By Rev. Golden Neal | Photos by Joan Hackett and Jesse N. Love
Ellensburg, Wash. – If I had to sum up my experience at Mission u in a single word, it would be “connection.” As an attendee, I experienced avenues of connection throughout the event, from people I knew, subjects that I had an interest, and meeting new participants.
The main issue that we addressed was the history and status of the Missionary Conferences of The United Methodist Church. The role of missionaries in the life of the church was a given as well as the turbulent consequences of those early missionary efforts and the struggles those local churches face today. Through our studies we obtained a perspective that has been often overlooked by our church and society as a whole.
This Conference was created when three different Methodist denominations, that had separated over the issue of slavery, were merged into the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in 1939. All of the African-American churches within those denominations were segregated (without voice or vote) into the newly-created Central Conference, spanning the continental United States. The Central Conference had to rely upon the resources of those churches to develop leadership and ministries to serve the African-American community.
They were on their own for 29 years until in 1968 when the MEC merged with the United Evangelical Brethren (EUB) Church, which brought an end to the Central Conference. In 1957, Rochester MEC reached out to involve my parents in the life of that church. My mother became the lay delegate to Annual Conference in the early 1970’s soon after the reunification of the African-American churches into the denomination. This clarifies for me why there was such an emphasis on the work of the Commission on Religion and Race and the camaraderie of the African-Americans at conference when I was a youth. I also realize that my parents were invited into a segregated denomination, which had no desire to develop African-American leadership in the local church (for 29 years, in PNWAC for 79 years).
Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC)
The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference was formed after the forced removal of the Native American populations from their land by our government. I had known that there were Methodist missionaries that ministered to and supported the treaty rights of the Native Americans. Yet, the denomination sided with the interests of the nation and rejected the testimonies of those missionaries that were in support of the native peoples. President Andrew Jackson, ignored the ruling of the Supreme Court that sided with the Native Americans in honoring their treaty rights, ordered the military to forcibly remove the Natives from their land to Oklahoma. It is estimated that the tribes lost an entire generation as many of their young and old perished along the journey. The horror of this caused Davey Crockett to leave the government and head for Texas to get as far away as he could from the United States. The OIMC is in ministry with 39 nations in Oklahoma and bordering states. The effects of poverty and oppression are real, but the vibrant spirits of these persons (congregations) of faith have something to offer the UMC as well the whole of Christianity.
Alaska Missionary Conference (AMC)
Primarily, the Alaska mission was to white settlers who had gone to Alaska in search of gold and fortune. Missionaries from The Russian Orthodox Church Christianized the Alaskan Natives. The natives had suffered under Russian fur traders so their disregard by the gold seekers was not anything new to them.
The Protestant missionaries that went to the natives continued the practices that were established in the Oklahoma missions. Working with the US government the missionaries were intent on turning the natives into civilized whites. The native children were removed from their villages and taken to Christian schools. Where they were prevented from speaking native languages, had their religious practices denigrated, their culture eliminated, and received punishment for non-compliance.
I saw a video interview of an Alaskan Native as he shared his story of being evacuated by the US military from his island (which was eventually invaded by the Japanese during WWII). The Unangan village was destroyed and the people relocated to a concentration camp that had a different climate than their location. The relocation caused most of the old and young to die (unable to acclimate, illness with little medical care) at the dilapidated camps.
Red Bird Missionary Conference (RBMC)
The Red Bird Missionary Conference was established EUB to provide assistance to people living in Appalachia. The poverty of the region exasperated by the coal mining industry has led to many people in need. The introduction of large mechanized excavators that remove entire mountaintops and the disposing of the debris into the valleys and streams have caused ecological harm and the loss of jobs (no need for workers to enter the mines).
It is no coincidence that the counties in Kentucky where gas and oil production occur are the same areas suffering the most from poverty. The RBMC serves 14,000 people a year. Services include and not limited to: education, health & wellness care, economic opportunities, thrift store, GED classes, and senior services.
What most of the remaining missionary conferences have in common is their desired connection with the native people. The churches within these conferences struggle as many churches do to pay bills and provide ministries to their communities. Many of these churches are sustained by the financial giving of their annual conferences and advances given in their name. Some of the missionary conferences are dependent on clergy loaned from other conferences to support their churches. And like the Rochester UMC Clothing Closet, these churches provide needed items to struggling families.
The realization of the ecological destruction in Appalachia dovetailed with my focus group on climate change. My focus group consisted of about 22 persons from different churches. We discussed practical ways that we (as individuals and churches) could do to make a positive contribution to our environment. We also were resourced with the addresses of websites and organizations that are advocating for the care of our planet. I remember watching two videos depicting the rising sea levels. One of the videos was about a Carteret Island people who are relocating to another island and having to leave behind their way of life that has connected them with their ancestral home. The other was about a small East Coast town on an island where rising sea levels will eventually cost the government a lot of money to save their town.
Mission u also provided opportunities for young people. The youth had their own focus group and study books on the Missionary Conferences. The youth shared their thoughts and participated in our large gatherings through dance and selected readings. They created art for display and comment. They made new friends and connected with older women who had the same interest in making a better world.
They could also connect with three young women who were missionaries to our local region. All three of these missionaries came from different regions of our nation and have served at Tacoma Community House and Seattle’s Faith Action Network. These women shared their background stories on what led them to become US-2s (young adult missionary in the US – 2 years). It was insightful and encouraging to hear their perspective on life.
Mealtimes provided another way for me to connect with other participants. We shared about our lives and the issues we had in common. Some of these encounters have led to new friendships and to possible new ministry encounters. Mission u was a rich and informative experience. I would encourage you to attend this learning experience next summer.
Special thanks to Joan Hackett.
The Rev. Golden Neal is pastor in the PNW Conference and serves as the youth director for Rochester UMC.