicitly supportive of the agenda for a fully inclusive church. (We suspect the sixth person is also supportive, she just isn't on record!). Two of us were principals in a trial that condemned the very ministry I was using as a platform. The six laity only have one clear negative vote.
I'm pretty exhausted. But we're now electing Jurisdictional Conference delegates and tonight our legislation relating to sexual orientation comes up. (Hope to have Keith Eccarius and I both speak to the legislation regarding same sex Holy Unions.) Plus I'm still hustling financial and other support for In All Things Charity. So, I'm going to get back to it. Exhausted or not, I'm feeling pretty energized. Hope you are too.
Grace and peace,
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