Rise Up! Conference Boosts Movement-Building

"There is an empathy deficit in this country," said Bishop Karen Oliveto, as she addressed over 150 attendees from 17 Annual Conferences and 20 ethnicities attending the "Rise Up!" conference sponsored by the Western Methodist Justice Movement held in Portland over Presidents Day weekend. Bishop Karen is the newly-elected bishop of the Western Jurisdiction and serves the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area (Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and one church in Idaho). In her keynote sermon, she went on to describe how groups are triangulated against one another, defining who's in and who's out, building walls to keep others out, and thus "othering" those who are different.

Attendees at the conference were considering the movement-building at the intersection of prejudice and injustice. Bishop Karen said, for example, "If we had empathy for those who are homeless, we would seek to fix the system that keeps people in poverty and on the streets." She added, "The heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ reduces all laws to two: to love god and to love others but without the integration of empathy and love, love continues to 'other.'" Using a video, she pointed out that "Diversity is a reflection of God's creativity...Through diversity we learn about God."

She challenged listeners to "rise up to embrace love's power, rise up to create beloved community, rise up and proclaim the vision of human connection, rise up to care for the earth and all liivng things, rise up to protect each one's dignity..."

The conference, subtitled, "Uniting to Act for a More Just World," spent all the next day considering the intersectionality of the issues that create injustice, led by workshop leader Beth Zemsky. For example, those who suffer from colonialism have commonality with those seeking human rights for LGBTQI persons. Those who deal with racism also have commonalities with those who are poor.

The way to build a movement, Zemsky said, is to focus on core values that inform one's positions on issues, in contrast with competing movements and forces for change. Building on this principle, Zemsky and WMJM leadership led the group to consider their most important values and then to join together in smaller groups on Sunday to consider becoming Action Networks within WMJM. There were eight networks formed with several renaming and reshaping current action networks. A ninth was considering forming as the conference ended. They range from "Just Love" (LGBTQI issues), to "Colonialism" and undocumented student  issues.

The networks are getting organized, but their names and descriptions as they are developed can be seen on the WMJM.org web site.The conference was successful in reaching a broad range of ages, ethnicities, and conferences. Forty-four percent ranged in age from 36-64, and 28% from each of the under 35 and over 65 age groups. Of a total of 20 ethnicities, Hispanic, African American, and Asian each had 8%. Whites accounted for 65%, with the 17 other ethnicities having at least one person present! All but one of the Western Jurisdiction conferences were represented, with Cal-Nev and Oregon-Idaho leading, but nine other conferences and two non-UM groups were also present, including four Central Conferences from outside the USA.

Beth Zemsky's presentation and exercises added a lot of useful concepts and ideas, said attendees. The dialogues with Bishop Karen, Lloyd Nyarota, Nestor Gerente, Melanie Nathan, and Mpagi Kirumira added rich perspectives on the UMC, colonialism and cross-cultural issues. Attendees also commented on the energy of the young Icon performers, who enhanced worship as well as presented a concert of their music and dance. "It was exciting to see so many UM-related young adults participating," said one.

More on Bishop Karen's sermon and the conference can be seen in this article written by Oregon-Idaho Conference Communicator, Greg Nelson.