While much of Annual Conference is spent on business matters, this is also a time to learn about the stories of United Methodists who are passionate about the Church and its mission. This year, the Conference brought those stories to life through 'Fear Less' segments, which allowed individuals to speak their hearts on the issues of addiction, race, gun violence, and disaster response, and to challenge the Church to do better.
Speaking first on addiction was Tammy Reese, a recovering alcoholic and addict, who battled addiction for 26 years before finding peace and grace inside a United Methodist church. "Most addicts and alcoholics do not feel loved. They do not feel accepted. They do not feel valued," Tammy said. "They do not feel that anyone cares or even notices them. If the people who love Jesus would step out of their comfort zones and show kindness to the stranger, they could make all the difference for the addict." Next came Pastor Chris Reese of New City Church in Dayton, also a recovering alcoholic and addict. "Most addicts want help. But they feel like outcasts in the community," Chris remarked. "We need to create a welcoming environment for ALL people. Addicts are human. They matter to God. And since they matter to God, they should matter to us." See the video of this presentation here.
Barb Sholis and Karen Cook, both members of the Conference's Extended Cabinet, then dialogued about their varied experiences with race while growing up. Sholis, who is White, grew up during the era of desegregation and recalls her grandfather's fear of Black people moving into their neighborhood. Cook, who is Black, spoke of 'the talk' she had with each of her sons about how to interact with police, always reminding them "it's important to make it home." Next, Andres De Arco, a pastor's kid and young Conference leader, talked about growing up as part of a Hispanic congregation within a White church. "Christ said being neighborly means being completely centered around love," Andres stated. "Separation, especially within the church, is the antithesis of love. Yet, we portray this separation quite comfortably in our Sunday worship - and outside the church." See the video of this presentation here.
The third topic of the 'Fear Less' series was gun violence. After hearing the testimony of a woman who almost lost her son to gun violence, Rev. Peter Matthews spoke about his personal connection with the issue. His son, now serving in the military, lost four friends to a violent death in the five years from 8th grade through high school. Matthews spoke passionately about our responsibility as God's people to our children and our communities. "People, we can no longer afford to live in isolation," Matthews stated. "God's people must respond to the urgency of these days and times....These are real people, real names, and real stories. Names and stories that are moving closer and closer to our doorsteps." The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church urges congregations to advocate at the local and national levels for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence. See the video of this presentation here.
The fourth and final 'Fear Less' talk focused on disaster response. Kim Milliken, mayor of Coalton, Ohio, spoke about her experience with the flood that struck her small village in 2015. Despite the devastation to 28 homes in Coalton, they were initially told there wasn't enough damage to merit help. Then West Ohio disaster response volunteers showed up - 10 crews of volunteers who tore out walls, replaced drywall, and brought a sense of hope to those who had lost everything. Next, Joe Blundo, columnist for the Columbus Dispatch and member of North Broadway UMC, spoke of his work with North Broadway's Early Response Team in West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas. "There is enough within you to make a difference," Joe commented. "Listen, I'm not a professional handyman - or even an amateur handyman. I know how to do a few things. But even if I didn't, I could lend a hand. If you can cook, if you can drive, if you can clean, if you can organize, if you can sit down and lend an ear to someone who just needs to talk, you can do this kind of work. Whatever gifts you have just might be the very gifts that are needed in a situation." See the video of this presentation here.
Anyone can make a difference - we all have enough to be who someone else needs. Be Fear Less, and see what God can do!