2024 Rio Texas Annual Conference Recap

From the podium…

Rev. Cynthia Engstrom and Rev. Bob Clark spoke at the Mission Breakfast and during Plenary Session 3 about the good work of the Transformational Communities Network.

The Transforming Communities Vision Team invites the Rio Texas Conference community to celebrate what God is doing in the world and in the communities we serve. As a connected and communal people, sharing our story and hearing the stories of others presents us glimpses of the new thing that God is doing among us and through us. Now God is doing a new thing! It springs up, what do we perceive?

Hear from those that attended this year…

This year’s Annual Conference was marked not by any one single event but by an overwhelming sense of hope for the future of the United Methodist Church. Despite the challenging season we’ve endured with COVID-19 and the emotional, administrative, and financial hardships of disaffiliation, the Rio Texas Conference and the United Methodist Church are emerging more united and determined than ever. Together, we are committed to spreading the word of Jesus and enhancing outreach ministries in our communities across our conference. – Kevin Collins, Lay Delegate from Travis Park Church, Travis Park Ringers Director, Travis Park UMC Foundation Board President

I have been at Travis Park UMC for three years and have received overwhelming love and support. But when the conference clergy and laity stand up and offer an apology to all the LGBTQ + community for all harm/hurt the church in general has caused, I can take sense of pride that my UMC church loves me. I feel a new beginning. – Sonia Cruz, Deaconess, Youth Group Sponsor 

It was so moving for me to attend the service Justice at the Table with Rio Texas Reconciling Ministries and the Methodist Federation for Social Action. The keynote speaker, Rev Luis Felipe Reyes, was outstanding. You could feel his passion and his commitment to justice for all of us. I also loved all the connections I saw at Annual Conference. It was fun for me to be introduced to someone I knew as Pastor Piña, a Methodist Healthcare Ministries representative, by Sonia who knew him as Isidro, one of the kids she used to run around with in high school! – Mary Jo Villalobos, United Women in Faith Group Leader, Leon Valley Home Group Leader, 2024 Leadership Board

“I don’t know how it’s always been done, but the future of the UMC looks beautiful.”

I was honored to represent Travis Park Church – the place where I have discovered a beacon of hope and a community that inspires me to be my best self. We are not limited by the past, but we are propelled by a new momentum that encourages us to love fully and live with purpose. We are not afraid to take risks and embrace our unique voices, knowing that every voice matters and has a significant role to play. At Annual Conference I learned that all churches can look like us. I learned to not go back but to move forward. We have the power to shape our destiny and create a world filled with love, kindness, and hope. To embrace change and reject the fear of being different. To be fearless in the face of criticism and stand united in our pursuit of a better tomorrow. To LOVE ALL in spite of the consequences. Every voice has a vital role to play, and every journey is an opportunity for growth. Representation matters! Together, we can achieve the impossible and make the world a brighter, more loving place. It was an amazing experience. I don’t know how it’s always been done, but the future of the UMC looks beautiful. – Stacy Harless, At-Large District Lay Delegate, 2024 TCN Cohort, Travis Park Church Hospitality Ambassador 

“I am surprised to see / that the ocean is still going on,” the poet Ann Sexton writes in “Letter on a Ferry while Crossing Long Island Sound,” a poem about a brief but momentous journey by ferry. Looking out at Corpus Christi Bay upon returning for the Rio Texas Annual Conference June 6-7, I understood the poet’s sense that “nothing has happened” even when “everything has happened.” Life goes on in ways that are sweet and bitter, joyful and disturbing, static and transformed.

The one event that most encapsulates both the continuity and the changes within the Rio Texas Annual Conference is the Justice at the Table worship service, jointly organized by the Rio Texas Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) that took place on Thursday evening. For months, members of these two groups have met monthly on Zoom in order to re-envision our participation at the Rio Texas Annual Conference. For years, MFSA had organized a luncheon and awards ceremony in the middle of the day. Always well-attended, MFSA shared the inclusive goals of the Reconciling Ministries Network, as was apparent in the keynote speakers’ presentations and in the award recipients. For more than a decade, RMN held a morning or evening worship service as a means of providing an inclusive space for LGBTQ persons and allies at Annual Conference. In the exhibit hall, RMN and MFSA sometimes shared table space or had two separate booths in close proximity. Indeed MFSA offered space at its table when RMN felt unsure they would be welcome to have a table. This year, given the long-sought-for reform legislation passed at General Conference, the two groups joined their efforts for the worship service, which was combined with a social justice awards ceremony. As always, the liturgy was beautiful and inspiring with table Holy Communion in which we distributed the bread and juice to our table neighbors.

Deaconess Cindy Andrade Johnson of Travis Park UMC was the recipient of this year’s Community Service Award. Since Cindy could not be present for the award, I was honored to accept on her behalf. Having worked at the Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville, La Posada Providencia Migrant Center in San Benito, and at migrant camps on both sides of the Border, Cindy clearly deserves this recognition of MFSA. As I mentioned in my remarks, however, Cindy has done much more by also working toward LGBT equality, often attending our Rio Texas RMN Team during Zoom meetings.

The keynote speaker for the MFSA / RMN worship service was Rev. Luis Felipe Reyes, who spoke passionately, powerfully, and prophetically about marginalized populations, especially Latinx immigrants, in the US. Rev. Reyes, too, acknowledged the intersections of racial, gender, and LGBTQ justice. He exhorted those in the room to listen to the marginalized, to learn from and work with the oppressed rather than distancing ourselves or assuming our superiority. What most impressed me about his message was his spiritual freedom and strength to preach from the heart and represent those on the margins.

The seamlessness with which we discussed social justice for all, whether Latinx migrants or LGBTQ United Methodists, impressed me as the way forward in the United Methodist Church. Our mission in the future is not assume the struggle is over but rather to encourage our sibling United Methodists to speak as openly and prophetically as Rev. Reyes.

At the end of the service, Rev. Richard Bates, co-president of the Rio Texas MFSA, reminded those attending Justice at the Table that Gene Leggett, the openly gay United Methodist pastor who was defrocked in 1971, had spoken prophetically about justice more than half a century ago. Each year at Annual Conference, which took place in San Antonio, Gene Leggett protested unequal treatment of LGBTQ United Methodists by kneeling at the altar rail of Travis Park UMC during the ordination service. Only now are we beginning to appreciate and embrace Gene Leggett’s ministry. To fully live into this legacy, though, we have much work to do.

In 2012, Travis Park UMC delegate Jeff Sturgeon bravely stood up on the plenary floor to request a moment to speak. He spoke movingly of the failure of the UMC to respect and embrace LGBTQ Christians. He challenged those gathered to work for inclusion rather than remaining silent. I will forever be grateful to Jeff Sturgeon. His legacy, like Gene Leggett’s, is one of love and courage.

As Sexton writes, “The sea is very old.” Change has come. Change is gonna come.

– Dr. Rachel Jennings, Reconciling Ministries Network Group Leader, Professor of English at San Antonio College, 2023 TCADP Appreciation Award Recipient

The Mission of United Methodists of The Rio Texas Conference is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

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