Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Southern Hospitality

I am currently on the road with Pastor David Sen in Mobile, Alabama. Fortunately, I have wireless internet access -- both in the hotel and at the site of Annual Conference. So here's what our days are like ...

David and I stumbled through the baggage control area of the Mobile Airport with four huge duffel bags crammed full of crafts and shirts from Cameroon. We had survived the trip cross the world with all our things intact!

Curtis Henderson was waiting with his minivan. From the airport, we went straight to Christ UMC, a mini-megachurch in Mobile which sports a beautiful, and new, campus. Meredyth Earnest met us there, and we unloaded all the things that would be sold at the Cameroon Store.

I’m sure I was a sight … unshaven, rumpled, smelly. So Curtis deposited us at the Marriott, got us checked in and left us for the night. After we cleaned up, David and I walked down the street to a Chinese buffet. By the end of the meal, our heads and eyelids were drooping.

No problem – we only had to preach the next morning … twice!

Brian Miller, my new email friend, met us in the hotel lobby early Sunday morning. He was excited to meet us, and anxious about his impending ordination. We spent the morning at the church where Brian is Associate Pastor, Dauphin Way UMC in Mobile. The first service, at 8:20 was held in the chapel. David and I split up the sermon, each preaching about 6-7 minutes. David chose an intriguing passage in Numbers, about the two tribes of Israel who chose to stay on the near side of the Jordan. Moses convinced them to first cross and fight on behalf of their brothers, which they did, then return to the land they had chosen. David used this story to plead with the American church to cross the river and fight on behalf of the fledgling church in Cameroon. Good use of the Biblical text, even if it didn’t quite fit in with the Pentecost theme. So I spoke briefly about Acts 2, and about the unexpectedness of God’s mission.

The second service, at 10:30 in the sanctuary, was larger and a little livelier. David and I both changed up our sermons a little. He added a little more detail, and a few more examples, from Cameroon. I chose to speak about how the Spirit fell on – and how God’s mission was given to -- everyone, not just a chosen few, or a selected representative. The mission belongs to every Spirit-filled Christian.

After church, Brian treated us to a seafood lunch at Alex’s. I had shrimp and crab au gratin, which was wonderful. David asked me to order for him, and I chose the shrimp and grits, thinking that the grits would remind him of fufu, or some cassava concoction. Wrong – he didn’t like the grits at all, but he loved everything else!

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening at Christ UMC, site of the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference, where we met many new friends, took lots of pictures, and enjoyed that unique and wonderful thing that is “Southern hospitality.”

The Opening Worship service was a true blessing. Bishop Goodpaster had asked everyone to wear red – and we all did! The Family Center was awash in Pentecost flames, and the opening processional was inspiring – kids running back and forth with streamers, the sound of mighty winds playing over the congregation.

The Bishop officially introduced David and I, and we had a couple of minutes to speak about the work in Cameroon. At the end, I surprised the Bishop with the presentation of a super-size portrait of him that had been done when he was in Bafoussam, by one of the king’s photographers. I told the story of how the photographer had traveled to Yaounde to sell me the photo, but when I refused his price (and refused his transportation money), he left the picture with me anyway. When I unveiled the picture, his reaction was priceless! (For pictures of our presentation, go here …)

We can’t go anywhere in the Marriott now without being recognized, greeted in really bad French, and thanked! The hotel is full of Methodists, and they are being very sweet to us.

AWF holds their clergy and laity sessions on Monday morning, then follow with the Worship Service of Commemoration. David sat through the clergy session while I toyed with my computer, checking email and trying to find Leah online. He told me that he didn’t understand what was going on – I said, “Most of them probably didn’t, either!”

We ate lunch with Neil McDavid and two members of his VIM committee, during which we talked about the future of VIM teams in Cameroon. David and I threw out a bunch of ideas, and discussed how to make some of these dreams come true.

And then the true business of Conference began. At 1:30, the familiar strains of “And Are We Yet Alive” were heard, and the first session opened.

Being in a different Annual Conference is a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see Methodists in a different place acting like Methodist Christians. I get to experience the same warmth and zeal, the same commitment to justice, peace and evangelism, the same openness that I have known in North Texas. I feel as if I belong, as if I am not really among strangers.

But on the other hand, this conference reminds me that I am not among my friends and family, the ones who nurtured me into ministry, supported me and sent me off to Cameroon with their blessings. I wish I could be hugging my colleagues, telling stories about the “old days,” gossiping about appointments and church problems …

The business session closed shortly before 5 pm. Curtis put David and I on a van that was headed to a church across town – he told us that they would feed us. We arrived at Warren St. UMC, where we were fed fried catfish and stumbled into the middle of a BMCR (Black Methodists for Church Renewal) meeting. The pastor called David and I to the front to greet the gathering between bites of our pecan pie.

And then it was back on the van to go to Dauphin Way UMC for the ordination service. I have always enjoyed watching new elders being ordained. Perhaps because it reminds me of my own ordination, a great memory. But I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. Jet lag is a terrible thing, and I hope that by tomorrow morning, I am truly recovered.