Church downsizing number of districts, addresses racism

Rick Wagner • Sep 12, 2017 at 12:20 PM

MAGGIE VALLEY, N.C. — Was online communion recently banned by a Protestant denomination’s regional annual conference? And did an Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians member named Junaluska save the life of Tennessean Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 only to be later forced onto the Trail of Tears Jackson implemented as president?

The answer to both questions is yes. Online communion recently was voted down by the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church held at a place named for the Cherokee man.

No online communion, but districts to be consolidated

You may never have heard of the alternative communions, but if you like me were one of the 1,946 delegates representing the 880 churches of the 2017 Holston Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska, N.C., June 11-14, you heard about them. The conference, which encompasses East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Northern Georgia and is based in Alcoa, Tenn., approved a motion to prohibit online communion. During questions about the resolution it became known that the church already had prohibited drive-through communion.

Some, including a minister, spoke in favor of online communion, saying it was of great use to those who are bedridden, in hospitals or on battlefields. However, others supported the national Methodist church’s Council of Bishops stance and said that it was a minister’s job to go out and serve communion to folks unable to get to a regular church service. 

The conference addressed other issues, including a controversial one to reduce the number of districts in the conference from 12 to nine. Bishop Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor, within her power, already filled only nine of the 12 district superintendents but set up a system to have the nine split the work of serving 12 districts. The vote of the conference, held by standing and which I estimated to be about 2-to-1 in favor of the reduction in districts, means specific boundaries will be proposed for the nine new districts and voted on by the conference at the 2018 conference. Current districts are disproportionate in numbers of churches included; “right sizing” the districts is a goal of the change.

Also, the conference has been relying on its fund balance to make up for budget shortfalls, and reducing the number of superintendents in the long run will help save money. Of course it will put more work on the remaining superintendents, which is to be offset some by having clergy meet in informal groups to help one another and mission centers across the conference. Folks from the Kingsport and Big Stone Gap districts, which once were unsuccessfully merged into the Gateway District in the 1990s, seemed to speak out the most against the idea. The total budget approved by the conference is just more than $9 million.

Looking back on treatment of blacks in the 1950s, the Cherokee in 1838

In addition, the conference overwhelmingly voted to ask the Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center board, which includes the Holston Conference bishop since the Methodist Church owns the meeting facilities, to apologize for the documented racism, including segregation, against minorities there 60 years ago. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Holston Annual Conference being at Lake Junaluska, and the vote was to return there in 2018. Biship Taylor said she believes the board will be receptive to the apology request. This is interesting to consider given the mid-August violence in Charlottsville, Va., and ensuing debate on racism and Confederate statues that brought racism to the forefront of discussion in this country.

If you are and want more information on the conference, go to the conference website at holston.org or find your church’s delegate or minister who was at the conference and ask questions.

As for Junaluska the man, on Wednesday, the day the conference ended, my wife, two sons and I headed past the hotel where we had stayed in Maggie Valley near Lake Junaluska on to Cherokee. Soaking in a little U.S. history at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, I ran across information that Chief Junaluska had saved Jackson’s life in an 1814 battle of the War of 1812 and that Jackson was grateful to Junaluska and promised good treatment of the Cherokees.

However, he wasn’t grateful enough to stop the forced relocation of Cherokees and other native Americans in 1838. On the way to Oklahoma, Junaluska escaped with a small group but was recaptured and sent on to Oklahoma. However, Junaluska eventually walked back to North Carolina and was awarded land by the state, died and was buried there. Among the things named after him were Lake Junaluska, a manmade lake that has the conference center, hotels and private homes on its shores.

The kicker was Junaluska said if he had known what Jackson would do to Native Americans, he wouldn’t have saved the future president in battle.

Lesson: An attempt to rectify American history from 60 years ago recently occurred at a place named for a celebrated Native American of North Carolina, a man who 179 years ago came to regret saving the life of a future U.S. president in battle.

Bonus question: Is online communion sanctioned by the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church or the national church’s Council of Bishops?