Since 1987, I have attempted to witness to the Gospel of Life within The United Methodist Church. Every January 22 (or a nearby date), I have gathered with my fellow members of Lifewatch (or Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality) for a service of worship in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill before joining in the March for Life.
January 22, 2015 had been a very good day for this pastor, because during the Lifewatch events Dr. Edgardo Colon-Emeric of Duke Divinity School had preached an excellent sermon, entitled “Life Is Luminous”; Rev. Paul Crikelair, of Stroudsburg, PA, had led a faithful Service of Holy Communion; and board members and friends had made many thoughtful comments during the annual meeting. Finally, after the long drive down Interstate 95 South, Marsha, my wife, and I were home.
Early the next morning I found on the First Things website a story on Bill Mefford, the Director of Civil and Human Rights at The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), which is located in The United Methodist. He had created a sign—that read “I march for sandwiches”—and taken it to the streets, so some marchers for life could see it. Then he had tweeted a picture of the sign in his hands, with marchers in the background, and a caption which read, “I was inspired by the March for Life to march for what I believe in! #WhyWeMarch.” I was not terribly surprised by this incident, read for a few more minutes, and stumbled off to bed.
But the First Things article, propelled by social media, gathered over seventy thousand page-views. A kind of tsunami of rejection of Mr. Mefford’s attempted joke had occurred. Late that morning I found a note awaiting me in my study. “Call Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe,” it said. Dr. Henry-Crowe, the new General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, had attended the first part of the Lifewatch service and the Communion portion of the service. Her work had prevented her from hearing the day’s thoughtful sermon.
Dr. Henry-Crowe graciously apologized for what Mr. Mefford had done. During her apology, she made clear that he was not acting as an officially designated representative of the General Board of Church and Society and that his actions conflicted with “the culture of respect” that she was trying to foster at GBCS. I accepted her apology, and suggested that, on the basis of Matthew 18:15-20, I needed to speak with Mr. Mefford to express disapproval and invite apology. She agreed.
Within minutes, I had reached him by telephone. After identifying myself as the Lifewatch president and editor, who had been in the United Methodist Building (where he works) to participate in the Lifewatch service and board meeting, I proposed to him that his sign, made public, involved conduct unbecoming a staff member of the General Board of Church and Society. He agreed quickly and apologized without qualification. I accepted his apology and offered him a brief word of encouragement. Both Dr. Henry-Crowe and Mr. Mefford also wrote and posted apologies online.
What is to be learned from this incident?
First, if promoting good humor was the purpose of the sign, it was totally unnecessary. The March for Life is an abundantly joyful event full of good cheer. Many, if not most, of the marchers are young and brimming with energy. Their friendships are deep and their conversations are lively. The March for Life did not need this sign to humor any marchers. They were already in excellent humor, thank you very much.
Second, a Director of Civil and Human Rights should have known not to parallel or compare, in any way, sandwiches and unborn children. Indeed, a Director of Civil and Human Rights, based on the many “pro-life” sentiments of The Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 161J—expressed in phrases like “the sanctity of unborn human life” and “the unborn child”—would have many justifications for marching with the hundreds of thousands that day.
Third, the sign—while not sanctioned by the GBCS staff—reflects its limited moral vision. If most of the staff has the same theology, the same moral commitments, the same politics, there is no one to stand up to deliver a minority report on, say, the many pro-life claims and mandates of Paragraph 161J on Abortion in The Social Principles.
For nearly thirty years, I have worked to move the United Methodist Church’s teaching on life and abortion toward what the Church through the ages has taught and practiced. During most of those years, Lifewatch has held its worship service and board meeting in The United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. Most of the time, staff from the General Board of Church and Society have been cordial, and building staff have been most helpful. But not always. At times, GBCS staff have made clear to the little band of Lifewatch folks who was really in charge. This has been going on for decades.
Then, out of nowhere, a GBCS staffer marched with that handmade “I march for sandwiches” sign. Then he tweeted out a captioned picture of that sign. Then came a tsunami of rejection of that sign’s content. Then came the embarrassment at the General Board of Church and Society.
That sign was made. That sign was carried. That sign found its way into the social media. That sign created a massive blow back. Apologies from Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe and Mr. Bill Mefford—personal apologies by telephone, and formal apologies posted by both on websites—have been made. And apologies have been accepted. That is as it should be. That is good. That is Christian.
But the real, continuing problem is abortion—actually, over 1,200,000 abortions per year in the United States—and the silence of The United Methodist Church about abortion. That sign will soon be forgotten. Unfortunately, countless unborn children lost to abortion will continue to be forgotten. But now The United Methodist Church is given an opportunity to forget, and overcome, its silence on abortion. By that sign.
Paul T. Stallsworth is pastor of the Whiteville United Methodist Church in North Carolina and editor and president of Lifewatch.