General Conference 2016 officially begins

With a drum welcome from indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, United Methodists gathered here for the 2016 General Conference, the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church, joined in a cacophony of "alleluias" in many languages during opening worship.

Meeting May 10-20 at the Oregon Convention Center, 864 delegates will consider 1,000 petitions that will determine how the 12.3-million-member denomination orders its ministry, structures its agencies and addresses social justice issues, including human sexuality, for the next four years.

Delegates from the United States, Europe, Africa and the Philippines opened the session with the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper and an address by San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops.

The theme of the 2016 General Conference is "Therefore Go." The Commission on the General Conference selected the theme that ties to the roots of The United Methodist Church in Christ's Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Directing music and worship is the Rev. Laura Jaquith Bartlett of Eagle Creek, Oregon.

Titling his sermon "Jesus, We Are Here for You," Brown admitted, "Like the first disciples, some of us may have come to this meeting of Jesus' people we call General Conference with some mixture of hope and uncertainty. There are many issues on our agenda. So many things for you to consider as the plans for the church's future are adopted."

Welcoming General Conference delegates and visitors, Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Greater Northwest Area focused on radical hospitality.

"In this age of increasing secularism," he said, "The United Methodist Church can also be a place of countercultural value where the poor and hungry are the first to feast at the banquet table, the lost and lonely receive the best care and the environment around us is elevated to the same protection of our family home.

"Our prayer is that this spiritual message, which prioritizes 'the least of these,' can shine through all of you who represent the very best of our United Methodist Church."

At the airport and the convention center, United Methodist volunteers from the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference welcomed delegates and visitors to Portland. Members of the General Conference Prayer Ministry Team presented new arrivals with Protestant prayer beads and medallions created by United Methodists who committed to pray for each delegate.

Before the service, delegates and visitors also visited a huge exhibit area that featured ministries of general agencies, Imagine No Malaria, Africa University, United Methodist seminaries and more, and purchased books and products of Cokesbury, the retail arm of the United Methodist Publishing House.

As always, delegates and visitors embraced friends they haven't seen for four years and helped one another find their way around the Oregon Convention Center, a location with which they will become quite familiar before the assembly adjourns on Friday evening, May 20.

Barbara Dunlap-Berg, general church content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.

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