The Year in Review: The challenge of loving one's neighbor


By Paul Black
The year 2015 provided many challenges for United Methodists in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference as changes on many fronts swept through and much of the challenge was how to respond.
Jesus summed up the totality of the law by teaching we are to love God and to love neighbor. The second half of the Great Commandment seemed to be the struggle of 2015.
The conference was not alone in those changes. The United Methodist News Service, in polling conference communicators, identified the five top stories of the year across the connection:

  • The struggle against racism, as witnessed in Baltimore, Cleveland, North Charleston, Staten Island and Chicago
  • Migrants and terrorism, as the Christian church’s response to the Paris terrorist attacks and the growing number of refugees from Syria as well as part of Africa presented a challenge on how best to care for them.
  • Sexuality debate intensifies as United Methodists prepare for General Conference. In June, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex civil marriage in all 50 states. While the ruling did not change church law, which prohibits pastors from conducting and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,” it fueled the debate at annual conferences, while legal proceedings continued against those that practiced civil disobedience in defiance of the church’s position
  • Deadly Ebola continues to linger in West Africa. The IGRC was particularly affected by Ebola due to its mission partnership with Liberia. And in December, trips planned for January 2016 were postponed because of a re-emergence of Ebola in late November (see story on page 11).
  • The rise of local pastors. Local pastors — non-ordained, and in most cases without a seminary degree — are growing in number and taking on more roles in The United Methodist Church. Due to declining numbers and fewer ordained elders, there is a rapid growth of part-time local pastors and the use of local pastors in Hispanic outreach. The shift from elders to local pastors means that conferences will be faced with training and equipping leaders in a new way.
The Illinois Great Rivers Conference’s story overlaps with the larger connectional story in that loving one’s neighbor was at the heart of many events and happenings in 2015.

Reinvention of camping program

One of the most heart-wrenching discussions at the 2015 annual conference centered around the future of the camping program.
The IGRC Camping Commission announced in late January it would be bringing a proposal to the 2015 Annual Conference that would:
·         Retire, sell, and reallocate the assets of Epworth, Jensen Woods and Living Springs camps
·         Redesign East Bay Camp and reduce property size if the design allows and it is prudent to do so;
·         Reduce the Little Grassy property and facilities by relinquishing the lease on the north side of the camp and continue to discern the long-term sustainability of the remainder of the property.
The recommendation came after more than a year of consultation with Kaleidoscope, Inc., a camping consulting firm based in Ohio.
The proposal was approved with the recommendation that a non-profit group interested in the Jensen Woods camp site be given the right of first refusal.
Closing celebrations were held in October and November at each of the campsites, which gave witness to the impact these campsites made in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Rev. Ed Hoke, pastor of Goreville and Creal Springs UMC in the Cache River District, was selected as the Minister of Mission Expansion at Little Grassy (see related story on page 16).

The Ebola crisis and mission partnerships

Mission partnerships continue to be one way in which IGRC United Methodists have shown love to one’s neighbor. Despite the Ebola scare cancelling mission trips to Liberia in 2015, the Conference celebrated its partnership during Annual Conference. Much of the work during the Ebola crisis has been to provide funds through UMCOR’s International Disaster Response Advance #982450; and through local congregations providing Pastor Salary Support (Advance #15124A) and Scholarship Support for students (Advance #15125B).
Mission groups also went to Honduras in June for the fourth year to continue construction on a new Mission headquarters project in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. The 2016 trip is slated for June 18-26.
A third mission partnership – with Hungary – made its third trip to Hungary for outreach and training in June. The team had three goals – building relationship through worship and fellowship; teaching  conversational English classes to high school students; and outreach with a partner church, the Pest UMC, which hosted IGRC clergy member Steve Heitkamp who led a session on parenting teenagers and a second session on counseling a friend or family member in need.  The 2016 trip is slated for June 16-25.

Disaster response and mission trips

Several mission teams traveled to assist in the cleanup and rebuilding of tornado-ravaged communities of Brookport, Coal City and Washington that were hit Nov. 17, 2013.
On April 9, two tornados cut a path of destruction through the Northern Illinois Conference, killing two and destroying homes and businesses with the brunt being felt in Ogle and DeKalb counties.
Watseka experienced its second major flood in seven years over the weekend of July 12. Roughly 60 square blocks and 350 homes were affected. The Watseka Area Food Pantry, a ministry of Watseka First UMC, expanded its outreach and provided food for 290 households (1,000 individuals).
More than 100 flood buckets were provided by the Midwest Mission Distribution Center and conference disaster funds were granted to assist with flood relief.
In June, Coal City was hit with a second tornado just 17 months after the first one. Coal City UMC went into action and served as the hub of disaster relief operations and member Lori Cora stepped up for a second time to oversee the operation.
Bishop Jonathan Keaton visited Coal City on June 26, saying he had a little “Good Friday” as he watched the church in action and then returned in November to preach morning worship on the first tornado’s second anniversary.
On July 16, tornados hit the communities of Cameron and Delevan. Early responders were deployed in both communities to assist with cleanup with 185 responding July 20 in Delevan. Fairview Center and Delevan UMC’s served as staging centers for disaster response.
Responders also were deployed in Quincy July 14 where straight-line winds resulted in a large number of downed trees and property damage. While a park adjacent to Chaddock was hit, there was no damage to Chaddock or its construction site for a new school.

2015 Annual Conference

Relationships were at the heart of the 2015 annual conference. The theme, Healing the Circle, included an Act of Repentance toward indigenous people. Conference speakers Rev. Fred Shaw and the Rev. Dr. Thom White Wolf Fassett prepared lay and clergy for the Friday service by recounting the history of relations between the white population and Native Americans throughout the years.
Three IGRC pastors – Dan Lybarger, Gary Billiot and Danira Parra – told of their personal experiences through video. Parra, who grew up as a person of both Native American and Hispanic heritage, noted that Illinois has the largest Native American population of any state without a reservation.
“(For me), it was easier to be seen as Hispanic, although I am only one-fourth Hispanic,” Parra said. “When you are Native American, it’s like you don’t exist.”
Parra then challenged the IGRC. “We have had a wonderful mission partnership with a third-world country in Africa, but we have Third World countries in the United States,” she said. “They are called reservations.” She challenged the conference to adopt a reservation – “just one” – in a mission partnership and she asked the United Methodist Women to adopt “just one” mission project that could build a relationship similar to the UMW’s relationships with Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House and Cunningham Home.

Africa University Making Dreams Possible Scholarships

Support for Africa University students was also apparent at Annual Conference. A total of $568,089 in pledges were made by congregations and individuals on opening night with a $35,603 offering. Another $20,000 was raised at the Bishops’ Open golf outing in May. The 2016 golf outing has been announced for April 22 and funds raised will push the campaign closer to its final goal of $1 million to fund eight endowed scholarships.

Lawsuit filed against Ohio Chapel

The conference filed suit Aug. 10 against Ohio Chapel in deep southern Illinois after the congregation announced its independence from the conference in March. The church’s pastor, Rev. Tammy Horn, also discontinued as a local pastor with the denomination but continues to be the church’s pastor as the breakaway congregation occupies the building.
When a new pastor was appointed to begin July 1, members barred access to the building saying that “only invited guests” were allowed inside to worship.
The conference is maintaining its rights under the denomination’s trust clause. A Pulaski County judge dismissed the conference’s motion for injunctive relief but allowed the conference to amend the complaint so that it can move forward. Counsel for the conference filed an amended complaint Dec. 8 and the process continues.

General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates

The 2015 Annual Conference elected five lay and five clergy to represent them at the 2016 General Conference which will be held May 10-20 in Portland, Ore. Another five lay and five clergy will join the General Conference delegation to form the IGRC delegation at the 2016 North Central Jurisdictional Conference July 13-16 in Peoria.
In all, 38 clergy and 17 laity offered themselves for consideration.
Those elected (in order of election) among clergy were: Sylvester Weatherall; Andy Adams; Sara Isbell; Bob Phillips; and Chris Ritter.  Randy Robinson, Roger Ross, Janice Griffith, Rose Booker-Jones and Beth Fender join to complete the jurisdictional delegation with J. Keith Zimmerman, Nicole Cox and Dennis Price as alternates.
Among laity, the following were elected: Rhonda Whitaker, Bunny Wolfe, Bobby Davis, Kimberly Woods and Steve Schonert. Larry Weber, Marian McCray, Anish Hermon, Fred Iutzi and Carol Sims complete the jurisdictional delegation with Melissa Calvillo, Carolyn Yockey and LaVon Wilson as alternates.
Delegates will be electing four bishops to replace Bishops Michael Coyner of Indiana; John Hopkins of East Ohio; Jonathan Keaton of Illinois Great Rivers Conference; and Deborah Kiesey of Michigan. Kiesey announced her retirement Nov. 5, citing health issues which caused her to opt for early retirement.
Weatherall has been selected by the delegation as its choice for the episcopacy. He joins a field of candidates that have already announced – Dr. Frank Beard, Indiana; Dr. Tracy Smith Malone, Northern Illinois; and Rev. David Alan Bard, Minnesota.

Higher education

Campus ministries were very active in establishing connections with local churches and the mission to the broader church, broadening relationships and seeking new connections.
Illinois State University’s Wesley Foundation created a new ministry, Examine Your Call, a vocational discernment process funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment that included small groups and mentor relationships that sought to assist in clarifying God’s call upon students’ lives.
Western Illinois University’s Wesley Foundation may have been some of the first to travel to Cuba following the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on the country after more than 50 years when a group of students were guests of the autonomous Cuban Methodist Church in March.
Eastern Illinois University’s Wesley Foundation began a food pantry for students noting that food insecurity is a high demographic for college students. EIU students also traveled to West Virginia to work on an Appalachian Service Project in Guyan County.
The University of Illinois Wesley Foundation celebrated the surpassing of 1 million meals as 100,000 meals were packed by volunteers in Monticello Feb. 28. The group, Illini Fighting Hunger, also a similar packaging event at a BOGO (Buy One, Get One) lunch at Annual Conference. By September, IFH had packaged more than 1.4 million meals, many of them distributed through the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, earning the agency’s Community Partner of the Year for 2015.
Institutionally, two of the United Methodist-related colleges and universities welcomed new presidents.
Dr. Colleen Hester announced that she would be leaving MacMurray College in May after serving as that institution’s chief executive for eight years. Mark J. Tierno, president of Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y. was selected May 19 to become the college’s 16th president.
Illinois Wesleyan University selected Eric R. Jensen, president of Hamline University of St. Paul, Minn., as its 19th president Sept. 14. Jensen began his presidency in November, succeeding the retiring Richard F. Wilson.