The first national gathering of Fresh Expressions United Methodist has moved its site from Florida to North Carolina after potential attendees raised concerns they would not feel safe in the “anti-woke” atmosphere of the Sunshine State.
Michael Beck, director Fresh Expressions United Methodist, posted a notice Sept. 23 in the Facebook group Progressive Methodists saying organizers for the movement’s first national gathering had listened to concerns expressed about Florida’s social and political atmosphere. Among the concerns raised by potential participants were the actions of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has championed legislation that targets drag queens; bans teaching so-called Critical Race Theory in K-12 public schools; bans books about racism and human sexuality from the state’s school libraries; and drops an Advanced Placement high school course on racial history in the United States.
The last move prompted a progressive congregation, Allendale UMC in St. Petersburg, Fla., to offer to teach the AP course on its site. Its senior pastor, Andy Oliver, said recently Allendale is trying to schedule classes for the course this fall.
Regarding Fresh Expressions’ change of venue, Beck wrote:
We received your concerns about hosting the first Fresh Expressions UM National Gathering in Florida. We want this to be a safe and energizing experience for everyone.
So our planning team met and voted unanimously to relocate to Charlotte, N.C.
Join us February 7-9, 2024. Look forward to connecting with all of you there!
The event now will take place at Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. Charlotte also is the site of the 2024 UMC General Conference, scheduled April 23-May 3 at the Charlotte Convention Center.
“The reality of Florida is more complex than people who aren’t doing ministry on the ground here might understand.”
In an email responding to an inquiry about the background of moving the national gathering, Beck wrote: “There was no one particular organization that our decision was based upon, but rather our desire to make sure the gathering would be safe and energizing for all people. I had feedback from social media, as well as students of mine who are persons of color and LGBTQ, that they would really rather not come to Florida. We were planning to have the gathering at St Luke’s UMC Orlando, a fully affirming congregation. I want to note that the reality of Florida is more complex than people who aren’t doing ministry on the ground here might understand. Some of the most inclusive, justice-oriented, subversive work in the entire connection is being done in Florida.”
Beck continued in his email: “Fresh Expressions as a movement is not anti-LGBTQ either in the UK (where it began) or in the U.S. It has avoided being pigeonholed with any one label. Fresh Expressions US is a more conservative organization (a ministry of the Baptist General Association of Virginia), but even they are not ‘anti’ LGBTQ persons. Part of the motivation behind Fresh Expressions UM is to create a distinctly Wesleyan, more inclusive version of the movement. Our four values are: inclusive, accessible, transfiguring and connectional. Some of our strongest cultivators in Florida are queer persons and/or allies. They are seeing Fresh Expressions as a way of being church that minimizes the potential for harm. FX is a significant pathway to full-inclusion ministry for LGBTQ persons.”
The change of venue for the national gathering touched on a current conversation among justice-seeking Christians of all denominations: Is it better to boycott states that have adopted racist, sexist or unjust economic practices, or is remaining in an unjust, threatening atmosphere a better witness to the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. has been an early supporter of Fresh Expressions in both the Florida and Western North Carolina conferences. He currently serves as resident bishop in Western North Carolina and is listed as one of the speakers scheduled for the national gathering.
In response to an email about the national gathering, Carter wrote: “Every state struggles with injustice and discrimination, my own state of North Carolina included. The bottom line is that the Fresh Expressions movement is a powerful means of meeting new people, younger people and more diverse people and learning about their experiences of God’s grace in the spaces where they live and gather.”
In a similar vein, Facebook respondent Tracy Rose commented on Beck’s post: “I am an openly queer Christian serving in the United Methodist Church in Florida. I’m also an LGBTQ activist. It is very scary in some states like ours right now. That will likely get worse before it gets better. We make change by fighting. I stay in Florida and fight, not because it’s easy but because if we all leave, nothing will change for the better. You cannot fight a fight from outside the ring. You cannot be part of change if you are standing on the outside. Pushing people to move out of state who believe that equality for all is a real thing, making it as hard as they can to live in this state if you believe in those things? That’s what our leaders in this state are trying to do. And sadly, it’s working.”
Rose continued in the Facebook comment: “Having said that, I understand the fear of coming to a state that is not deemed to be safe for ALL people. … I applaud the team for trying to make the best decision for the majority of the people. Personally, I felt fine with it being in Orlando, as it is a predominantly Democratic city, much like Charlotte is — but again, I think the team is simply trying to make the best decision they can.”
Beck was hired by Discipleship Ministries in April 2022 to head the United Methodist version of Fresh Expressions. Currently five annual conferences in the United States — Florida, North Georgia, Western North Carolina, Holston, and Indiana — are listed as partners on the Fresh Expressions national gathering page of Discipleship Ministries’ website. In October the movement will begin monthly online theological training for laity with Beck.
Fresh Expressions emerged out of the Anglican and Methodist churches in England in 2004. The movement sprang up in the United States in 2010, with distinct ties to the BGAV, based in Richmond. Although interdenominational, some of the movement’s key leaders in the U.S. had Baptist ties.
Baptist News Global also is a partner ministry of the BGAV, as the successor publication to the Virginia Religious Herald.