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United Methodists consider a word with the president

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Jan. 13, 2009

If given 15 minutes to speak with the first African-American U.S. president, many United Methodists would spend part of the time with their heads bowed in prayer.

Then they would like a word with him about poverty, terrorism, the economy, racism, torture, climate change, abortion, immigration and genocide — just to mention a few issues on the hearts and minds of United Methodists.

"If I could have 15 minutes with President-elect Obama, I think I would first ask if we could pray together and would pledge to him I would be in daily prayer for him and his Cabinet," said Margie Briggs, United Methodist certified lay minister at Calhoun and Drake’s Chapel United Methodist churches in Missouri. "I would ask him to share with me his plan of action for the poor, especially children living in poverty, so all might be covered by health care and have the chance to rise above poverty by earning a living wage. And then I would ask how I could help."

The Rev. Douglas Waite

The Rev. Douglas Waite, a U.S. Navy chaplain and captain stationed in Hawaii, would try to be a pastor to him and encourage him to keep up regular devotions and to worship with his family as often as possible.

"Concerning important issues, I could think of nothing more important than keeping us safe from attacks of terrorism from our enemies," Waite said.

Keep your promises

After pastoral words of encouragement, Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata, of the church’s Portland (Ore.) Area, would tell Obama: "Do not disappoint us!

"I ask that you hold to the commitments you made to us: for a government that honors and respects the diversity of the people of this nation and of the world; for an administration that supports and defends the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees; of a world that is committed to conversation, dialogue and negotiation before turning to war and violence; for opportunities not just for a select few, but for the many; for leadership willing to serve the common good, not just benefiting a few."

Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission of Religion and Race, said she would remind Obama of his historic speech on race when he spoke of the march for a more equal, caring and prosperous America.

"As you take office President Obama, how do you plan to continue that march – how will you engage this country in seeing that establishing an African American in the White House is not proof that we in the U.S. are living in a post-race society?"

The high numbers of persons of color in jail, of African-American women infected by the HIV virus and of disadvantaged people of color denied basic health care is proof the United States is not living in a post-race society, she said.

Help for the poor

The Rev. William Abraham, a professor of Wesleyan Studies at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and a native of Ireland, said he would urge the new president to find a way to give the poor a better future.

The Rev. William Abraham

"In Ireland, I was brought up in a family where we were deeply dependent upon the state – my father was killed in an accident when we were small, and aside from help from the church, we got help from the state," Abraham said. "I think it is absolutely crucial that the state strike a balance between meeting the immediate needs of people and doing it in a way that is going to construct a future for them whereby they will be full, responsible citizens in the community."

Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, would ask Obama to keep his doors open to United Methodist leadership and to the National Council of Churches.

"I would assure him the people of The United Methodist Church are praying for him as he begins what is perhaps the toughest job in the world," he said. "I would urge him to unambiguously reject torture by the United States, work proactively to address climate change, abolish the practice of presidential ‘signing statements,’ place the needs of the poor at the top of budget and tax policies, act as a fair and impartial broker of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and engage in dialogue with ‘enemies’ of the United States."

Address social issues

The Rev. Robert Renfroe, pastor at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, Woodlands, Texas, would use the time to ask Obama a question: "Mr. President, if it’s true, as you stated when interviewed by Rick Warren, that you do not know when human life begins, why not err on the side of caution?"

The unborn are at great risk in this country, he said, where "there is a one in five chance that a fetus’ existence will be terminated by an abortion."

He would ask the president to "appoint Supreme Court justices who will allow the states and the people a voice in this matter. And, please, use your position and your charisma to speak to what’s best in us – the desire to protect human potential and life itself."

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky., would ask Obama not to compromise on human rights, the environment, the lives of millions of babies each year, the health and medical care of children, the values of a Judeo-Christian culture, the place of America in the international community and "the most positive dynamic of our nation’s life by thinking that religion and politics don’t go together."

"We within The United Methodist Church are committed to contributing a prophetic, healing faith that will not claim God’s blessings for all our national policies and practices, as though God is always on ‘our side,’" Dunnam said. "Rather, with one of your favorite presidential mentors, Mr. Lincoln, we worry a lot and pray earnestly as to whether we are on God’s side."

The Rev. Joy Moore, dean at Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., would want Obama to use his leadership in the world to make the case against genocide in places such as Sudan.

"As long as the international community permits mass killing and rape, it emboldens the Mugabes (president of Zimbabwe) of the world to act with impunity, believing that they have nothing to lose," she said.

Both the Rev. Sandra Cabrera, pastor of Elmwood United Methodist Church, Dallas, and Judith Siaba, with the church’s Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference, would ask Obama to pass a just immigration law.

The Rev. Joy Moore

"This country came to be and became what it is on the back of immigrants," said Siaba, who works in the conference office on congregational development. "Young children who have been brought to this country have a right for higher education. We need to change the law so that they can contribute to our society by getting a good education."

"Our immigrant people are 40 million hard-working people, brave, strong, enterprising, intelligent and people of faith, who started a journey of faith by fleeing poverty and the lack of resolve due to the constant socio-economic problem of Latin America," Cabrera said.

"I would ask when and how the rights and contributions of the people can be acknowledged and resolved while society wants them to become invisible? What will be your strategy and your plan to work with Mexican leaders for a just and a dignified proposal to resolve the immigration problem in both countries?"

American dream

Obama is "the reincarnation of the American dream," Abraham said.

"The American project is a theological project from beginning to end, and the president is a critical figure in the civil religion of the United States," he said. "I would love to hear him reflect on that.

"It is very clear that this man comes out of a very robust wing of Christian tradition, and he is very serious about his faith," he said. "I think his faith makes a lot more distinctive difference to his politics than he is letting on."

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

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Civil Rights and Obama

Audio clips: The Rev. William Abraham

“I would love to talk to him about the relationship between his faith and his politics.”

“He is the reincarnation of the American dream.”

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