Delegates Stand Against Life Without Hope for Parole; for New Conference
By Tiffany Vail
Associate Conference Minister for Communications
HARTFORD, CT - At the 218th Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Conference, delegates not only voted overwhelmingly to move toward forming a new combined Conference with their Rhode Island and Connecticut counterparts, they also took a stand in opposition to Massachusetts prison sentences of life without any opportunity for parole and they voted to sell a small parcel of land.
The meeting was held as a part of the first-ever Tri-Conference Annual Meeting with the other two conferences at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.
During the Massachusetts session, delegates:
Voted overwhelmingly in favor of the New Conference resolution, meaning that Conference leaders will now develop a formal proposal for a new Conference which will be brought before a second joint Annual Meeting a year from now in Springfield, MA. (Read more here.)
Approved continuing to retain in the Conference 50% of Our Church's Wider Mission Basic Support, with the other 50% being passed to the national setting.
Approved a 2018 Fellowship Dues rate of $19.50 per member, up from $19 in 2017.
Adopted a $2.2 million budget.
Approved continuing to give 30% of United Church Mission funds received to the national setting (this is basically equivalent to giving 50% of Basic Support and 0% of Fellowship Dues).
The debate about the life sentences without opportunity for parole resolution began with a heartfelt introduction by The Rev. George Oliver, pastor of Christ’s Community Church in Chicopee, who shared that his uncle had spent 20 years in a Texas prison, with a sentence of life with no possibility of parole, when he was found innocent due to the efforts of the Innocence Project.
"Are we to leave prisoners in prison, and let their minds remain captive? Or do we truly have the Christian conviction to say that every soul is redeemable?" he asked. "It is my belief in the latter, that we should not be putting people away forever, without hope, because we see in our streets what happens when hope disappears. We see in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria - any number of places – that what happens when hope disappears is, we see violence, we see terror, and we don’t want to see that inflicted on the other half of my family who are prison guards."
"I ask you today to support this measure because I believe it is our responsibiliity as Christians to stand up for hope, faith and love, those three. And the way we enact our love is by saying to those 1,035 people – which is 10 percent of our prison population – that you will have the hope of one day proving your redemption."
Angela Menke Ballou, pastor of Cotuit Federated Church, expressed concern that doing away with life sentences with no possibility for parole would bolster the argument of those who favor reinstating the death penalty. But Oliver argued that going to prison without the chance of parole amounts to about the same thing as a death sentence, since the inmate is sentenced to die in prison.
"This sentence is a back door death penalty, that’s what Pope Francis called it, it is death by incarceration, that’s what Mario Cuomo called it," Oliver said.
And Jonathan Tetherly, of First Congregational Church UCC in Chicopee, said there has been no recent movement in Massachusetts - even following the Boston Marathon bombings - to bring back the death penalty.
William McCoy of the Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth said he was torn on the resolution, particularly because he works with families of murder victims.
"I believe very firmly in God’s redemption," he said. "But I’m going to abstain simply out of deference to the people I meet. While some of them might even vote for this, I think most of them would be a voice saying 'let's not forget the victims.'"
The resolution passed by an overwhelming margin.
The only other vote that garnered much discussion was the new Conference vote.
There was a recurring message in the comments by both people for and against moving forward with the proposal, and that was that local churches and associations need to step up in their ministries in order to strengthen the entire church.
"You are not facing up to the real problem which is finances coming from the local churches, enthusiasm coming from the local churches," said Richard Tracy of the Westhampton Congregational Church. "This proposal is avoiding the issue and hoping something good may happen."
Elizabeth Alletto of United Parish in Upton said she favored the proposal, but agreed change must come from local congregations.
"I really believe it’s the local churches that are going to drive the passion and growth of our individual churches," she said. "I'm not going to vote for this because I think the new structure is going to do that, I still think the responsibility for that falls within our local communities. But I would vote for this because I think if we could go forward with this new Board that kind of opens the door for collaboration."
Wendy Miller Olapade, Pastor of the new Sanctuary United Church of Christ in West Medford, praised Conference leaders for their leadership.
"There’s such an urgency in our communities for new things, for a new way to be in community, to be moral leaders, to be change agents, to make space for people where sanctuary is experienced in relationship," she said. "I just pray that we can do all those things that our leaders have encouraged us to do through this adaptive change, that we walk through the fear and the anxiety and the grief, grief, grief of it not being the way that it was when we got here, and really try to do a new thing,"
The resolution passed with only a few dissenting votes.
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