This past week, I had the opportunity to participate in the UMAdvocacy Anti-Poverty Summit outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Anti-Poverty Summit is a beautiful example of Methodist connectionalism at its best. This was the third year that the three Annual Conferences that exist within the state of Pennsylvania had collaborated to put together an event that would impact all of their Conferences because they share a common state government. This year’s event was led by Stephen Drachler, the Executive Director of United Methodist Advocacy in PA, and blessed to have the Episcopal leadership of Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference and Bishop Jeremiah Park of the Susquehanna Annual Conference.
Young leaders from all three of the Annual Conferences in Pennsylvania, which make up about a third of the Annual Conferences in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, took part; as well as young leaders from the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference.
We had great keynote addresses from Mike Slaughter, Faith Fowler, and Lorenza Andrade Smith, and then had the opportunity to dialogue with them in smaller groups. I soon found myself in a room with the Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith and a diverse group of participants from all generations. It was an empowering experience for me to see young people not only present but also actively participating in the event.
The importance of this struck home when I recalled an encounter from the past year of travel throughout the Jurisdiction.
A little while back, I was participating in a youth event in one of our Conferences; and as one of the activities some of the youth were making cards that would go to a ministry to those who live on the streets in one of our urban centers. The cards were to be distributed to those who came in for food or other assistance. The youth were delighted with their task and were busy creating all kinds of beautiful works of art to be an encouragement – hand-printing phrases such as “You are a star!” and “You are loved!”
My attention was caught all of a sudden as a minor dispute broke out at one end of the table.
“You can’t put that on a card,” a young man was saying, “that will be awkward.”
“Why?”, the young woman diligently working away replied.
“Because… you know… it will just be awkward,” he insisted.
“What’s wrong with writing, ‘You’re a leader!’” on my card, she persisted.
“Because… you know… poor people can’t be leaders. It will just be awkward for them to read that,” he insisted, “It will just be ironic and sad, because they can’t be a leader.”
As the back and forth continued, it seemed the appropriate pastoral moment to engage the dialogue and I was able to share with them my experiences living in community with people who had been living on the streets, and learning from leaders of all walks of life. I told them about my experiences with groups like Durham C.A.N. (Congregations, Associations & Neighborhoods) of Durham, North Carolina, that work together to promote justice for everyone who lives in their area. I explained to them that movements like that are dependent on the leadership of people of every economic situation. Most importantly, we discussed how God expresses special love for the poor in the scriptures and calls rich and poor alike to be leaders in the Christian movement. We all came away from the discussion with a different point of view and commitment to see one another with fresh eyes. As young leaders, we need to be having these conversations with one another.
Leadership does not mean wealth. Leadership does not mean how you dress or what kind of education you have. The potential for leadership is something that lies within each of us. And we need leaders of all types and from all places, ages, financial situations, backgrounds, genders, races and ethnicities. Without recognizing this as a need, we will fall short of the calling that God has for us as a community of faith that sees all people as created in the image of God and capable of teaching us something about what it means to imitate God.
Thank you to the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, the Susquehanna Annual Conference and the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, and particularly Stephen Drachler, for your leadership in putting together this opportunity for people of all walks of life to come together to discuss how we can live more faithfully.