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How I Want to Shape My Ministry: Student Riva Tabelisma on the UMC General Conference

It has been more than a week since the Special Session of the General Conference of the UMC adjourned. The result of that gathering came as a shock to many people, especially to me as I witnessed it in person. I went to the Special Session of the General Conference because the Filipino American Caucus (National Association of Filipino American United Methodists) was launching the Global Filipino United Methodist Movement -- a missional ministry for Filipinos in diaspora worldwide. I also went to provide support for the delegates of the Philippines Central Conference.

Growing up UMC, I have always thought that General Conference Sessions -- whether Special or Regular Session -- were celebratory times for members of the denomination to get together. But last week's event was far from celebratory. Instead, it showed the polarization of the denomination. The issue of human sexuality is not a new argument to the UMC. History has been clear about marginalization of LGBTQIA persons who are clergy or seeking ordination, or who are same-sex couples to be married in its church properties. 

Methodist faith was part of the US colonization of the Philippines. My family were converts by American missionaries. My ancestors welcomed the American missionaries into their homes when the missionaries were propagating Methodism in the rural areas of the northern part of the Philippines. My whole family was educated in schools that were built by Methodist missionaries, including through college and post-graduate studies. As part of this colonization, we have embraced a more conservative perspective on Christianity. While members of my family are faithful Methodists who are involved social justice, many still hold conservative views, especially with the denomination's stand on human sexuality.

In 2010, I attended a worldwide gathering of UM young people in Berlin, Germany. I did not understand, then, why the UMC should vote into accepting "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" to be ordained clergy or perform same-sex marriage in the church's properties and campuses. My understanding of the Bible, at the time, was that marriage is designed for a man and a woman.

But as I began taking Scripture and theology classes, I developed a different understanding on the Bible's teaching of human sexuality. This included interpreting and exegeting Scriptures which led me to a deeper understanding of marriage. And with this, I have learned to develop my own theology, which has become more progressive than what I was raised in.

In the plenary last week you could feel the tension. The speakers were passionate in advocating their plans, whether it was the Traditional Plan, the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan. Eventually, the UMC voted for the Traditional Plan to supposedly reconcile my polarized denomination. Unfortunately, the Traditional Plan is just a more punitive scheme for handling LGBTQIA+ clergy, same-sex couples and clergy who choose to perform weddings for same-sex couples. The loud protests of the progressive folks who were supporting the One Church Plan provided a feeling of encouragement for observers like me. In my personal opinion, the votes in the General Conference reflect colonization and white privilege: the organization that advocated for the Traditional Plan focused on a conservative theology with poor exegesis without discussing the effects of the Traditional Plan on the Central Conferences.

In the passing of this plan, I feel the UMC that I have come to understand and fully embrace died. In this death, a part of me died, too. The UMC is the church that literally raised and nurtured me. As I look more closely at what happened in St. Louis, it was a political exercise more than a "spiritual cleansing," as my conservative friends are claiming. I have seen the UMC target a specific group of people because it did not understand fully how God designed humanity.

I am angry with what happened in St Louis, but this anger is helping me discern how I want to shape my ministry. As a youth minister in a progressive and reconciling congregation, I am in an echo-chamber, but I need that, because in this echo-chamber I am in a position to really talk to people and encourage them to continue the fight for full inclusion in my beloved UMC.

I still love -- and will always love -- the UMC, despite the pain that is has inflicted on me and my LGBTQIA+ siblings. My time at the General Conference encourages me to be a hand reaching out to those who stumble, when the UMC has disenfranchised them: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).

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Riva Tabelisma

Riva Tabelisma is a current M.Div. student with a concentration in Church Leadership, Methodist Studies. She is from Manila, Philippines, and moved to Minnesota in August 2016.

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