Thursday, February 25, 2016

Olusimbo Ige: Persons, Places and Healthy Choices

Today's post is by Olusimbo Ige, Executive Director of Global Health for the General Board of Global Ministries.

I commute from the Bronx to Manhattan on the Number 6 train every morning. You will need to look up these locations and the significance of this commute if you are not a New Yorker. What is important is that this is a 30 minute ride often with very bizarre but very interesting happenings. On one particular morning, I was competing for standing space with a young lady who had remarkable mastery of holding on to two energetic little boys and an overflowing bag of goodies from Dunkin Donuts.  Fortunately, a Good Samaritan offered her seat to the 2 boys to squeeze into.

The mum promptly unpacked breakfast, which was a mid-size donut with frosting and rainbow colored sprinkled stuff. Such deliciousness! This must be the perfect breakfast if you are a four year old. I can still see the joy in the boys’ faces as they wolfed down their donuts and washed them down with some excitingly colored soda. I marveled as the mum struggled to wipe sticky fingers and prevent spills. I made a conscious effort not to think about why four year olds had to have breakfasts on crammed trains at 7 am in the morning. I tried even harder not to think about what I had for breakfast when I was four.

A few stops into Manhattan, another young lady gets on the train with a similar sized little boy, around 5 or 6 years old. The two little boys from the Bronx scoot over to let the new boy sit. Again the mother whips out breakfast. This time it was a shiny apple, a bright yellow banana followed by a granola bar. Fortunately, the first two boys had finished their donuts so I could not readily compare who looked happier with breakfast.  At this point I thought about pulling out my cup of yogurt and granola to stop my growling tummy, since it appeared that breakfast on the train was the order of the day. I repented of that idea quickly since I was holding on to a pole shared by 3 other persons.

For distraction I decided to think more about the 2 breakfast options for little boys I had just witnessed. How would these boys turn out after 10 years of enjoying these breakfast options? Will they be strapping young lads or what we like to call big boned or chubby youngsters? Maybe they will be confident and full of energy, or could they become troubled, bullied or battling with low self-esteem from body image concerns? Knowing how much dietary patterns impact lives and futures, I shuddered a bit thinking of the many children whose futures might be marred because of the dietary choices of today.

Since there are no interesting sights or lush greenery to draw me away from this kind of morbid thoughts, I thought about these two mums. What would make a mother choose a kind of breakfast for their sons? Maybe their knowledge of the nutritional value? I thought it hard to imagine a mother would be ignorant of the benefits of fruits and whole grains over donuts. Knowing the number of my doctor friends who would choose donuts over apples I thought that ignorance might not be the only problem.

Maybe time pressure? But then it is faster to prepare a meal of apples and bananas than to wait in line for donuts and soda at a coffee house isn’t it? But only if there is a ready source of fruits. I thought about my grocery shopping, I realized I had to drive about 20 minutes to a fresh produce place to get my stock of fruits and vegetables for the week but only had to walk a couple hundred feet to get to a deli or fast food outlet.

In addition, I know how hard it is to talk a four year old into eating a healthy meal. I remember how convinced my 7 year old is that the best meals are the latest, delicious creation on offer by one fast food outlet or the other as seen on TV. I could not quite recall seeing many advertisement on the latest, most exciting way to get your daily 5 servings of fruits and vegetables.

I had five more minutes to my stop when I also recalled that people tend to do what most people around them do. My son had said how his friends tease him for liking broccoli and how they think it is really gross to just chump on broccoli like he does. So he longer wanted broccoli but pizza, which is the coolest meal to have for lunch.

As I got off the train, my lingering thoughts were that choices are a product of much more than knowledge. It is easier to make popular choices especially when these choices are within easy reach. Making healthy choices sometimes require community level action to make healthy choices the norm rather than the exception, to make healthy options the easy options, readily available and within reach of everyone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), poor dietary choices are linked to obesity, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and cancer. These are all leading causes of death in the United States. Health is one of the four areas of focus of the United Methodist Church, and this includes effectively addressing poor nutrition in the United States as well as internationally. Global Ministries as the agency tasked with implementation of the global health mandate of the church has sought new opportunities to engage with community-based programs to remove barriers to healthy nutrition.

These programs will help ensure that beneficiaries are empowered to make healthy food choices; they will promote good family nutritional practices, including breastfeeding and appropriate foods for children and adults; and they will also help create community solutions that make healthy options available to and practical for residents. In 2015, the Global Health Unit awarded four nutrition grants to UMC-affiliated organizations to promote healthy eating among low income and vulnerable communities in the United States. We are excited about this new opportunity for the church to be in mission to address health issues in the United States.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hendrik Pieterse: Creating a “Global” or “Worldwide” Church: Does Our Language Matter?

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

As anticipated, the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA), the tome containing all legislation for the 2016 General Conference, features several proposals for more efficient denominational machinery to enable more effective witness in United Methodism’s increasingly varied ministry settings around the world. Among these are a revised “Plan UMC” (ostensibly fixing the shortcomings of the failed 2012 attempt); a substantive proposal from the Northeastern Jurisdiction (under the banner of the “NEJ Global Structure Task Force”); a couple of submissions (Northern Illinois, Wisconsin) essentially identical with the NEJ initiative; and an effort touted as “the simplest, least controversial way to move forward,” by a group laboring under the mantra “A Place of Reason UMC” (http://aplaceofreasonumc.org/). The latter three proposals presuppose the adoption of a “global” Book of Discipline (for the report and legislation about the global or “general” Discipline, see ADCA, pp. 895-901, pp. 1413-14).

Indeed, one might fairly consider the intent of these three proposals (NEJ, Northern Illinois/ Wisconsin, “Place of Reason”) to give structural shape to the logic driving the idea of a global Discipline, namely, accepting our growing cultural diversity as “a precious gift” while honoring the “essentials” that are “crucial for our Covenant and structural unity” (ADCA, p. 1413). For all three proposals, an equitable structural approach to the unity-diversity conundrum demands two moves: (1) Creating “central” or “connectional” conferences all the way down, including the United States; and (2) restricting the labor of General (or “Global Connectional”) Conference to “global” or “worldwide” issues only, employing the Global of “General” Discipline as yardstick and arbiter.

All three pieces of legislation deserve careful evaluation, but I’m not going to attempt that here. Nor will I dissect the legislation for the global Book of Discipline. Instead, I focus my musings on the language we United Methodists use to couch such solutions to our unity-diversity challenge.

Two terms have become key to our restructuring parlance over the past several years, namely, global and worldwide—with some people opting for one term over the other, while others use both interchangeably. The ADCA reports and legislation reflect these habits. For example, the NEJ proposal prefers “global,” while the Book of Discipline report and legislation (pp. 465-66, 897-901), as well as the report of the Commission on General Conference (pp. 42-46), like “worldwide.” The Connectional Table report employs both “global” and “worldwide” without differentiation (pp. 781-83).

Is anything of substance at stake in the varied, at times, indiscriminate, use of these terms? Do they convey different convictions and meanings or are they pretty much interchangeable? In short, does our language matter in this instance? I suggest that it does.

It would behoove us to devote some thought to what we intend by global and worldwide, because, while related, these terms are not the same. And getting clear on the similarities and differences in meaning and nuance can improve the analytical rigor and thoughtfulness of our unity-diversity discussions. Let me briefly illustrate.

Take the term worldwide. It is primarily a geographical term, and as such denotes the denomination’s territorial reach. However, our use of this meaning harbors an ambivalence that often goes unnoticed. On one hand, it reminds us to respect the particularities of land, soil, space—and the stories, memories, and habits that weave a particular space into a place. This use is clearly evident in the global Discipline legislation and the various reports noted earlier. On the other hand, we employ “worldwide” missionally—to denote our desire to expand the denomination’s presence around the world. The ADCA offers ready examples of this use, as well.

We would do well to ask how these two meanings should function in the understanding of our mission. In a world awash in religion—both Christian and non-Christian—expansion can quickly turn into competition. And competition—even “holy competition”—tends to dull attentiveness to the often-fragile social, political, and religious particularities of a place. In some instances, the cost of such tone-deafness can be injury to ecumenical relationships, in other instances damage to volatile interreligious balances. Either way, a great deal is at stake in being “worldwide.”

The term global encompasses what we mean by “worldwide” but adds important angles of vision we would do well to keep in mind. “Global” invokes “globalization”—and so draws attention to the transnational political, social, economic, and religious forces that connect and shape, for good or ill, the myriad places around the world in which United Methodists find themselves. The constant, often contested, negotiation between the “global” and the “local” reminds us that “global” and “local” are always intertwined in a dance of give and take, enrichment and loss, accommodation and resistance. For better or worse, as some would say, our lives are best interpreted as “glocal.”[1]

And so one wonders: How might sustained attention to this global-local dynamic prompt United Methodists to question the ease with which the legislation calls for a U.S. central conference to “deal with U.S.-centric issues” (Executive Summary, “Place of Reason”; http://aplaceofreasonumc.org/executive-summary/); or for a “Global Connectional Conference” that “will ONLY deal with global issues ...” (ADCA, p. 468); of for separating the “essentials” from the “non-essentials” in our search for a “global” Book of Discipline (ADCA, pp. 1413-14)? Would deeper awareness of our increasingly “glocal” reality not at the very least give us pause?

I trust it is clear that I’m not suggesting we quit using “worldwide” and “global” in defining our ecclesial identity. Rather, I’m suggesting we do the hard theological work of clarifying what we mean when we talk this way. It turns out our language really does matter.


[1] See Robert J. Schreiter, The New Catholicity: Theology between the Global and the Local (Orbis, 1997), esp. ch. 1.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

LYNC response to African bishops

As previously reported on this blog, last September, 11 of the 12 active African UMC bishops and one retired African UMC bishop put forward a statement on global terrorism, marriage and sexuality, and the unity of the church. The statement gained widespread attention in the United States in November and engendered a lot of commentary from a variety of theopolitical standpoints, especially regarding the bishops' remarks on marriage and sexuality. Links to several such responses are included in our previous post about the statement.

Just last week, however, a UMNS news story highlighted one particular response, an open letter to the African bishops released in early January by the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC), a consortium of several official and affiliated United Methodist organizations, including Black Methodists for Church Renewal; Fossil Free UMC; Love Prevails; Metodistas Asociados Representando la Causa de los Hispano-Americanos (MARCHA); Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA); Methodists In New Directions (MIND); National Federation of Asian American United Methodists (NFAAUM); Native American International Caucus of United Methodists (NAIC); Pacific Islanders Caucus of United Methodists (PINCUM); Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN); United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities; United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns; and Western Methodist Justice Movement (WMJM).

There are two things that make this statement newsworthy and different from many of the previous writings in response to the African bishops' statement. First, the statement is phrased as a letter directly to the African bishops, not a comment on the African bishops' statement directed at a third-party (predominantly American) audience. LYNC certainly had a wider audience in mind by issuing their response as an open letter, but the bishops themselves seem to be the primary audience.

Second, LYNC includes a mix of unofficial but United Methodist-affiliated organizations and the officially recognized UMC racial and ethnic caucuses. While previous responses included those from unofficial but United Methodist-affiliated organizations such as Good News and Reconciling Ministries Network, the LYNC response is, as far as I know, the first response to include the voices of official parts of the UMC organizational infrastructure.

It is too soon to know how or if the African bishops will respond to this open letter by LYNC and what the effects of either the African bishops' statement or the LYNC open letter will be in other parts of the denomination. Both statements obviously have implications for the upcoming General Conference in May. Observers will have to wait to see what (if any) effects these two documents have at that gathering.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Recommended watching: Pre-General Conference Briefing videos

Videos from the recent Pre-General Conference Briefing in Portland in January are now available on YouTube. Now even those unable to attend the event will be able to see plenary speakers, panel discussions, and other events designed to provide information about the upcoming UMC General Conference. Videos range from approximately a half hour in length to almost an hour and a half

A complete playlist of videos is available.
Readers of this blog, however, may be most interested in one of the following sessions:
Revising the Social Principles (about plans to develop global Social Principles)
Proposals for a U.S. Central Conference
The Worldwide Nature of the Church (including discussions of a global Book of Discipline)
Restructuring Proposals (about general boards and agencies)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Recommended reading: Graham Kings on Anglican Primates 2016

As The United Methodist Church prepares for its General Conference 2016, it is perhaps interesting to see what transpired at the recent global conclave of our sister denomination, the Anglicans' Primates 2016 meeting. Bishop Graham Kings, Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion, has written this summary of the meeting. While the Primates' meeting received much attention in the press for its decisions regarding sanctions imposed on the Episcopal Church, Kings argues that the meeting should be seen as emphasizing Anglican unity, ecumenism, and holistic mission.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

UMW focuses on climate justice in 2016

In my wrap-up of big news trends in 2015 and projection of news trends in 2016, I had indicated that the environment has been and will continue to be a major story within missiology. Now the United Methodist Women (UMW) is helping carry out that prediction for 2016, as indicated by their 2016 mission study materials. The UMW has identified climate justice as their social issue for study in both 2016 and 2017. Climate justice is also the focus of their children and youth studies for 2016.

Beyond the mere choice to focus on an environmentally-linked topic, the UMW's approach to environmental issues in their mission study indicates something about the variety of ways in which the environment can intersect with missiology. It is possible, for instance, to ground a missiological concern for the environment in a strong theology of God's role as Creator and humans' responsibility to steward God's creation. Yet this is not the only theological approach one can take to environmental issues, and it is not the one that the UMW takes.

Instead, the UMW links question about climate change and the environment to questions about justice and treatment of the poor. In this framing, the environment matters not necessarily for its own sake but for the sake of the humans affected by their environment. In this framing, the missiological challenge of climate change is its impact on the least of these and Jesus' command to care for them.

Of course, it is also possible to take both approaches and affirm that the environment matters both for its own sake and for the sake of the humans who live in it. The essential point is that there are multiple theological justifications for a concern for the intersection of mission and the environment.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Recommended listening: UM & Global on UM Insight's SEEK Podcast

A few months ago, I was privileged to have a conversation with Cynthia Astle of the United Methodist news website UM Insight. Cynthia edited that conversation into an episode of UM Insight's new podcast, SEEK. You can listen to the episode, which is about half an hour long and covers a variety of topics related to the contemporary practice of mission and the global nature of the UMC, online here.