African Delegates’ Urgent Requests Unanswered

Photo: Shutterstock.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

By Thomas Lambrecht

We are less than six weeks from the opening session of the 2024 United Methodist General Conference. That is why it is troubling that African delegates continue to be beset with delayed responses from the staff running our UM General Conference and are experiencing problems that threaten their ability to participate.

For the last several months, the delay in sending non-U.S. delegates their official letters of invitation to attend the General Conference has been noted and criticized, including by Mainstream UMC, the self-identified “centrist” caucus. Receiving the invitation letter is required before the delegate can have an interview at the U.S. embassy to obtain a visa to attend the Conference.

In recent correspondence, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, a long-time Liberian General Conference delegate, identified a number of remaining problems facing African delegates.

Invitation Letters

It appears by now that almost all African delegates have received their invitation letters. The letters came so late, however, that a few delegates could not even schedule a visa interview at the embassy. Others have had to travel to a different country’s embassy, where there were still interview openings, in order to apply for a visa. This entails paying for air fare, hotel, and food for the trip, including a stay of two to seven days to allow processing of the visa and picking it up at the embassy before returning to one’s home country.

The General Conference is supposed to pay for this cost to obtain a visa. The delay in sending invitation letters means that more delegates have needed to travel to obtain a visa, which means that the cost to the general church is higher. In some cases, the funds are not being sent in a timely fashion, jeopardizing the ability of the delegates to travel for their visa interview. Most African delegates cannot just put the expenses on a credit card and wait three weeks to be reimbursed.

A new problem is that, in some places, embassy staff are becoming stricter in awarding visas. Even some who have traveled to the U.S. before are being denied this time. In Liberia, two of eight clergy delegates have been denied, while three of five lay delegates have been denied. (Others are still awaiting a scheduled interview.) In the past, UM leaders have contacted U.S. embassies to let them know delegates would be coming for interviews and to request their assistance in granting visas. It appears that did not happen this time around.

Because of the denial of visas (some of which happen every quadrennium), alternates need to be prepared to step in to fill out the delegation. However, alternates also need letters of invitation to get their visas. Alternates are now having trouble receiving their letters in a timely fashion. And because of how late the original delegates received their letters, there is now not enough time for some alternates to schedule a visa interview. In some places the wait time for scheduling a visa interview is three to six months, well past the dates of General Conference.

The end result is that Africa will not be fully represented at the 2024 General Conference. At the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis, more than ten percent of the African delegates did not receive visas to attend and were not able to have their slots filled by alternates. It looks like that number may be higher this time. All of this could have been avoided by having invitation letters sent out last fall, instead of waiting until the last minute. This has been a perennial problem with how General Conference organizers have handled the visa situation, but it appears much worse this time.

Travel Plans

For past General Conferences, the general church has sent funds to the annual conferences in Africa to enable delegates to purchase their own air ticket. This allowed delegates to come on their own schedule. Many wanted to arrive several days early, in order to allow their bodies time to adjust to the 6-9 hours of time difference between the U.S. and Africa. Some would come early or stay past the conference in order to visit partner churches in the U.S. and cultivate ties for ministry, as well as visit family members. Coming early or staying later did not cost the general church any money, as the extra days were at the delegate’s own expense, and the air fare would be the same.

This time, in an admirable effort to save cost, the General Conference Commission is requiring all non-U.S. delegates to have their tickets purchased by a travel agency. This would be fine if the travel agency could accommodate the individualized schedules of delegates. Unfortunately, the Commission has decided to restrict travel dates for delegates, so that they arrive in Charlotte the day before delegate orientation begins and leave the day after adjournment. If delegates want to come earlier or stay beyond those dates, they will have to pay for the whole air fare themselves, which most African delegates cannot afford.

Some question the motivation behind these restrictions on travel. It could be that organizers want to avoid complicating the travel agency’s job by allowing individual itineraries. It is also a fact that many UM leaders have been displeased that the Africa Initiative in the past has organized a pre-conference gathering for African and other non-U.S. delegates to learn about the issues and discuss strategy for the General Conference. Restricting travel has meant that such a gathering could not take place this time. That will unquestionably hamper the ability of African delegates to have a unified and strategic impact on decisions at General Conference.

Remarkably, as of this writing, our information is that no African delegates have yet received their air tickets. Because the travel agency is now so late in making flight arrangements for the African delegates, the cost will undoubtedly be higher, and the itineraries available may be less desirable. Under the best of circumstances, travel to and from Africa takes 18 to 30 hours. If certain flights are sold out, that may add to the travel time and mean long layovers without any accommodation in airports. This creates hardship for the delegates and puts them at a physical disadvantage dealing with jet lag, travel exhaustion, and the stress of being in a different country, perhaps for the first time. They will be less prepared to fully participate as equals in the business of the General Conference.

This is fundamentally unjust, and African delegates are being treated differently from U.S. delegates. U.S. delegates can travel to Charlotte whenever they want and stay as long as they want on their own dime, but African delegates are only allowed to travel on certain restricted dates. This unequal treatment sends a message to African delegates that they are second-class members of The United Methodist Church, belying the aspiration that we are a truly global and inclusive church.

Other Issues

Other requests from Dr. Kulah have gone without a response from General Conference staff. Africa Initiative has requested space to hold an African worship service on the Sunday of General Conference, as they have in previous quadrennia.

New this year is the fact that delegates will be fed prepared meals at the convention center to save time and avoid the need for the conference to pay each delegate a per diem to cover meals. Kulah raises the concern that the meals prepared may not take African dietary desires into account, and that African delegates might prefer to seek out meals more in line with their health needs. He requested a return to the per diem approach.

The Mainstream UMC blog linked above also lamented the fact that many delegates did not have working ID numbers that would enable their free access to the General Conference website to learn more about the details of the conference and view proposed legislation. This is still true of many delegates in Africa. Without this access to legislation ahead of time in their preferred language, delegates will be less prepared.

There is no contact list or even a list of names of delegates available. No hotel information has been shared with African delegates. There is no map of the convention center indicating room assignments. There is no map of downtown Charlotte indicating the hotels that will be housing General Conference participants. All this information would normally be public four months before the General Conference. Emails to the General Conference secretary and staff are not being responded to in a timely way (or even at all, in some cases).

Preparing the logistics for a General Conference is a challenging task. However, organizers have had over two years to plan this conference since its last postponement from 2022. Furthermore, they have done this before. They are not newbies. It is difficult to fathom how so many issues have fallen through the cracks. The lack of communication and lack of transparency, as well as the failure to assure the basics of universal delegate participation, have damaged the credibility of organizers and threaten the very legitimacy of this General Conference. It leaves the door open for some to attribute nefarious motives for these shortcomings. At the very least, it inspires “no confidence” in the leadership being provided.

It is uncertain where things will go from here. We pray that what can be straightened out will be, and that God’s Spirit will move in spite of the obstacles to a smoothly run conference.

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