General Conferences planned for Asia, Africa

Plans are under way for the first United Methodist General Conference gatherings outside the United States — in the Philippines in 2024 and in Zimbabwe in 2028.

The Commission on General Conference on April 24 approved the future sites for the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, which meets every four years. The vote came after days of sometimes-heated discussions around plans to go to Harare, Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s government has faced repeated accusations of human rights violations, especially for its treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning individuals.

The Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of the General Conference, noted Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa had assured him that delegates would be safe within conference venues.

“The United Methodists I met in Zimbabwe, I believe, would place themselves between harm and any of us who went — any of us who went.” Reist said. “That’s my personal conviction. … There was an overwhelming desire of the people to have us there and to prove that they would welcome us and care for us.”

Many commission members remained wary.

Audun Westad of Norway noted that the human-rights watchdog group Amnesty International has listed Zimbabwe among the most dangerous nations for LGBTQ individuals.

“I know you can’t guarantee our safety here in the U.S., but being in the top 10 list of dangerous places is a completely different story,” he said. “I feel we have to have some kind of official statement from the government in Zimbabwe regarding this because it is a huge problem.”

Initially, the commission considered invitations for General Conference to convene first in Zimbabwe in 2024 and then the Philippines in 2028. Ultimately, the commission reversed the years in hopes of an improving situation in the southeastern African nation. 

Plans for both sites “remain provisional (depending) on facilities and other situations being sufficient,” said Judi M. Kenaston, the commission’s chair.

Both gatherings are expected to cost more than the the 2016 General Conference, but it is still too soon to offer an estimate. Future commissions will determine whether the preparations go forward, Kenaston said.

Urge to reflect global nature

Still, commission members agreed that the global denomination’s top lawmaking assembly should move beyond American shores as soon as possible. About a third of United Methodists now live in Africa.

The commission reduced the number of delegates from around 1,000 to 864 for the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, in hopes that a smaller body would smooth the way to meeting in smaller venues outside the United States.

Under church law, the commission has the authority to set sites for General Conference up to four quadrenniums in advance. Earlier this quadrennium, the commission decided the 2020 General Conference would be in Minneapolis.

The commission only considers locations where bishops welcome the massive responsibilities of hosting the legislative gathering that historically has drawn some 3,000 people in addition to delegates.

In this case, invitations came from Nhiwatiwa and Manila Area Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan. Reist and Sara Hotchkiss, General Conference business manager, visited both locations to explore possible accommodations.

Site concerns

The main worry about meeting in the Philippines is infrastructure: Will there be enough hotel and meeting space available by 2024 for the denomination’s biggest meeting? This was a problem when the 2008 General Conference met in Fort Worth, Texas.

Manila, the capital of the Philippines, has two convention centers. The better option, Hotchkiss said, is the International Convention Center, which already has booths set up for interpreters.

She added that the center would be “a tight fit,” requiring theater seating and leaving no room for the tables delegates usually use during plenary. And the closest hotel within walking distance has a casino, which is against the denomination’s Social Principles. All other hotels that could be used as overflow meeting space require busing.

The University of Zimbabwe in Harare, Hotchkiss said, is ready to accommodate General Conference needs if the gathering were in June when classes are not in session. This would require most U.S. conferences to reschedule their usual annual conference meetings.

Harare last year also hosted the Ebenezer Convention, a United Methodist gathering attended by some 55,000 worshippers — far more than the typical General Conference.

However, infrastructure was not the main concern.

Worries about Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, sexual acts between people of the same sex are criminal offenses. The country’s President Robert Mugabe, who is 91, has used violent rhetoric in speaking out against homosexuality, and the country’s gay population has gone largely underground.

The United Methodist Church teaches that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It bans clergy from performing and churches from hosting ceremonies that celebrate same-gender unions. Still, the denomination also teaches that all people are of sacred worth and urges governments not to discriminate because of sexual orientation.

Every General Conference brings debate about the denomination’s stance and, often, protests urging the denomination to be more inclusive of LBGTQ individuals.

Commission members expressed hope the atmosphere in Zimbabwe could be very different by 2028.

The commission’s final vote for the Philippines and Zimbabwe sites was unanimous.

The Rev. Damião Elias, a commission member from Mozambique, helped scope out General Conference accommodations in Zimbabwe.

“I believe changes are coming,” he said through an interpreter.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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