A common song, sung in different voices, marked the beginning of the 2004 General Conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Native American, African, Hispanic, Korean, Caribbean and gospel drumbeats called the church together for its quadrennial legislative assembly. The 998 delegates and more than 1,000 visitors joined a mass choir and orchestra in the historic hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” at the April 27 “Service of Holy Communion and Remembrance.”
Some participants sang in Korean, others in Spanish, others in French, Swahili or English, and the hymn was also performed in American Sign Language.
The song was preceded by a lone dancer in white who swept through the auditorium with African dance movements. She held a censer, reminding the audience of the words of the Psalm 150:6, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
Water played an integral role in the opening worship service, as Bishop Janet Riggle Huie of the Arkansas Area and Bishop Peter Dabale of Nigeria scooped water from a large basin and let it fall, proclaiming, the General Conference theme, “Water Washed, Spirit Born.”
The conference is conducting the business of the church during the next 10 days in a facility located by the spot where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers come together to form the Ohio River.
In his sermon, Bishop Ruediger R. Minor, president of the Council of Bishops, remembered when he was sent to Russia 12 years ago. There, he said, he discovered that baptism was not about a few drops, but about being scrubbed clean.
“We all need to be scrubbed clean, even if you’ve developed an expertise in cleaning the dark spots of other people,” he said. “A symbolic washing won’t do it.”
The bishop reminded those present that since the beginning, God has had a plan for his creation. That plan, he said, was alive in the time of the prophets, continued through Jesus and is present in the world today.
“It is the Christ in us who recognizes the Christ in our sisters and brothers.” If we cannot see the Christ in others, it might be our own fault, he said. “We may have silenced the Christ in us.”
Preaching on Ezekiel 36:16-28, 33-36 and John 3:1-8, Minor called upon those present to make honoring God their first priority. This must be put before running the church’s machinery and getting support for certain causes, he said, encouraging the delegates to act “for God’s sake.”
“Will God have a chance to put God’s name on this place?” he asked, in a challenge to the assembly.
In other water-related worship, participants had opportunities to symbolically remember their baptisms before receiving Holy Communion. They also watched liturgical dancers perform with flower scarves, and sang “Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters” by Ruth Duck, the hymn on which the conference theme was based.
Performers in the internationally flavored worship included General Conference Music Director Barbara Day Miller and the Candler Singers, from Candler School of Theology in Atlanta; and the Centenary Worship Orchestra from Lexington, Ky.
The mass choir included singers from Mount Lebanon United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh; Trinity UMC in Camp Hill, Pa.; Foundry UMC in Washington; Grace UMC in Warren, Pa.; the Korean UMC of Greater Washington; and the Combined Clergy Choruses of the Western and Central Pennsylvania annual conferences.
Liturgical dancers were from Gordon Memorial UMC in Nashville, Tenn.; Kapp N Kompany in Atlanta; Gales Ferry (Conn.) UMC; Living Springs Christian Fellowship UMC in Bowie, Md.; the North County Ballet Ensemble Liturgical Dance Troupe in Plattsurgh, N.Y.; and Contoocook (N.H.) UMC.
Bob Winstead coordinated the drumming for the service, which was performed by Elie Kihonia, Yong-Rae Lee and Native American Drummers from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.
During the service, the bishops and the bishops’ spouses who died during the last four years were remembered with prayer and a procession of flames.
*Lauber is a staff writer for the United Methodist News Service
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