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In the days prior to opening day, volunteers from across the West Ohio Conference arrived at Lakeside Chautauqua for final preparations for our 47th Annual Conference, and began transforming themselves into camera operators, techicians, ushers, stage crew, media operators and more for the week. With the stage set for the final year of the theme Becoming the Beloved: Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given, sound checks and rehearsals began on Saturday for the multiple services, musicians, presenters and other onstage events about to take place during the week.
All day Sunday lay and clergy members of the West Ohio Annual Conference arrived at Lakeside Chautauqua to check-in and pick up their name badges and voting devices in preparation for four days of conferencing. Staff production team members as well technicians had been onsite for several days hauling in equipment, monitors and computers, laying cable, setting up graphics booths and technical equipment needed to put on the conference.
Laity Session, 5:30 p.m. Hoover Auditorium
Laity session opened Annual Conference with tangible excitement. As outgoing Conference Lay Leader, Tom Slater welcomed the laity to this 47th Annual Conference. Mr. Slater stated, "There are many exciting things that are going to happen over the next three days, and you won't want to miss it."
After a brief prayer, Mr. Slater welcomed to the stage Rev. Dr. David Watson, Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary and professor of New Testament. Dr. Watson spoke eloquently about the need of churches to include persons with disabilities in worship. More than merely constructing a wheelchair ramp, this kind of inclusion requires that congregations actively welcome persons with disabilities through programs and creating an inclusive spirit.
Dr. Watson drew attention to two congregations, Sulphur Grove United Methodist Church and Stillwater United Methodist Church, for their successful ministries designed to help those made in the image of God to worship God in their vulnerability, as all of us are vulnerable, since we are embodied. He shared several videos including: Huber Heights church reaching out to those with disabilities, and Jean Vanier - "Seeing God in Others".
After Dr. Watson's message, Bishop Palmer and Rev. Dee Stickley-Miner thanked Mr. Slater for his dedicated service to the connection and the local church. The conference then elected a team of co-lay leaders. Mary Schumard was elected to lead the team, with Kelly Strickland and Mitchell Harper as co-leaders. Laity session adjourned.
Opening Worship, 7:30 p.m. Hoover Auditorium
“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
The voices of our brothers and sisters in Christ with disabilities interrupted our hugging and catching up to share the powerful words of Psalm 139. “My frame was not hidden from you,” they shared and signed, “when I was being made in secret.”
Shortly after, we heard a voice that many of us know well, Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer, calling this 47th Session of the West Ohio Annual Conference to order.
We were led into worship by blues grief of a New Orleans dirge, the kind that somehow manages to weave together joy and sorrow seamlessly. Just a closer walk with thee… Grant it Jesus is my plea… accompanied by a Jazz Ensemble and song leader Rev. Justin Williams. And our daily walk was represented by the band and mourners, dressed in black, processing down the aisles of Hoover Auditorium, umbrellas twirling in their hands. Bringing up the rear of the procession was the booming voice of our Bishop, twirling his own umbrella.
Following the procession was the Roll Call of the Victorious, read by Rev. Amy Aspey, the ringing of the bell that reminds many clergy and their families of our own connection. Bishop Palmer would say it at the beginning of his sermon that in remembering our own who have died reminds us of our connection. We are their families… the clergy, the spouses, the children, the laity, the missional leaders… they are our parents and grandparents. They are our children and friends.
To remind ourselves of the strength of our connection to each other and to God, we were invited by the Hillsboro First Signing Choir under the direction of Cindy Bloom, to listen with our eyes. Their presence was a reminder of the beautiful diversity that God has created in this family of faith. We are strong together and for the sake of witnessing to the transforming love of Jesus.
Rev. Katie Wilson brought the Gospel of John into our hearts and minds, allowing Bishop Palmer to remind each of us that seriously following Jesus means that we must learn how to die. The families present with us to honor their victorious family members were a witness to the ways in which clergy and their families often die to self so that something new may be born again in the life of the church. Through moves and struggles, Bishop Palmer invited the local congregations and the laity to follow the lead of those who have gone before us, allowing something new to be born within us as we learn how to die to ourselves. He compelled us to “Make yourself available to life.”
Perhaps most jarring, however, was the reminder that the death that we face is not just the death of selfish desires and inwardly focused living. If we are to follow Jesus, Bishop Palmer commended, we are to learn about death. We can tell the most about a person by the way that she dies. Just like a grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die so that new life may spring forth, following Jesus means for each of us that death is imminent, but it is not final.
And we gathered around the table of Christ to remember that in death new life is springing forth to be given for the nourishment of a hungry world. As we cycled through our stations, receiving bread and sharing in the cup, we participated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with our great, big family.
As the band processed out to a reprise of “When the Saints Go Marching In," it was as though they were playing exactly what Bishop Palmer so beautifully expressed just moments earlier: We are not running from death, we are running into abundant life in Jesus Christ.
Writers: Anna Guillozet, Angela Meeks, Dominic Mejia
Editor: Lisa Streight