Institute on Religion and Democracy
May 8, 2000
The head of United Methodism's Washington, DC lobby office defended his involvement in raising money for Greg Craig, the lawyer who is representing the father of little Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. Thom White Wolf Fassett, the general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, was speaking to delegates of the denomination's governing General Conference, which is meeting May 2- 12 in Cleveland.
In the midst of great controversy, Fassett was forced by United Methodism's financial oversight agency to shut-down the short- lived "Humanitarian Advocacy Fund." Its balance of $50,000 was transferred to the National Council of Churches, which now administers the fund.
A delegate serving on the General Conference's legislative committee for Church and Society asked that Fassett provide details about the fund's creation and demise. Appearing before the committee, Fassett bemoaned the "floating pieces of flotsam and jetsam, the disinformation and the misinformation" that had been circulating about the fund, although he failed to specify what inaccuracies to which he was referring.
From the fund's start, Fassett had claimed that no church funds would go towards it, only earmarked special donations. Before the committee, he admitted that staff time and travel expenses were incurred in the fund's administration. But he insisted that this money was "infinitesimal compared to larger issues." And he said his board was currently the subject of an outside audit regarding the fund.
"This is about a child and a little boy," Fassett said. "We believe in family values." He argued that his board had not advocated little Elian's return to Cuba, just his return to his father, although he did not explain why he believed one would not automatically lead to the other. Fassett explained that he had organized the fund in response to pleas from the Cuban Council of Churches to "ensure equal representation before the law" for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
"We haven't solicited or appealed" for the fund, Fassett said. He did not explain how the fund quickly raised $50,000 in the absence of any appeals. "We're still supporting the cause," he said. "It's still a priority to make this father and his child remain united."
Later, at a special banquet organized for delegates by Fassett's board, he further defended the fund. "The Board of Church and Society makes visible the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "We broke the stalemate involving Elian." In an indirect criticism of Elian's mother, who drowned during their sea escape from Cuba, Fassett pointed out that little Elian "didn't choose to board an unsafe boat or live with distant relatives whom he had never met." Fassett's last point was incorrect, as Elian's great uncle and cousin visited Elian in Cuba in 1998.
Fassett said that Elian's father never "chose to have his child taken from him." Elian's Florida relatives claim that Juan Miguel in fact phoned them when his son and ex-wife left Cuba to alert them to their impending arrival in Florida. And Fassett also oddly blamed the U.S. embargo for preventing an earlier reunion between father and son. In fact, the U.S. Government, which has largely sided with Elian's father, never blocked his entry into the United States. The timing of Juan Miguel's arrival instead seems to have been decided by the Cuban government. Fassett declined to acknowledge that it is Cuban government restrictions that prevent its citizens from leaving Cuba freely.
"Jesus doesn't let us withhold our mercy," Fassett implored as a justification for his policy. "We respond to cries for help even when unpopular." In an apparent reference to the United Methodist General Council of Finance and Administration, which compelled Fassett to abandon the fund, he said, "Coals [were brought] upon our heads by the bureaucracies of the church."
"It's not right that those who condemn Castro would abuse the rights of Juan Miguel, abusing Juan Miguel for political reasons," Fassett said. "God will be our judge." Fassett also reported that he and his daughter had visited little Elian and his father at the Mar;yland estate where they are staying, along with Cuban government officials. "It was like coming into an American family," Fassett said.
Joining Fassett at the podium during the Church and Society dinner was former civil rights leader and United Methodist pastor Joseph Lowery, who laughingly complained that, "We're still afraid of the great empire of Cuba." He also drew laughter when he asked, "What if [President} Reagan had ordered the raid in Miami?" (He was referring to the armed federal agents who retrieved little Elian away from his Cuba relatives).
Lowery also drew a standing ovation when he challenged the church's opposition to homosexual practice. "How long will we burn energy over this sexuality thing?" he asked. "How dare you challenge God's power, that he can't use anybody (sic)!"
About five hundred people attended the Church and Society banquet.