Jeffrey Warren of northern New York State was the only speaker at the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church (February 23-26, 2019) who anybody heard outside the convention center in St Louis. His 3 minutes of microphone time was replete with passion, hope, and irony. He got a sustained standing ovation which even brought the bishops to their feet (in defiance of conference procedures). He was an instant on-line hit. [You may find him on YouTube.] As I type this about 3 days after Jeffrey spoke to the assembly, far more than half a million viewers have viewed his plea for unity and justice. End to end, 25,000 hours have been spent paying attention to what he said. No other speech at the conference received any substantial air-time on social or mass media.
Jeffrey was a lay delegate among 800 at the conference. He is a student at Sarah Lawrence College, and therefore one of the youngest delegates. And he announced he is gay and hopes to become a Methodist pastor. If he makes it he has already preached to more people than he is likely to do throughout all the rest of his life. But we can’t know that, because he has what it takes to get noticed.
His message in three minutes was simple and contained three memorable sentences. “We desire a church that seeks the justice of God,” he said in behalf of people his age as well as all LGBT people. He talked about his successful campus witness, saying, “They (fellow students who came to Christ through his efforts) didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t!” Score! Finally, in full voice to be heard above the cheering mob, he shouted, “We are the church. We are God’s children.” His appeal was for unity and acceptance.
Ironically, (and irony abounds) his speech was on a procedural matter. Who would have guessed a bit of parliamentary maneuvering would steal everybody’s heart? He was supporting a move to send the conference’s consideration to a judicial council for review. Even more ironic is the fact that he represented a point of view that was going down in flaming defeat, and yet his short speech was the one everybody is going to remember. Most ironic of all is that he was speaking as one of the generation who will be sitting in the pews, standing in the pulpits, and residing in bishops’ chanceries in the next 20 years if the United Methodist Church in North America lasts that long.
There is a lesson to be remembered from this and other remarkable incidents in the past several months, including the Parkland, Florida high school mass murder survivors. The future generation is arriving now. They share the present, but they represent the values that will preserve the future. Without them now, at this very minute, the future could be as dystopian as “Mad Max” and “Clockwork Orange” showed us.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.