On a day when officials at the State Department were monitoring the results of a constitutional referendum in Iraq, a couple of miles away in a local hotel the United Methodist Board of Church and Society passed a resolution calling on the United States to withdraw its troops from the country.
"As people of faith, we raise our voice in protest against the tragedy of the unjust war in Iraq," the resolution stated. "We urge the United States government to develop and implement a plan for the withdrawal of its troops. The U.S. invasion has set in motion a sequence of events which may plunge Iraq into civil war."
Criticizing a war "waged on false premises," the resolution went on to state, "Thousands of lives have been lost and hundreds of billions of dollars wasted in a war the United States initiated and should never have fought. ...We grieve for all those whose lives have been lost or destroyed in this needless and avoidable tragedy. Military families have suffered undue hardship from prolonged troop rotations in Iraq and loss of loved ones. It is time to bring them home."
The resolution passed easily on the last day of the board's Oct. 13-17 meeting, with only two no votes and one abstention.
In a separate resolution, the board called on Congress to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate detention and interrogation practices at U.S.-run facilities in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The board applauded the U.S. Senate's vote to prohibit the "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment" of prisoners, and stated: "We do not believe that all those responsible have been held accountable."
The agency's directors also urged the government of the Philippines to end human rights violations; hailed the recent presidential election in Liberia; endorsed a boycott of Turtle Bay Resort by the church's California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference to support the hotel workers' collective bargaining efforts; and announced that the agency's board of trustees would seek a declaratory judgment for the Superior Court of Washington D.C. regarding the use of the United Methodist Building Endowment Fund and Trust.
The board is the social action and advocacy agency of the church, supporting a range of ministries, including health care, the environment, economic development, education, human rights and international affairs.
The timing of the Iraq resolution, at a moment when the Bush administration is hoping a new constitution will start to stabilize that country, did not concern James Winkler, the board's top staff executive.
"A lot of people voted for the constitution to hasten the exit of the United States," he said. "Iraqis want the United States out of Iraq, and we want the United States out of Iraq. I see us acting hand in glove with the Iraqi people today."
But first, members of the board had to work to overcome disagreement on the resolution. Drafted during the first three days of the meeting, the measure was tabled for a vote Oct. 15 when two board members objected to wording they interpreted as critical of U.S. troops and that they thought might give comfort and support to Iraqi insurgents.
Pat Curtin, a board member from Conroe, Texas, and a veteran of the Korean War, said he remembered being shunned when he returned from the battlefield. "They haven't been there, they haven't had this stuff thrown at them," he said of some of his board colleagues.
Howard Mason, a board member from Seaford, Del., and a veteran of both World
War II and the Korean War, joined Curtin in pushing for changes to the original draft.
"It's an emotional thing because we were there," he said, referring to wartime combat. "We're against war, but we appreciate the G.I.s' sacrifice."
After the board approved a tabling motion put forward by Mike Freeman, a member from Jackson, Tenn., a group of eight people, including Curtin and Mason, began negotiating alternative language.
The next day, the board debated the resolution for an hour, voting on five amendments to edit language. "This is what the church is about - seeking consensus," Freeman said.
The Rev. Steve Sprecher of Lake Oswego, Ore., chairperson of the Peace with Justice Committee, praised the resolution process. "This board holds as a high value hearing all opinions and finding ways to come as close as it can to reflect the beliefs of all," he said. "There is a real respect for each other that is heartening. I hope it's something that can be used as a model for other parts of the church."
Trust fund question
In other business, the board learned that its trustees have decided to seek a judgment from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on the issue of whether the board is misusing its Building Endowment Fund and Trust.
Although the board received a clean audit from the KPMG accounting firm in 2003, its 2004 audit has not been completed because a member of the General Council on Finance and Administration's audit and review committee, for the second year in a row, has raised a concern about the possible misuse of board funds.
The allegations stem from the definition of the kind of activities the Board of Church and Society can engage in. The unnamed GCFA audit committee member is asserting that the board's predecessor agency, the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, could only pursue alcohol-related programs.
Established in 1917, the original board was combined over time with the boards of World Peace and Social and Economic Concerns to form what is today the Board of Church and Society. Winkler said the mandate of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals went beyond anti-alcohol efforts. Three legal opinions have upheld that the Board of Church and Society is operating within the law in offering a wide range of programmatic activities.
Bishop James Swanson of the Holston Conference, chairman of the board's trustees, urged other board members not to become emotional about the issue. "The trustees are not anxious about this," he said. "We would seek the declaratory judgment so that we can put this to rest one way or another. Don't be fighting and fussing. Behave like persons who have been transformed by the blood of Jesus Christ."
Winkler said that he spends time each day addressing the allegations. "There is a campaign of deliberate disinformation, distortion and misrepresentation taking place about the so-called misuse of the United Methodist Building Endowment Fund," he said. "The claim that the income is being misspent is the great urban legend of the United Methodist Church."
One area of advocacy work for the board has been workers' rights. During their meeting, the board members endorsed a consumer boycott against the Turtle Bay Resort Hotel in Hawaii. The hotel owners and management have been in contract negotiations with the hotel workers for several years, and the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against the hotel last January, charging unfair labor practices.
"It shows that this board truly implements the (United Methodist) Social Principles and that they're supporting all workers," said JoAnn Yoon Fukumoto, the board's peace with justice educator in the California-Pacific Conference. The workers in Hawaii "came to the United Methodist Church because they knew our stance on worker justice."
*Schoeff is a freelance writer based in Washington.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].