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Consultation addresses chasm between rich and poor


(From left) Andrew Park, Amós Nascimento, the Rev. Philip Wogaman and Bishop David Yemba participate in a United Methodist consultation to explore the implications of a global church and the widening gap between the rich and poor.
UMNS photos by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
Oct. 30, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)



Henk Pieterse is director of scholarly research for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education, which sponsored the consultation.

While the world is increasingly interconnected through advances in communication, transportation and financial systems, its poorest citizens are being left out of the benefits of globalization, say United Methodist leaders monitoring the trend.

"The haves are going to have more, and the have-nots are going to have less," said Andrew Park, a faculty member at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He said the poor simply don't have the resources to compete in a global economy.

Park was among representatives from Korean, African, Filipino, Brazilian and U.S. perspectives who met in Nashville Oct. 18-19 for a consultation on "The Poor in a Global Church: Implications for The United Methodist Church."

The purpose was to explore the theological, institutional and practical implications of the widening global gap between the rich and the poor and to develop a United Methodist resource of theological perspectives on globalization.

The U.S.-centric denomination is continuing its own discussions about proposed structural changes toward a more global church. Consultation participants urged the United Methodist Council of Bishops to make growing economic disparity a vital part of their conversation.

The language of globalization

"As the church, at this time, continues to talk about its global nature, it cannot do so without paying attention to the global disparity between the rich and the poor around the world," said Henk Pieterse, consultation facilitator and director of scholarly research for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which sponsored the gathering.

"As the church … continues to talk about its global nature, it cannot do so without paying attention to the global disparity between the rich and the poor around the world."
-Henk Pieterse

The language of globalization is not religious, he said, but is rather a complex language with political, economic and social dimensions.

"It is crucial that when the church uses language that comes out of a different domain, that we be clear how we use the language because language always bring a certain set of assumptions or worldviews. When we use language like globalization, the church should understand why it uses it and how it uses it so that it can do so with theological integrity," Pieterse said.

Discussions centered on five dimensions of poverty that the church should include in its conversations: economic, political, cultural, spiritual and body or natural health.

The consultation grappled with questions about the language of being a global church and how the language of globalization intersects with forces shaping the world. It addressed how the widening gap between rich and poor is impacting the church's commitment to being a "connectional people," along with the disparity's effect on denominational structure and governance.

'We live it'

For billions of people across the world who live on $1 to $2 a day, globalization has not meant a better life but greater unemployment, insecurity and poverty, according to participants in the consultation.

Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Area said he and his people are living examples of economic disparity. He described how many people in the central African nation struggle to acquire salt while there is abundant food wasted elsewhere. "It is not something we know in theory, but we live it," he said.

Yemba said that, while United Methodists are mission-minded, the church exists in and for a world that is ever-changing. He asked participants if the denomination's structure and governance are consistent with the global or worldwide nature it claims.


Andrew Park

"In its present structures and governance, The United Methodist Church is rooted in American culture and style of leadership," he said. But, if it is to be true to its mission-minded, historical character, it should "risk losing something dear for the sake of the Gospel."

Yemba called on the denomination to gradually decentralize its structures and style of governance in terms of personnel and location of some general agencies. He said that central conferences — which are United Methodist conferences outside of the United States — should no longer be seen only as mission fields but as full participants in the church's mission. The church's governance, he said, should reflect its worldwide claim.

Levels of poverty

Quoting economist Jeffrey Sachs, the Rev. Ken Carter of Charlotte, N.C., noted that nations such as Bolivia, Haiti and much of sub-Saharan Africa struggle with extreme poverty while others such as South Africa, Paraguay and Armenia are experiencing moderate poverty.

According to Sachs, extreme poverty is "when households cannot meet the basic needs for survival," and moderate poverty refers "to conditions of life in which basic needs are met, just barely." There are many other levels between the poorest parts of the world and the richest.

Carter said that Sachs and others are "warning us of a great chasm in the life separating the rich and the poor."

The Rev. M. Douglas Meeks, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, said the church must guard against conforming to the world's priorities and power structures. "(The) church loses its ability to resist the global market when it no longer contests the counter-gospels of the market society with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and when it allows itself to be shaped by the market logic," he said.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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