Black History Month and the Arkansas UMCRev. Elma Joyce Harris-Scott

Black History Month and the Arkansas UMC
Rev. Elma Joyce Harris-Scott

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Each February, Black History Month is celebrated throughout the United States as a way to remember the amazing contributions and achievements of black Americans and other people of African descent throughout history.

Throughout February, we are celebrating the groundbreaking achievements of black Americans in the Arkansas United Methodist Church.

This week, our focus is on a lady whose name many people in the Arkansas Conference might not recognize: the Rev. Elma Joyce Harris-Scott.

The reason that Harris-Scott’s name isn’t well known in Arkansas is that although she was ordained in our conference, she was never given an appointment here.

But her significance in our conference’s history cannot be understated; Rev. Harris-Scott was the first black woman to be ordained in the Arkansas Conference.

Harris-Scott is a graduate of Philander Smith College. She was ordained in 1980 in the former North Arkansas Conference as a deacon — This was during the former 2-step ordination process. Before 1996, deacons were considered provisional elders and did not serve separate roles as we know deacons and elders do today.

Harris-Scott was never given an appointment in Arkansas, and according to Two Centuries of Methodism in Arkansas 1800-2000 by Nancy Britton, she was “considered unappointable and transferred to the Kansas East Conference shortly after her ordination.

She served numerous churches throughout Kansas and retired in the Great Plains Conference in 2016.

Although we do not have much info on Rev. Elma Joyce Harris-Scott, it is important to remember the “firsts” in our conference, and preserve and reflect on our history.

If you have more info on Rev. Elma Joyce Harris-Scott or personal stories you wish to share, please email caleb.hennington@arumc.org.

We celebrate the contributions of black Americans every year in February, but the immeasurable improvements to our society that black Americans have gifted the world should be honored each and every day.

The Hard Work of Loving God Back

You never have to do anything to experience God’s love. But you always have to be intentional about loving God back. And that can be hard because it involves being absolutely honest with God when you’re afraid, doing things you’ve never done when you’re not sure how and paying a price for doing what God wants you to do when people don’t like it. But remember this. Doing God’s Will is what you’re created to do. It’s how you are called to live. And it’s the most awesome privilege you’ll ever have.   

A Clear VisionBart’s Place Eye Clinic Serves Hot Springs With Free Glasses

A Clear Vision
Bart’s Place Eye Clinic Serves Hot Springs With Free Glasses

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

In the Gospel of Mark, we witness one of the few times that a recipient of Jesus’ miraculous healing power is named. Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, receives the gift of sight from Christ while Jesus and his disciples are on their way through Jericho.

Oaklawn United Methodist Church realizes the necessity of a good pair of eyeglasses, and through their Bart’s Place Eye Clinic, named after Bartimaeus from the Gospel of Mark, they are able to freely give the gift of sight to disadvantaged patrons in their community.

“We don’t have the power to heal the blind as Jesus did but through optometry and ophthalmologists working with us, we can work to restore vision in a positive way,” said the Rev. Russell Breshears, senior pastor at Oaklawn UMC in Hot Springs.

About 10 years ago, Breshears was serving a different appointment at Oak Forest UMC in Little Rock. The church was well-known in its community because of the free dental and medical clinics that operated out of its building during the week. But Breshears and church leadership were looking for ways to expand their free clinics into another area: eye care.

“At the time, one of the local eye clinics located in a Walmart was going out of business, and they were getting ready to sell off all of their old equipment. And I said, ‘well hold on, we can use that equipment. We have a medical and dental clinic; we really need an eye clinic as well.’”

After some negotiations with Walmart, Breshears was able to acquire the equipment for Oak Forest and move the eye clinic into a room in the church’s basement that, because of its absence of windows and natural light, was perfect for eye examinations.

Another miracle happened when Dr. Tim Norton, an optometrist who owns Contact Lenses Xpress of Little Rock and Hot Springs, offered his services for free after seeing a story about Oak Forest’s clinics on TV.

“He asked me how much we were purchasing our frames for and I told him about $15 – $20 a pair. He said, ‘Well, how would you like to pay zero dollars?’ It’s kind of hard to say no to zero,” Breshears said.

“It’s a partnership of the church, doctors, and the labs that create the eyeglasses. Everybody working together.”

The eye clinic at Oak Forest is still in operation, but Breshears was appointed to Oaklawn UMC in 2015, meaning he had to leave the clinic he had been instrumental in setting up.

Breshears, however, wasn’t going to leave the idea of a free eye clinic behind in Little Rock. He wanted to bring the knowledge he gained from the Oak Forest eye clinic to the Hot Springs community as well.

The church quickly latched on to the idea, and Bart’s Place opened for business.

Although visitors to Bart’s Place Eye Clinic don’t receive an eye exam on-site as they did at Oak Forest, the clinic still measures patients’ eyes and fits them with a brand new pair of frames for their glasses.

“When we started the eye clinic at Oaklawn, we partnered with the Hot Springs Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic. And they do our eye exams and then send people over to us to select their frames.”

According to their website, the CCMC treats the sick who can’t afford the cost of a doctor’s appointment or a prescription, which includes individuals who have no health insurance – Medicaid or Medicare – and need help but have nowhere else to turn.

Rev. Russell Breshears (left) and Mabeline Norris (right) stand in front of the display case for the frames at Bart’s Place. || Photo by Caleb Hennington

When patients come to Bart’s, a volunteer measures the distance between the left and right pupils with a device. They then select a pair of frames from a wall of options, just like in a normal clinic. Breshears said that after selecting their frames, patients’ prescriptions are sent to Dr. Norton, and in about 2 – 3 weeks, a new pair of glasses will be ready for pick up.

“It’s a partnership of the church, doctors, and the labs that create the eyeglasses. Everybody working together,” Breshears said.

Every step of the process — from the examination to the new pair of glasses — is free for everyone in the community, but the clinic is particularly focused on helping underprivileged and underserved members of Hot Springs.

“We don’t have income criteria for the eye clinic, but we say if you cannot afford to get an examination and buy a pair of eyeglasses — which can sometimes be as much as $300 — then the church and the community can help you with that,” Breshears said.

Breshears estimates that Bart’s Place gives out somewhere between 50 – 60 eyeglasses per year.

A device that the volunteers at Bart’s Place use to measure the distance between the left and right pupils of a patient. These measurements are used to select the correct frame size for a new pair of glasses. || Photo by Caleb Hennington

Mabeline Norris, a resident of Hot Springs, is just one of the many people who has benefited from the free services at Bart’s Place.

“The way my Medicaid worked, they would pay for my eye exam, but not my glasses. So when I heard about Bart’s Place and them giving out glasses to folks, I said ‘Oh praise God! Thank you Lord!’ because I needed glasses bad and I couldn’t afford them,” Norris said.

Norris said she has been coming to Bart’s Place for about five years and recently found out that she has glaucoma, which means her prescription can change every year. Bart’s Place was able to find a pair of bifocals for her, which she said has greatly improved her vision.

“I was just using reading glasses before but now I can actually see!”

The clinic not only carries frames for adults, but they have a fun and colorful selection of children’s frames as well.

“That’s because Medicaid only covers one pair of glasses per year for kids, but little kids aren’t as careful as adults are with their glasses, so the local elementary schools will sometimes bring the kids who need new glasses to our clinic.

“This is all possible because of the partnerships we’ve made in the community. Our church is a mid-size church but because we have great volunteers, the space for the eyeglasses, and doctors who offer their services for free, we can do this work,” Breshears said.

For Norris, if not for Bart’s Place, she wouldn’t have the opportunities that she has now. Norris said that she considers herself homeless and spends her time volunteering at different churches in Hot Springs in order to make a little money and build her income back up.

Oaklawn gives her the opportunity to volunteer her time, as well as provide her with the glasses that she needs to see.

“[Oaklawn UMC] has been a real blessing to me. They show love and compassion to everyone. Anytime I need them, they are right here for me,” Norris said.

Breshears said this clinic has allowed their church to become more like the hands and feet of Christ.

“Not only can I tell someone that we can provide them food if they’re hungry, but we can now also tend to some of their real medical needs. I believe Jesus ministered to our bodies, minds, and souls. And it’s very gratifying when you see someone put on a new pair of glasses, maybe for the first time ever”

Bart’s Place Eye Clinic is open by appointment and is located at Oaklawn United Methodist Church, 216 Higdon Ferry Rd, Hot Springs, AR 71913.

A Pestering Love

God loves you just the way you are regardless of what you’ve done, what you think about yourself or what others say about you. In fact, God’s so passionately in love with you that God’s unwilling to leave you just the way you are. That’s why you can expect God to pester you to develop a deeper relationship with God, become far more compassionate, grow in generosity, increasingly love your neighbor and follow Jesus more faithfully. Sure, God’s relentless pestering may be a bit annoying – but you’ll soon discover it leads to abundant life.

The Need for Space and a New Form of UnityCreating Overlapping Theologically and Contextually Defined Regional Conferences in Four Global Regions

The Need for Space and a New Form of Unity
Creating Overlapping Theologically and Contextually Defined Regional Conferences in Four Global Regions

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

The Landscape Matters

Tod Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains uses Lewis and Clark’s westward journey of discovery to help the church better understand the nature of our journey into a rapidly changing world. Bolsinger chronicles how Lewis and Clark had to adapt to a landscape vastly different from the one they expected in order to complete their mission. His thesis is remarkably simple: the church will only be able to carry out the mission Jesus has given us if we are able to adapt to our actual landscape, and not just forge ahead based on long-held assumptions.

The Current United Methodist Landscape
Four key characteristics shape our current United Methodist landscape.

First, the anger, ugly rhetoric, and blame that enveloped the 2019 Called General Conference Session in St. Louis has intensified to the point that it seems impossible to imagine a future in which progressives and traditionalists can move forward together without each having a structured safe space to live out their convictions faithfully.

Second, since the called session a year ago, a significant group of bishops, pastors, laity, and congregations have vowed to ‘resist harm’ in a variety of ways, including non-compliance. This means that the legislation adopted by the General Conference in 2019 will very likely be unenforceable in the United States in the years to come.

Third, sixteen diverse leaders recently completed a mediation process that resulted in the issuance of a “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation”. This offering proposes shaping the ongoing United Methodist Church as progressive in matters involving LGBTQIA individuals, while also providing a way for those who embrace a more traditional understanding of marriage and ordination to create a new expression of Methodism. It currently seems to be the presumptive way forward for the 2020 General Conference.

While embraced by many, however, the proposed Protocol fails to provide an acceptable solution for the 30% – 40% of the United Methodist Church in the United States that is more traditional concerning human sexuality, but wishes to stay in the United Methodist Church. Those in this group feel ignored by the Protocol at best, and tossed aside as the ‘cost of doing business’ at worst. Perhaps more importantly, they contend they now face a heart-wrenching choice of having to stay in a denomination they believe does not express their deepest convictions or leave the denomination they love.

Concerns about the viability of the Protocol are being raised throughout the global church as well. The Liberian Annual Conference recently unanimously passed a resolution calling for significant amendments to the proposed Protocol that would considerably alter its focus. This includes every Jurisdictional, Central, and Annual Conference voting to decide whether to join a traditional or progressive expression, with a 50% plus one vote being the threshold for decision. It also includes a statement that challenges a fundamental assumption of the protocol, “Whereas, any attempt to align or subjugate all central conferences and their annual conferences and congregations to a post-separation UMC by default, as the Protocol proposes, would be viewed as an act of colonialism and injustice against the Central Conferences.” (“Resolution of The Liberia Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church on Proposed Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” February 14, 2020)

Fourth, Jesus calls those who love him to live in unity. We cannot achieve this on our own, because there are powerful forces pulling us apart. We can no longer fool ourselves into thinking the institutional church can foster it, because the United Methodist Church is fracturing. We cannot expect it to magically appear based on votes at General Conference, because a legislative process can never provide true unity in Christ. We can only receive the unity Jesus offers as a gift, vision, and expectation to live into as we trust him enough to step out in faith.

The mandatory nature of this unity is expressed in John 17:20-24, when Jesus prays that his followers may be one as he and God are one. Its realization is described in John 14:5-8, when Jesus makes it clear we are only connected to each other by being connected to him. Its reality is experienced weekly by the majority of United Methodists, when they sit in pews with people of opposing opinions and experience the truth of Paul’s affirmation in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26, As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (vv 20-21)

Navigating the United Methodist Landscape in Order to Faithfully Move Ahead
We cannot ignore any of these four characteristics that define our landscape if we are to faithfully and fruitfully guide our beloved church into the future. Yet that is exactly what we seem to have done! The proposed Protocol provides safe space for those who seek a church that is fully inclusive of the LGBTQIA persons. It also offers an easy way for those who wish to leave the connection to do so. But it fails to provide a faithful response for traditional leaning United Methodists who wish to live their faith with integrity within the United Methodist Church; particularly in Africa and the United States, but also in other Central Conferences.

Of course, this is not a surprising outcome. It is easy to become ensnared in a binary choice mindset of “either-or”, “up or down”, or “win-lose”; assume that matters involving human sexuality are the only issues important to traditional leaning United Methodists; and forget that relationships often carry greater weight than issues.

The exclusion of what is probably a majority of United Methodists globally means that we are on a very dangerous trajectory. In fact, any legislation that does not allow those who wish to remain as United Methodists to do so without compromising core convictions in a safe and protected way is unjust.

Adaptive Change Through a “2-by-4” Approach
The United Methodist Church desperately needs an adaptive approach that addresses the full reality of our landscape: painful division; deep and faithful convictions; a flawed Protocol proposal with momentum that fails to provide a place for traditional leaning United Methodists who wish to remain in the denomination; and Christ’s mandated call for unity.

There is an approach that can curate a continuing United Methodist Church which provides clearly defined spaces for laity, congregations, pastors, and bishops to live with theological integrity, while trusting the Holy Spirit to help us live into a new form of unity in Christ. It does this by creating two geographically overlapping theologically and contextually defined Regional Conferences in each of four Global Regions of the United Methodist Church: the Philippines, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Of course, those who do not wish to join this endeavor will be able to gracefully exit the denomination.

The Philippines Central Conference will become the Philippines Region with two geographically overlapping theologically and contextually defined Regional Conferences. The three Central Conferences in Africa will become two Regional Conferences in the Africa Region. The three Central Conferences in Europe will become two Regional Conferences in the Europe and Eurasia Region. The five Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States will become two Regional Conferences.

Overview of Annual Conferences, Regional Conferences and the Global Conference
The roles and responsibilities of Annual Conferences, Regional Conferences and the new Global Conference will reflect the shape of the new United Methodist Church.

Annual Conferences

  • Relate to either the Progressive or Traditional Regional Conference in its Region by a majority vote
  • Recruit, credential, deploy and supervise clergy
  • Begin new places for new people
  • Develop and carry out missional strategy
  • Partner with a global annual conference
  • Develop lay leadership
  • Appoint itinerant clergy through an episcopal system that provides open itinerancy with guaranteed appointments
  • Elect delegates to the Regional Conference
  • Elect delegates to the Global Conference
  • Negotiate relationships with general agencies as desired

Two Theologically and Contextually Defined Regional Conferences in Each of Four Regions

  • Relate to the Global Conference
  • Collaborate with other Regional Conferences, including establishing formal structural relationships if desired
  • Create a “Regional Conference Book of Discipline”
  • Adopt social principles
  • Determine roles and responsibilities for bishops
  • Elect, deploy, and support bishops (bishop’s membership in Regional Conference College of Bishops)
  • Determine standards for marriage
  • Determine requirements for ordination
  • Negotiate relationship with general agencies as desired

Global Conference

  • Craft a deeper unity in the United Methodist Church
  • Create a “Global Book of Discipline” that focuses on doctrine, mission, and shared heritage
  • Convene the Global Conference every four years to focus on unity, evangelism, mission, and ecumenical matters
  • Maintain GCFA
  • Support Africa University
  • Support Historically Black Colleges and Universities
  • Coordinate UMCOR on behalf of all the Regional Conferences
  • Meet annually as Colloquy of Bishops from all Regional Conferences to focus on unity, learning, shared mission, and unity in Christ

Process

  • All General Agencies will become free-standing and negotiate relationships with Regional Conferences
  • Regional Conferences (and Annual Conferences in those Regional Conferences) can use the cross and flame or some version of it
  • Annual Conferences will choose which Regional Conference in their Region to join
  • Congregations and pastors not agreeing with the decision of their Annual Conference can join the other Regional Conference in their Region
  • WesPath will continue to manage pensions for the entire United Methodist Church
  • Two Regional Conferences will be created in each of the four Regions in 2020-2021
  • Annual Conferences will vote concerning which Regional Conference to join in 2021
  • Laity, congregations, clergy, and bishops will be able to choose a different Regional from their Annual Conference in 2021-2024
  • $39,000,000 will be committed to addressing racism and will be available to both Regional Conferences in the United States
  • Annual Conferences and congregations that do not wish to be part of the United Methodist Church will be provided with a gracious and easy exit

Can ‘2X4’ Work?
Creating two theologically and contextually defined geographically overlapping Regional Conferences in each of our four Global Regions will provide space for everyone who wishes to remain in the United Methodist Church. It avoids forcing people to be part of a church with which they disagree or enforcing conformity through disciplinary measures. It connects people in mission and ministry who might be tempted to stay in their kindred groups. It offers wonderful opportunities to create a more nimble church with significantly lower apportionments. Perhaps most importantly, it expresses the unity Jesus mandates in John 15: Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (vv 4-5)

It is fair to inquire, however, whether this proposal for navigating into the future can become a reality. It can. First, the legislation that has already been written can be easily adapted. Second, the General Conference can amend whatever comes before it when it gathers in May in Minneapolis. Finally, even the high threshold of two-thirds support needed from General Conference and Annual Conferences for constitutional amendments ensures that this is not merely a win for some and a loss for others, but a way forward for everyone who loves the United Methodist Church.

We are in a fragile and tender time. The risks are high and the consequences potentially tragic if we make decisions that tear apart the Body of Christ in local congregations and our global connection. Yet we can be filled with hope that we can experience both the space we need and the unity Christ gives us to embody for one simple reason: the Holy Spirit always triumphs.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!