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Long assembly welcomes lighthearted moments

By Marta W. Aldrich*
May 23, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

Bishop John Hopkins laughs as 7-year-old Katherine Commale invites him to buy a net to help the Nothing But Nets anti-malaria campaign following her introduction to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

In show business, they warn that you should never share the stage with a child if you don't want to get upstaged.

Such was the case for Bishop John Hopkins when he presented 7-year-old Katherine Commale to delegates and visitors on the second day of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference. Introducing Katherine as a sign of hope in the church for raising more than $40,000 for the Nothing But Nets anti-malaria campaign, the bishop asked the brown-haired youngster, "What can I do to help?"

"Buy a bed net!" Katherine deadpanned as the crowd laughed and applauded.

Hopkins then reached into his pocket and handed her a wad of bills that Katherine later said added up to $100––enough to buy 10 bed nets to help protect families in Africa from the mosquito-borne disease.

The scene was among the lighter moments during the denomination's 10-day legislative meeting, where occasional humor was a welcome diversion from the more than 1,500 petitions that General Conference had to wade through––many on complex and emotional issues––under intense deadline pressure.

Finding humor in the process

General Conference meets once every four years to set policy for the 11.5 million-member worldwide United Methodist Church. This year's gathering, attended by 992 delegates and thousands of visitors at the Fort Worth Convention Center, ended May 2.

Legislative activity coordinator John Brawn brings United Methodist bishops on stage to create a "bishop-o-graph." A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

For the second General Conference in a row, legislative activity coordinator John Brawn amused delegates each morning with his daily status reports on how many petitions awaited them in order for him to get to return home to California.

"You hold my bedtime in your hands," Brawn told the delegates on the final scheduled day of the assembly, with approximately 68 petitions left to review. He also flashed a snapshot of the Fort Worth Zoo, noting that he would like to visit the attraction if only business could be finished.

A Hewlett-Packard network security architect who volunteers for the job each General Conference, Brawn used his digital skills and extensive software catalog to create daily videos that helped the delegates understand how to pace their work.

For one, he lined up all of the legislative committee chairpersons, gave each a Super Soaker squirt gun and instructed them to shoot straight ahead while he shot video. (Of course, several renegade chairpersons shot Brawn instead. "They nailed me," he said later.) Then he used that footage to develop a carnival-like graphic showing how much legislation each committee had processed.

Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo presides
over a session using a stick pony as a gavel. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.


Brawn has tracked legislation for General Conference since 1988 but started making the presentations beginning at the 2004 assembly "because there was a perception that they were behind."

His personal mission: presenting the much-needed information in a fun way. "When you're telling people something they don't want to hear, if you can make it fun, it goes down a lot better than if you do it in a monotone way," Brawn said.

In one low-tech presentation on the eighth day of General Conference, Brawn brought 11 bishops on stage wearing numbers and holding a long white and green banner––a "bishop-o-graph," he explained—to help the delegates see that their work was 76 percent complete.

At the end, the bishops draped the banner around Brawn, who then announced his candidacy for lay bishop. (Hint: No such thing.)

Delegate Evalina J. Neto of the Western
Angola Conference bundles up inside the
chilly Fort Worth Convention Center.
A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.

"I think we will lay him on the table, is what we will do," retorted Bishop Peter Weaver, the morning's presiding officer.

Brawn said his years in the 1980s as a youth director at a United Methodist church in San Jose, Calif., prepared him well for his General Conference role. "I've been treating the delegates like high school kids, and they've responded well," he quipped.

Show tunes

Mark Miller, who served as co-worship director throughout the assembly, used the power of adapted show tunes to bring delegates back to their seats occasionally following much-needed breaks from floor business––particularly during the tiring final days.

An accomplished musician, Miller played piano and came up with his own General Conference-related lyrics to the music from such toe-tappers as "New York, New York" and "Oklahoma!" including the following words set to the melody from "Oklahoma!"

"Geeeeeeeeeneral Conference, every night my delegates and I
Stay up nice and late with continuous debate
Until morning light draws nigh!"

More tidbits

Solomon Christian poses for a photograph atop a long-horned cow at the "Taste of Texas" reception hosted by the Central Texas Annual Conference.
A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.

Here are a few other light moments observed:

  • Walking delegates through voting procedures on opening day, General Conference business manager Alan Morrison asked for a "test vote" for "favorite apostles" among a slate of five candidates: the apostles John, Thomas, James, Thaddeus and Judas. The winning apostles were John and James. The same apostles were on the ballot again later as part of an equipment check. "We are sure they would not mind," presiding Bishop Michael Coyner said.
  • Presiding over one morning session, Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo used a stick horse as a makeshift gavel when the traditional gavel "took a walk," according to General Conference Secretary Fitzgerald Reist. Asking delegates for the gavel's safe return, Reist said, "We would very much appreciate it. We did not bring a box of gavels to the convention center." The gavel was later returned.
  • Following the on-stage presentation of 7-year-old Katherine to the assembly, Katherine and her mother, Lynda, were taken to the General Conference newsroom to take part in a brief press conference. Running barefoot between the rows of chairs, an excited Katherine eventually was seated behind a table and beside a smiling Hopkins––himself a doting grandfather––who declared, "This is the first time I've been in a press conference with somebody's who's barefoot!"
  • Although the spring temperatures climbed into the 70s in downtown Fort Worth, the mercury dropped significantly inside the convention center, particularly on the floor of General Conference, where even Bishop Hans Växby––who hails from frosty Finland and lives in Moscow––was seen bundled up in a heavy parka. "It's colder than Fargo in the winter back here," complained Iowa Conference delegate Ed Kail at one point in the proceedings. Coyner assured him that "more hot air" would be created during the course of the legislative meeting.
  • In the waning hours of General Conference, it's easy to forget who you're talking to, as was demonstrated by lay delegate Frederick K. Brewington of the New York Conference as he introduced petitions and addressed Bishop Weaver. "The first petition that we'll deal with at this time, judge––excuse me, judge? You can tell I'm a lawyer, right?" Weaver didn't miss a beat. "It's all right, counselor," the bishop said.
  • Delegates who were treated to memorable performances by the Hope for Africa Children's Choir saw the 23 Ugandan youngsters lovingly "swarm" around South Georgia Area Bishop B. Michael Watson at one point in their on-stage program. But what they didn't see was that, on the following day, the children did the same as an April 29 birthday surprise for Harry Leake, an employee of United Methodist Communications who had traveled to Uganda in January to help develop a series of video stories on the choir. At the prompting of choir director Tonny Mbowa, the youngsters serenaded "Uncle Harry," as they called him, with a birthday song near the Cokesbury display. "They kind of surrounded me and almost knocked me down," Leake said later with a smile. "But it was neat because they're precious kids. If you've got to have a birthday at General Conference, what better way to celebrate?"
  • Since General Conference has a tendency to go on into the late hours of closing day, journalists who cover the event in behalf of their annual conferences and other church publications have conducted a press pool since 2000 to guess the exact time the final gavel will fall. The winner receives the coveted "rusty spigot" award, named for the cast-iron water spigot handle that was found by Florida Conference communicator Erik Alsgaard on the newsroom floor at the 2000 gathering in Cleveland. This year's winner: Woody Woodrick, editor of the Mississippi United Methodist Advocate. Of about 30 people who participated in this year's pool, Woodrick guessed the down-to-the-minute time of 11:49 p.m., when closing worship adjourned. Alsgaard will present the rusty spigot to Woodrick "on behalf of all bleary-eyed communicators who covered General Conference 2008" during the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference meeting this July at Lake Junaluska, N.C.

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Clips

John Brawn: Super Soakers

John Brawn: Bishop-o-graph

John Brawn: Final Day

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