Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 10, 1999
This summer, the United Methodist Women's Division sponsored a missions training camp for teenagers from around the world. But the camp's focus seems to have been on the traditional political themes of the Women's Division rather than spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More than a few students openly questioned why the curriculum was not faithful to the official evangelistic purpose of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), of which the Women's Division is a part.
Throughout the conference the youth questioned some of the statements from workshop leaders. At one point, a young woman stood up and read the first stated goal of the GBGM: to witness to the Gospel for initial decision to follow Jesus Christ. Upon finishing she asked, "If this is a missions conference, and this is your number one goal, then why hasn't it even been mentioned?" The adult leaders seemed unable to respond.
The first International Youth Conference for Mission (IYCM) convened July 3-11 at Geneva Point Center in Center Harbor, New Hampshire. The Women's Division paid for the travel of the 150 youth and 50 adults who attended. Each person's travel cost averaged about $2,000, making the total cost about $400,000.
Participants were selected for the event after demonstrating their interest in mission through applications, written essays and letters of recommendation, according to Women's Division chief Joyce Sohl. The youth were all 16-17 years of age and members of the United Methodist Church or an overseas autonomous Methodist Church. More than 39 countries were represented, including; Singapore, Korea, India, Liberia, Tanzania, Italy, and Brazil.
The beginning of the week started out like any other church camp. Icebreakers were used to help everyone get to know one another, but theological persuasions eventually were revealed. The adult leaders seemed to test how far they could go with certain concepts, such as calling God Mother, or referring to people as "co-creators" with God. Sometimes students openly objected to unorthodox theological assertions or at least shared their puzzlement.
A group of youth from the South Central Jurisdiction asked the camp organizers for a workshop on homosexuality. At first the camp leaders liked the idea, until they found out the students intended to reinforce biblical principles and official United Methodist teachings regarding sexuality. According to some of the students, Joyce Sohl scotched their proposal, explaining that such a workshop would be too troublesome.
Instead, the workshop subjects were: Mission and Justice, Racial Justice, Justice for Children, Environmental Justice, and Violence and Justice. The word justice was defined as: "find out whom it belongs to, and then give it back." Some youth asked what these themes had to do with missions. They were beginning to realize that the focus of mission had moved from proclaiming the power of Jesus Christ to change lives, to marshalling state power to correct inequalities of social circumstances. Many youth were looking for practical ways to share their faith in Christ, but instead learned how to promote the political agenda of the Women's Division.
David Wildman, a seminar designer for the Women's Division, led a workshop on Violence and Justice. He claimed that Jesus was assassinated for His political beliefs. And he attributed the sudden drop of support for Christ among His original followers to His "soft stance on crime," "opposition to the death penalty," and "His call to release prisoners." Wildman thought Jesus was soft on crime because of the forgiveness that he offered the adulterous women in John 8:11. His claim that Jesus was opposed to the death penalty was based on Luke 23:34, where Christ said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." And Wildman's claim that Christ advocated a mass release of prison inmates was drawn from the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the Messiah being sent to "proclaim freedom for the prisoners...to release the oppressed."
While speculating on Jesus' supposed views on current political issues, Wildman said little about where Jesus derived his authority to speak at all. Nor did Wildman discuss Christ's claim that He Himself was "the way, the truth, and the life."
Rebecca Pridmore, a student of ecological and feminist theology at Drew University, led a workshop on Environmental Justice. She performed a satire about the "Biotic Baking Brigade"(BBB) and the incarceration of some BBB activists in California. The BBB is a group of comic vigilantes who throw meringue pies in the faces of corporate "criminals" and their accomplices. Targets of the BBB include Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, lawyer Robert Shapiro, and Sierra Club director Carl Pope.
In her workshop, Pridmore performed a one-woman drama about a girl who grew up with her parents at various communes. Her days were spent playing in the dirt and "watching her parents drop acid." This girl grows up to become a member of the Biotic Baking Brigade. And she, like three other real-life pie crusaders of the BBB, will be spending a year in jail for throwing a pie at Willie Brown. At the conclusion of the play, Pridmore explained that she would be performing for the jailed threesome after their release.
Most of the youth looked uncomfortable during the play and did not appreciate its supposed humor. When Pridmore had finished, she asked why they hadn't laughed and why they were not able to relate to her performance.
Pridmore shared experiences from her days as a field manager for Greenpeace, an often militant environmental group. She claimed that Jesus was a radical political activist, based on His clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple.
She gave advice to students on how to avoid getting arrested at protests, and how to get arrested when politically desirable. Pridmore often cited examples based upon her own career of marching on corporate office buildings, and the passed around a copy of the left-wing Mother Jones magazine.
Tamara Walker, a GBGM staff person, led the workshop on Mission and Justice. Like Pridmore, she also condemned capitalism, focusing on the exploitation of foreign labor markets by large American corporations. Walker's remarks displayed an ignorance about exchange rates and competitive job markets. She thought "big business" was unfair to profit from selling products that people want to buy. She advocated a world that is "people centered," not "profit-centered." But her solution appeared not to be based on spiritual transformation through the Gospel, but rather government regulation and control of private industry.
According to a hand-out that Walker distributed, our "mission is to challenge the false gods of our times." In her workshop, she listed: ego-centrism, materialism, militarism, economic exploitation, exploitation of the earth, race, class and gender privilege, and the media's sale of news as a commodity. She and other speakers castigated the sinful nature of unjust political and economic institutions, but they seemed unable to acknowledge the sinful predisposition of every individual person.
This United Methodist camp for youth showcased the politically biased and often spiritually empty missions outlook of the Women's Division. Speakers had little to say about the imperative of winning a lost world to Jesus Christ, instead offering only left-wing political solutions, while implying that all religions contain God's truth. Fortunately, many if not most of the students present seemed unconvinced. The 1960's style radicalism that the Women's Division touted seemed archaic and irrelevant to young people born in the 1980's. Unfortunately, these students could not rely upon a United Methodist-sponsored event for sound or fulfilling spiritual guidance.