I waited in the car for my contact to return. It was 10:30 at night in the parking lot of a hotel. My contact told me to stay where I was - it would be dangerous for the person we were meeting if I were to go inside. After a couple of minutes of nervous silence my contact returned with an African man who glanced around before coming to our vehicle. He opened the front door for a brief hug before sitting down in the backseat. We visited for about five minutes. He got out, returned to the hotel alone, and we drove away.
It sounds like a spy novel. But I'm no spy. I'm just a clergy delegate to General Conference 2019. The story is 100% true. After this encounter I was driven to a second hotel where I met two acquaintances. Together we followed my contact to a room and waited there until he returned with three people from another African country. We shared with one another for maybe 15 minutes and followed the same ritual in reverse for our departure.
I'm pretty naïve. I texted my daughter about what I was doing. When she asked why we were meeting so late in the hotel I told her that I thought it was because of the time zone difference - that maybe this was just the time that worked best for them so I was adjusting to their time as an act of hospitality. My contact cleared that up. At 11:00 not many people were milling around the hotel so it was safer to meet.
This is the nature of discussing homosexuality in a worldwide church with close to 40% of the votes coming from parts of the world where being gay itself is, in some cases, illegal. We counted our votes. We believed that we had a minimum of 88 votes from Africa and potentially 30 from the Philippines. We believed this because we had people we believed were working with us in those various countries who agreed that the One Church Plan was best for the denomination even if they personally did not agree with same-sex marriage or LGBT ordination. Today our estimate is of those 88 and 30 we probably actually received 15 from each. I don't know how any of the four that I met with that night voted. I do know that three of the four said if their vote was known they would lose their jobs.
The pressure on Africans in particular to conform to the wishes of their bishops and fellow delegates is intense. And the pressure on American delegates and political interests to use whatever tools are needed is real, too. Here's a portion of a message I received via Facebook from another African acquaintance last fall as we talked about how to increase our votes: "And let me be clear here about getting the votes from Africa on our side, we must do everything that we can do to make this happen. This is about politics and using money to influence votes from Africa must not be ruled out."
Let me be clear that my response to this individual was an unequivocal "no." I was involved at the highest level of the One Church Coalition and I know of nobody in that coalition who ever took any unethical act to secure any votes. Quite the opposite. We were clear that if saving the denomination required bribery then it wasn't worth saving.
The day after my late night meetings it was clear that we never had the votes for the OCP. We had been outmaneuvered before General Conference even began. So what do you do when the Traditional Plan train is rolling and you don't have the votes to stop it? You change the game and use strengths as a weakness. The traditionalists had given voting guides to all the African delegates. Please hear me - I do not doubt the ability of people from all across the world to have their own minds and make their own decisions. The cultural differences, language barrier, and parliamentary procedure make it very difficult to have everybody on an even playing field. It is also true that the traditionalists didn't want an even playing field. I'm quite confident that at the multiple meals and the days long pre-conference session for African delegates there was no attempt to give an unbiased view of the One Church Plan or Simple Plan. To the contrary, I was told by one African friend that if I were to speak on the floor I should make a point that I am married and have kids because Africans had been told that everybody who was not for the Traditional Plan was gay. You can hear me awkwardly mention my wife and kids at the beginning of the first speech I gave for precisely this reason.
So we used the voting guide against them. The Traditional Plan as it passed is largely unconstitutional because of the one parliamentary victory that we achieved. At the beginning of legislative committee day the traditionalists quietly told everybody to vote for their amendments and then vote to Call the Question to end debate and go to a vote. We let them make a couple amendments - we argued against them but knew we would fail - and then we called for the question. This is how you know that so many people didn't understand what was going on. They needed a minimum of eight more amendments to make their plan constitutional. There was no rational reason a TP supporter would vote to end debate without those amendments. But the instructions given were clear: vote for our amendments and then vote to end the debate. So they did. We moved to end debate and even though we only had 45% of the delegates on our side of the question the motion passed 577-234. The incomplete, unconstitutional plan moved on to the following day's plenary session where we mostly successfully killed clock until the end of the General Conference session.
I attended my first General Conference as a delegate in 1996. As we drove to Denver, my GC mentor told me that I would see the Church at its best and at its worst. The political machinations that you read hear and, I'm convinced by second hand accounts, far worse on the opposing side, are the Church at its worst. What will follow from this vile event will, I believe, be the Church at its best. General Conference has become the Principalities and Powers that Paul says in Ephesians 6 that we should work against. It is the evil and injustice that we are baptized to resist. I intend to do that. I invite you to join me.