The Easter Visit, Legal Letters, and the Vote
On Easter Sunday at Oakland United Methodist Church, our District Superintendent showed up unannounced only minutes before the service started and requested to read a letter from our Bishop, Latrelle Miller Easterling. Pastor Kent Tice allowed him the time, despite our already jam-packed schedule, reasoning that a message delivered on Easter from the Bishop would probably not be bad. However, the timing of this visit – on Easter Sunday, disrupting the flow of what was already a full service and injecting tension into our joyful celebration of the Resurrection – was very poor.
Perhaps this disruption could have been overlooked had the Bishop’s letter shown an understanding of our church’s concerns and provided pertinent responses, and had our District Superintendent’s interactions with our members been more directed to genuine dialogue, answering questions, and learning why we feel our denomination is leaving behind Biblical inspiration and authority. However, the letter did not address our actual concerns but rather refuted caricatures that bore little resemblance to our actual stated goals. Given that the DS and Bishop’s awareness of our meetings came directly from a few Oakland members, rather than mere hearsay, and given the effort required to write the letter and have DS Rivera deliver it, one would have hoped for its contents to be more accurate and relevant. In an irony evident to us in hindsight, the bishop stated that “we are not helped by misinformation, half-truths, coercion, or manipulation,” implying that Oakland’s leadership was guilty of these, but the main points of misinformation the Bishop attempted to respond to in her letter were not, in fact, things we had said.
Additionally, the District Superintendent’s tone and manner were brusque and dismissive, both while reading the letter and after our services when conversing with congregants. One woman wrote of her experience coming to Oakland that morning:
“When I arrived to second service Easter Sunday, I could tell immediately something was wrong, there was a feeling that was beyond anything I had ever felt in a church. I am always one of the first to arrive and enjoy sitting in the sanctuary before the service. I was handed a letter by a man I did not know at the door entering the sanctuary. I asked JoAnne what was going on, she said the district superintendent was there and had spoken first service and was going to speak again about some issues. Upon entering the sanctuary, I witnessed Edgardo Rivera speaking to Elijah Tice. I was sitting close enough to observe Rivera speaking with the utmost grandeur and superiority over Elijah. Rivera was obviously a very dramatic and theatrical man as I witnessed him speaking with several other people in the congregation. I also witnessed him speaking with to which I could attest he was being rude and condescending which sent her to tears. During Rivera’s speech he read the letter from the Bishop and then gave his personal testimony. I thought it was humorous and pathetic that he used his race as if it was some type of propaganda, I too am Puerto Rican and was offended.
Easter, like Christmas is the time visitors attend; the lost, the hopeless, the ones who need a boost back into the faith; the ones we really need to reach out to. Rivera and whomever else is involved took that day away from those of us who wanted to celebrate the resurrection of our Savior and potentially damaged those visitors who really needed Jesus and a church family that day. In my opinion, what the Bishop’s letter said and accused JoAnne and Kent of should have been left to a special meeting of members instead of regular sermon whereas most people didn’t have a clue what was going on. I will add, not once has Joanne or Kent encouraged us to leave the church, never have they lied to us about what is going on within the denomination ever. In fact, Kent has been so gracious and gentle about the entire situation I often think of him when I need to practice those skills.” – Diana Quiles-Kush
Another woman wrote:
“As Mr. Rivera began his letter from the Bishop, his tone to the congregation was in a harsh manner, as if he was reprimanding a child. His voice was loud, and his words were quick. As I listened to the letter, I realized that everything that the Bishop had sent for Mr. Rivera to address with us was completely wrong, nothing that was in that letter was the main issues we had against the United Methodist Church. I even at one-point thought that possibly Mr. Rivera had received a letter meant for another congregation. By the time he was finished, I looked around the congregation and saw many confused and stunned faces…. I was appalled and disappointed in Mr. Rivera’s actions with our congregation on Easter Sunday. To the point of thinking, ‘This is Church and we have guests.’ …. I have been a Methodist since 1977 and Mr. Rivera’s visit to us on Easter Sunday only solidified the decision I made to leave.” – RoseAnna Fisher
Kent and JoAnne also received a letter directly from Bishop Easterling reiterating several of the same points as the public letter. (Letter from Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling) JoAnne wrote a response that she sent to Bishop Easterling and also published as Facebook status and share on Oakland Church page: https://www.facebook.com/joanne.alexander.79/posts/1677532828998099
Unfortunately, the Baltimore-Washington Conference wasn’t done with Oakland UMC that week. That Thursday the members of our Administrative Board received a letter from Tom Starnes, Chancellor of the BWC. (Letter to Oakland UMC Administrative Board) Most of the letter was predicated on the same misunderstandings that had been evident in Bishop Easterling’s letter. The letter appeared essentially irrelevant to our situation. The end, however, contained language that seemed to threaten legal action against Oakland UMC Board members – personally. The letter ended with the heart-warming statement that “the Conference stands ready to take all appropriate steps, including the prosecution of civil judicial proceedings, to ensure that those principles are honored by all local church officers.” The wording here seems most plausibly to mean that the Conference would sue individual officers of Oakland UMC to ensure that we honor the Trust Clause. Why the individual officers, and not Oakland UMC itself? Why did the Conference feel the need to threaten legal action to ensure that individuals honor the Trust Clause as if we could steal the building and hide it in our basement? The letter clearly seemed designed to intimidate Oakland Board Members and to impact our vote, which was scheduled for the Sunday after Easter. We already had information indicating that suing individual board members and trustees was in the UMC’s playbook – not just in the BWC’s playbook – so this letter was quite alarming. Even without that information, however, the letter would have had a chilling effect on our vote.
We took the vote on April 8th and, of the 147 ballots that were sent out, we received 97 back by the deadline. Of these, 81 voted in favor of leaving and 16 in favor of staying. Four ballots were returned as undeliverable, and four ballots (two “yes,” two “no”) were not received in time for the official count. Kent and JoAnne notified the Conference through DS Rivera.
On May 4, Kent Tice received a letter from Bishop Easterling demanding his “appearance” before her at 10 a.m. on May 9th, or else he would be removed as Pastor at Oakland UMC. (Meeting with Bishop Easterling) However, none of us were quite prepared for the direction that meeting, or the other events of that day, took.
There you have it, their story continues, and, as of yet, is not any happier. I want to take a moment here and be clear, the Bishop has not, to this point in our story anyway, done anything that is expressly against the Book of Discipline. I do support following the rules and processes outlined in the Book of Discipline. All of the actions taken are within the governance of the United Methodist Church. I also want to point out that the Bishop did not have to do it this way all but ensuring conflict. One can follow all the rules and still act in a manner that is unprofessional and confrontational. All of the events that have happened to this point could have been handled in a much different manner that would not have been confrontational, but been in a spirit of reconciliation. How does interrupting an Easter service where the Resurrection is to be celebrated as the reason that we can become disciples of Christ, help to make disciples of Christ? How does any of this. No, the Bishop did not break any rules in the Book of Discipline, and yes, the Bishop, the District Superintendent, and everyone else on the level above the local church end of this could have acted in a much better manner. For a denomination that is calling for unity, these appear to be actions that guaranteed separation. Stay tuned for more on the story. Let those who have ears, hear.