By Cate Monaghan
Director of Communications, CA-NV Annual Conference
It was Game 3 game day in the National League championship series, and few would have dared to walk the streets of San Francisco wearing Philadelphia Phillies colors. Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., though, strode confidently from Hotel Whitcomb to United Nations Plaza, decked out in bright red – his jacket and cap emblazoned with the Rethink Church logo – and armed with the sword of the Spirit.
Walking with him, some three dozen United Methodist communicators from around the country, en route to an outdoor worship service at United Nations Plaza and an up-close look at some representative Bay Area ministries.
The theme chosen for this year’s annual meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators (UMAC) was “Bridging the Gap” – a fitting slogan for those of us tasked with connecting cross-culturally and across all sorts of other divides, including those based on age, gender, political and theological persuasion, and sexual orientation.
The setting chosen for the opening worship was equally fitting. As we gathered beside the black granite obelisk inscribed with the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we were joined by locals as Bishop Brown talked about A Place at the Table for all, based on Luke 14:12-24 – one gentleman adding his “Amen!” to ours at the end of the closing prayer.
“Bishop conducted the service outside amidst the noise and congestion of the city. That was inspiring,” said one member of the group.
We sang “For Everyone Born (a place at the table)” together, a capella, before walking to Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, first stop on our tour.
It was eye-opening. Whatever one’s perception of the best-known UMC in the Western United States – arguably, the world – it’s hard to contest the fact that Glide was “rethinking church before there was Rethink Church,” as the Rev. Cecil Williams and his wife, Janice Mirikitami, put it to us.
Williams, the Founder and Minister of Liberation – pastor emeritus, if you will – and his wife, the Founding President of the Glide Foundation, made a special trip to the church at midday to talk with the group. (Watch video.)
We were given a tour of Glide’s Health Services and the Walk In Center, where people in need of emergency or drop-in medical care are seen – regardless of their financial situation; the Housing Center, home to more than 300 people; and the Family, Youth, and Childcare Services program. As we walked from one building to another, we met a two-block-long line of people queued up to receive lunch through Glide’s three-times-a-day Free Meals Program.
“It was insightful to see mission in action,” said one tour participant.
From Glide we boarded a bus and traveled to Gum Moon Women’s Residence and Asian Women’s Resource Center, where we toured the facility and learned about its services to (primarily) low-income, monolingual Asian immigrant women and children, including victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
We were joined there by the executive director of nearby Mary Elizabeth Inn, Amanda Heier, who talked about the impact of the Lizzie Glide-founded organization on behalf of homeless women in San Francisco.
The bus then took us to Temple UMC, where a sign outside welcomes seekers with the invitation: “So, you don’t like organized religion? You’ve come to the right place! Real people. Authentic faith. Not so organized.”
Inside, the Rev. Schuyler Rhodes, senior pastor, delivered an impassioned message about how Temple has reinvented itself to meet the needs of its changing constituency, and asserted that the time for renewal and revival of the Church is at hand.
“I am weary of hearing how the Church is in decline,” he declared. “Here, with 14 different ethnic/minority groups forming one Church community, we are on the road to new life.”
His words rang true with many of the visitors.
“To be able to see an expression of life and faith makes my day,” said one. “Did you hear anyone talk about the declining church? No!”
The Rev. Carolyn Talmadge, campus pastor at San Francisco State University, interacted with the group about her work with students and her ability to connect these young people with local congregations – and Asinate Benuvae, Steward of Fijian Ministries at Temple, lifted up the power of the multi-cultural community at work in this urban congregation.
Bishop Brown, who stayed with the group throughout the tour, joined in what became a meaningful informal “roundtable” discussion of the changing Church and our roles as communicators. In talking about the process of giving new life to Bethany UMC in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, as well as what’s happening at Temple, the bishop shared his passion and commitment for urban ministry and for the work being done in San Francisco in Jesus’ name.
Rhodes also reflected on times of revival and renewal, and how the church is pressured to adopt the divisions of secular culture. However,
“We are not liberal or conservative; left or right,” he said. “We are one in Christ.”
Yet perceptions to the contrary do exist, and the mission trip afforded a rare opportunity to alter some of them. As a communicator from a nearby Conference put it, “This shows what and how we in the Western Jurisdiction do ministry. It is powerful and vital. Often the rest of the Church doesn't think this about us. ”
And a representative of a General Church agency commented, wryly, “I’m from south of the Mason-Dixon Line – and I had to come to California to hear the word ‘revival’!”
“I believe we’ll all go home with a different heart,” she added. “Every Conference has its own unique environment and landscape … we were richer by having that experience.”
(The Rev. Schuyler Rhodes contributed to this story.)