The Lake Junaluska Assembly prides itself on being a place of transformation and renewal for all people, but over the next year, the hallowed local institution will itself undergo transformation and renewal as it searches for a new leader.
Evening is suspended over Lake Junaluska as doors open for the 8 p.m. Taizé service, its coming fall foretold by the soft-sided clouds gathered over the sinking sun.
Ivan Abrahams didn’t come to hold the top spot in the World Methodist Council because he abided by the rules. At more than one point in his spiritual career, he was a bit of a thorn in the clergy’s side.
From the hotel window in Durban, South Africa, I can see the Indian Ocean. Freighters line the horizon like parapets on a castle wall, waiting their turn to berth at the busiest container port in the entire continent of Africa. The ocean breeze makes the water warm enough to swim even as winter here turns to spring, and we did just that today, splashing in the ocean after a run along the sand.
And we weren’t alone. The beach was packed with vacationers and locals, all enjoying a gorgeous Sunday after a rare cold, rainy spell late last week. One of the locals I was talking to said getting the sun back was a welcome occurrence. “Cape Town is supposed to get the rain in winter, we’re not supposed to get rain. Now things are right.”
It’s easy to get lulled into a sort of stupor in a place like this. I am removed from South Africa’s many problems as we work on press releases high atop the Durban Hilton. But even in this tourist district, I move from place to place among a mix of humanity so diverse it is staggering.
I’ve done a bit of traveling, and nowhere is there a mix of humans so colorful in skin color and dress. It’s a human bazaar, and as we strolled along the promenade along the beach I was as wide-eyed as a kid.
Even here, I am reminded of the politicians in Washington and the last few weeks of debate on the debt ceiling and the country’s future. CNN’s worldwide news service is here to remind me. As this is published on Wednesday, Aug. 3, I expect a deal will have been struck to meet a deadline that, if missed, could have sent our country into the first stages of default.
We should all be frustrated at the way this has played out, as politics has trumped the nation’s best interests. “Like spoiled children,” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as I watched and listened and then moaned and groaned. Each day one side or the other sounded more petulant and immature.
I’m in Durban with Ken Howle, a friend who works at Lake Junaluska who asked me if I’d accompany him to the World Methodist Conference to help with media. Ken was asked by the WMC General Secretary George Freeman to handle all the communications at the conference, and so here we are with a couple of thousand Methodists from all over the world. Ken and I are trying to mix fun and work, taking in the local flavor — including the great beach, a brutal rugby match, and some of the local seafood — while we also prepare for the work of communicating what happens here to Methodists around the world.
I was talking to a woman here from the U.S., one who has traveled the world extensively with her husband, and the debt ceiling debate came up. She seemed frustrated, and reminded us: “Yes, they say when we hiccup, the rest of the world gets a cold; when we get the flu, the rest of the world dies.”
The South African paper today (Sunday, July 31), bemoaned the potential fallout to this troubled country if the U.S. does not get its act together. This is a place that suffers from 25 percent official unemployment, where young and old alike beg on the streets to gather enough money to feed themselves and family members.
Ken spoke with a woman waiting in line with us at a restaurant. She had just returned from America, nine months as a CNA at a Mississippi rest home. She told him she would have never come back but her visa expired. Bongie, a local newspaper editor who’s helping us, said the problems in her native Zimbabwe are much worse than here, and that she came to South Africa to find opportunity.
While our own country and the rest of the world suffers, we can’t find leaders who really care. The problem with America isn’t that we’re prosperous. We should be proud of our successes, developing an economy and a standard of living much of the world still envies.
The problem is that we seem to have forgotten how to lead, how to use our great wealth to fix problems in our country or anywhere else.
Lake Junaluska, a century-old retreat for Methodist clergy and their families, will remain the favored venue for a major annual conference of the United Methodist Church.
The Western North Carolina Conference — a formal gathering of Methodist churches from the western half of the state — brings thousands of people to Lake Junaluska and Haywood County for an extended weekend every June. But space limitations had prompted the conference to consider a change in location to a Sheraton Hotel conference center in Greensboro.
Losing the conference would be a major economic blow not only to the Lake but to hotels and restaurants throughout Waynesville and Maggie Valley. Between half and two-thirds of conference attendees who stay overnight find lodging off Lake grounds.
Whether to change venues was put to a vote during the annual conference this past weekend. Lake Junaluska won out overwhelming with 1,007 votes, compared to 526 for moving it.
“Logistically, it would be better for us to have a bigger building, but as a far as the overall atmosphere of the conference, they prefer here,” said Roy Miller, a delegate from Mount Airy, N.C., and pastor of Mt. Moriah Methodist Church.
Jimmy Carr, executive director of Lake Junaluska Assembly, had no idea what to expect before the vote.
“The margin was so high. That was really affirming to us,” Carr said.
The conference was attended by 2,660 delegates representing Methodist churches across half the state — a territory reaching as far as Greensboro and Charlotte — to discuss church policies and finances and ordain clergy. Delegates often have their families and church lay people in tow, with the total number of people in town for the conference pegged at about 7,000.
Debbi Snipes has accompanied her husband, a minister from Charlotte, to the annual conference at the Lake for 17 years, along with her two daughters. It would be a “big mistake” to move the venue, she said.
“This is a family friendly place. This is a special place, and you can’t get that just anywhere,” said Snipes, who enjoys seeing the same families year after year. If the conference was moved to a Sheraton Hotel in Greensboro, “we wouldn’t go,” Snipes said.
The annual conference is only one small slice of the Lake’s conference business, which plays host to 100,000 people each year for dozens of conventions of both a spiritual and secular nature.
But this conference is by far its largest. The potential loss lit a fire under those in the tourism industry. Some nearby restaurants changed the lettering on their signboards to boast messages of support for keeping the conference at the Lake.
The annual conference brings in $200,000 of direct revenue to the Lake Junaluska Assembly and another $300,000 for local motels, restaurants and the like. The multiplier effect across WNC communities could be up to $1 million, Carr estimated.
The conference venue was the most hotly discussed topic of the weekend, said Miller.
“They mention waking up in the morning and seeing the cross, the mountains and the lake,” Miller said.
The majority felt the impersonal setting of a Sheraton Hotel would not nurture the fellowship found at the Lake, he said. Small prayer groups and impromptu religious discussions come naturally in intimate and inspirational settings found on Junaluska’s grounds, from the numerous gardens to lakeside benches. It would not be easy to duplicate that atmosphere in a hotel lobby.
“It is hard to imagine leaving the Lake because of the setting and significance of this place,” said Eddie Ingram, pastor at First Methodist Church in Charlotte.
Carr said the discussion leading up to the vote was heartfelt and emotional. One woman spoke about the personal transformation she feels when attending the conference at the Lake.
“They realized the specialness of Lake Junaulska,” Carr said. “They realized they are about doing church work and what better place to do it than Lake Junaluska, which has a common mission.”
The Lake made a couple of promises to keep the conference. A logistical challenge is posed by Stuart Auditorium, which seats 2,000 people and can’t accommodate all the delegates who attend. Other meeting halls and auditoriums on the Lake’s grounds will be rigged with live video streaming to allow people who can’t fit inside Stuart Auditorium to still participate in the proceedings.
The other promise is to work with the local tourism community to roll out the red carpet for conference attendees.
Of the 2,600 delegates who attended, only 800 rented hotel rooms or homes at the Lake itself, leaving a huge number to find lodging elsewhere. The conference wants the Lake to compile lodging information and negotiate discounts with local hotels during the conference weekend. In addition, the conference wants assurance that the local hotels and restaurants off the Lake grounds are prepped and ready to step up their hospitality the weekend of the conference.
“It is truly going to take the entire county working together to keep this event here in the long term. Lake Junaluska will need a strong partnership with the local community to accomplish that,” said Ken Howle, Lake Junaluska marketing director.