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GC2008: Doubts Arise Following Gifts of Cell Phones

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    Doubts Arise Following Gifts of Cell Phones By Linda Green* April 25, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS) Delegates and church officials attending General
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 26 6:38 AM
      Doubts Arise Following Gifts of Cell Phones
      By Linda Green*
      April 25, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

      Delegates and church officials attending General Conference are
      wondering if democratic processes have been compromised because a
      renewal group provided some African and some Filipino delegates with
      cell phones.

      The Renewal and Reform Coalition created myriad conversations among
      delegates, church leaders and visitors after they learned that the
      Confessing Movement, Good News/Renew, Transforming Congregations and
      UMAction provided free cell phones to more than 150 African delegates
      to use during the General Conference.

      Some delegates and officials expressed concern that the coalition is
      trying to sway the votes of African delegates who are typically more
      conservative than their U.S. counterparts. They fear the coalition
      might use the phones to offer suggestions on how to vote on particular

      An April 23 letter from the coalition announces the cell phone
      give-away as a service "that might be helpful to delegates." That
      letter also invites the delegates to a "free breakfast" where they can
      have "fellowship with other like-minded delegates," and receive
      "information about the important issues that are coming before the
      conference." The letter concludes with a request that they consider
      voting for a slate of members for Judicial Council.

      "It is very important that we elect people who will be fair and who
      will uphold the Book of Discipline," said the letter. "The coalition
      is supporting a great group of persons who are diverse in terms of
      culture, ethnicity and gender. But all of them are united in the
      belief that the Bible is God's word and that we must maintain biblical
      standards for theology and morality."

      Bishop Felton May, interim top executive of the United Methodist Board
      of Global Ministries, found the cell phone gifts "surprising and
      puzzling. I would like to have an answer to the rationale. The last
      paragraph (of the letter) intrigued me in that there was direction
      given in relationship to the election of Judicial Council."

      Rob Renfroe, a member of the Confessing Movement and a coalition
      member, said the cell phones were provided to give the central
      conference delegates the same access to communications and material
      that U.S. delegates have. "We thought the gift of a cell phone would
      be beneficial."

      Crosses the boundaries

      The provision of cell phones "crosses the boundaries of what is
      appropriate in this kind of community, and I hope that it would
      cease," said Bishop Kenneth Carder, a professor at Duke Divinity
      School, Durham, N.C. Everyone, he said, needs to trust the integrity
      and the autonomy of a democratic process. "This seems to be an undue
      influence and violates the very essence of what it means to be
      Christian community."

      A joint monitoring team from the Commission on the Status and Role of
      Women and the Commission on Religion and Race said the giveaway "is
      inappropriate behavior and it destroys community. We have gathered for
      Christian conferencing, which requires trust, honesty, openness and
      respect. Whenever there is an imbalance of power relationships with
      the expectation of reciprocity, this behavior gives the appearance of
      paternalism, manipulation, exploitation and of course, racism."

      Jim Winkler, top executive at the United Methodist Board of Church and
      Society, said some renewal groups have journeyed across Africa
      "providing deliberately distorted and inaccurate information to
      African United Methodists." He views the distribution of cell phones
      "in the context of a pattern of manipulation of the African delegates,
      and that is what really, really troubles me."

      However, Renfroe said it is "demeaning to the African delegates to
      think that a gift of a cell phone would change their vote." He said
      the coalition is showing hospitality to many people who have traveled
      a great distance to attend General Conference. "They are highly
      educated, aware of the issues and supremely principled in their
      beliefs, and to think that the gift of a cell phone would change their
      view is demeaning to them."

      'No strings attached'

      The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, chair of the Renewal and Reform Coalition,
      said his group was "deeply disturbed by the charges that are leveled
      by the various church leaders."

      "We find the charges to be totally outrageous, and we lament the fact
      that no one who is making these charges contacted us to share their
      concerns or to ask for an explanation," he said. "We find this to be a
      violation of the covenant of holy conferencing."

      Rose-Marie Jalloh and other delegates from Sierra Leone received cell
      phones. "There were no strings attached to the cell phone," she said.
      "We appreciated it because it was a gift for us while we are here. We
      will use it to call friends in the United States. I do not know if it
      will work when General Conference is over."

      "The African delegates are mature people who make value judgments,"
      said Liberian Bishop John Innis. He wants General Conference delegates
      to know that the African bishops have not encouraged the cell phone
      gifts for their delegates. "We want to be very clear about that. The
      delegates are mature people who have read all of the material sent to
      them regarding General Conference and read all petitions and will vote
      their conscience."

      James Harris of the Liberia Annual Conference found the receipt of a
      cell phone helpful in communicating with his colleagues and committee
      members. "It is a great help for me." He asserted that there were no
      conditions related to receiving the phone. "We were told that the
      phones are to be used for local connections in the United States and
      to contact my fellow delegates."

      "They did not give us conditions. It was free," said Rosen Mwenze, a
      delegate from North Katanga. "We were given cell phones to use for the
      time we are here."

      But Abraham Sellu, an East African delegate, declined a cell phone
      because he did not want to be lobbied. "Coming here, you see a lot of
      people outside giving you papers with agendas up their sleeves." He
      said he was told during April 23 orientation that there are strings
      attached to gifts given during General Conference. "Not knowing much
      about who was giving me this gift, I refused to go for one," he said.

      Gifts raise concerns

      The giving of cell phones exclusively to people of color outside the
      United States raises some concerns about racial paternalism. Early
      colonialists used the same sorts of tactics -- giving of gifts with
      intention for self-profit or gain in some sort of way, said Erin
      Hawkins, top executive of the church's Commission on Religion and Race.

      "My hope is that the white leadership of the church would be mindful
      of the actions in light of the history of exploitation of people of
      color in this church. I hope they would not willingly engage in any
      sort of behavior that would undermine the humanity of people of color
      whether they are in the United States or other countries," she said.
      "This action of giving cell phones to buy or manipulate people can be
      interpreted as a return to that sort of racist behavior."

      Lambrecht said that was a misconception. "The cell phones were not
      given exclusively to people of color; they were to be given to any
      central conference delegate who had a need," he said. "It just so
      happens that out of financial necessity and technological situation,
      most of the recipients were people of color. And we felt like we were
      doing an act of kindness to people to make them feel welcome" and to
      enable them to participate on a more equal basis.

      The Rev. Alex Vergara, president of the National Association of
      Filipino-American United Methodists, described the gift of cell phones
      as "vote-buying" and "bribery."

      "We believe everyone has the right to advocate (his or her) position
      to other people to gain the latter's favor. But this giving of gifts
      is nothing but vote-buying, which is a perversion and abuse of a
      democratic and sacred act," said Vergara.

      However, Lambrecht said the gifts were given with "no expectation on
      our part. . . . No questions were asked on our part, and we find no
      difference between our giving of these gifts and the gifts that are
      given by general boards and agencies and other groups to the delegates
      of General Conference."

      He said the implications leveled by the church leaders were
      "completely untrue," as well as "hurtful and destructive to the
      building of community."

      Bishop Gregory Palmer, president-elect of the Council of Bishops, said
      he was saddened if any group is attempting to influence the votes of
      delegates in "an unhealthy and manipulative manner. That grieves me
      for the whole church." He said people have a right to their own
      opinions and perspectives and they may share how they will cast their
      vote; however, the sharing should be done in a way that makes it clear
      the gift is not given in exchange for a vote.

      "The hospitality that we offer should be the hospitality that is
      offered to everyone," said M. Garlinda Burton, top executive of the
      Commission on Status and Role of Women.

      *Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in
      Nashville, Tenn.
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