By Jessica Connor
FLORENCE— S.C. United Methodists approved resolutions on awareness and prevention of gun violence, advocating for humane treatment of mentally ill inmates and designating a local church as historic at this year’s Annual Conference.
Two of the resolutions—mentally ill inmates and historic church—were approved in original format, while the third was amended to remove all reference to the ecumenical organization Faith Coalition on Gun Violence.
Resolution on Gun Violence
After considerable debate about whether to include reference to the Faith Coalition on Gun Violence in the language, Annual Conference passed an amended version of A Resolution on Gun Violence removing all reference.
The resolution, which was submitted by United Methodists in that ecumenical coalition, encourages the S.C. Conference to change the focus on guns and gun violence in our society; raise awareness about gun violence, its prevention and its impact on families and communities; promote responsible gun ownership by providing information about gun safety and security; educate the public about alternatives to violence through conflict resolution; and advocate for civil discourse, cooperation and collaboration for real security and a less violent society and culture.
The resolution also specifies that the conference adopt an official stance against gun violence in all its manifestations in our society, plus promote sustained, reasonable efforts to effect a change in our culture that has allowed such violence to flourish.
The original version of the amendment had lengthier language lamenting regulations, legislation and government restriction, plus it called on the conference to actively support the aims and purposes of the Faith Coalition. But John Gibbons, laity, from Salem United Methodist Church, Irmo, proposed two amendments. The first amendment removed six “whereas” statements that Gibbons told the body were subjective and “too wordy.”
“If the words used can be considered by the reader to be confrontational, biased or whatever, and if you lose the reader before you get to the resolution, …you've created a situation where the effects of the resolution can be …negated or thrown out completely, throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Gibbons said.
No one spoke against this first amendment, but when a verbal vote was called, it was too close to tell, so Bishop Jonathan Holston called for a vote by hand. The amendment passed.
For the second amendment, Gibbons proposed removing support for the Faith Coalition from the final paragraph. He said he had nothing against that particular group, but he thought it was not a good practice to support a group that is not an official Annual Conference entity whose board members are elected and go through the proper vetting process.
Several in the body had questions and spoke for or against the amendment.
The Rev. Mitch Houston spoke for the amendment removing the coalition from the resolution.
“I know most of those folks (on the coalition), and they have integrity and I respect them highly, but I don't think we should endorse an advocacy group to speak for this conference,” Houston said.
The Rev. Bob Huggins agreed: “Who are these people (on the coalition)? We have no information. I’m in favor of the motion because we don't know who they are.”
A paper explaining the mission of the Faith Coalition was passed out to the body.
Russ Weinberg, laity, from Trinity UMC, Sumter, spoke against the amendment.
“If you look at the purpose of the Faith Coalition on Gun Violence, they’re perfectly consistent with the United Methodist Church,” Weinberg said. “To remove them from the motion would in effect undercut the purpose, because you’re removing support for the organization.”
The Rev. Paul Wood also spoke against it.
“I’m afraid we’re taking a few little things and turning them into big things, fooling ourselves into thinking we’re taking a stand against gun violence by support this resolution,” Wood said.
The vote was called, but both a verbal and hands-raised vote was too close to tell. Holston called for a standing vote, which passed the amendment. The amended resolution, without reference to the Faith Coalition, passed soon after.
Humane treatment of mentally ill inmates
Clergy and laity voted unanimously to approve A Resolution to Support our Neighbors: The Need for Services to Individuals with Mental Illness in the South Carolina Department of Corrections, submitted by two United Methodist pastors, the Rev. John W. Culp and the Rev. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg.
This resolution stems from a major court case involving unconstitutional treatment of mentally ill inmates. In what he called the most troubling of the more than 70,000 cases to come before him in the last 14 years, Circuit Judge Michael Baxley issued an order in January in T.R., P.R., K.W., et al. v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, et al., citing inhumane treatment of the inmates and calling the SCDC mental health program “inherently flawed and systemically deficient in all major areas.” The mentally ill inmates have in some cases been forced to endure hours of restraint in crucifix positions with no bathroom break; days spent naked in shower stalls, holding cells and interview booths; routine and excessive use of pepper spray and other force; repeated denial of basic psychiatric medications and other treatment plans; inadequate supervision and staffing. In one instance, a seven-year period of solitary confinement; and multiple deaths.
The resolution specifically instructs the conference to urge the director of the SCDC to take all measures necessary to correct the long-standing deficiencies in its mental health program; to urge the S.C. governor and legislators to appropriate sufficient funds to do this; and to call on S.C. Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston to convey the concern and desire of the S.C. UMC to the SCDC and key S.C. leaders.
Three spoke for the resolution.
Steven Scheid, member of Red Bank UMC, Red Bank, shared a story of his son, who has schizophrenia and ended up in jail 30 days for an unpaid parking ticket. When on medication, his son does well, but while incarcerated, the jail did not give him his medication.
“I will tell you this: There were some days his mother and I didn't know where he was. We found him sleeping under an overpass,” Scheid said. “If we do not stand in the gap, Christ’s hands will not be seen in this world. I urge you to vote yes unanimously for this resolution that we support those that God has given us to share grace with.”
Jamieson-Ogg told the body that in Kentucky, ratios are one psychologist on staff for every 800 inmate; in South Carolina, it’s one for 69,697 inmates. She urged people not only to vote for the resolution but also consider ways to reach out to these “invisible neighbors.”
Weinberg also spoke for the resolution, urging everyone to read Baxley’s order in the case, available online.
“It describes what I can only say is a chamber of horrors faced by many of our fellow citizens and brothers and sisters in Christ,” Weinberg said. He noted that when he read the order, “It hit me like a slap in the face. I didn't believe things like this existed anymore. The level of horror and deprivation ... rivals anything that might have gone on in ancient times in ancient prisons and medieval torture chambers.”
The body also unanimously approved a resolution designating Central UMC, Spartanburg, as a historic church. Central, founded in 1837, continues to operate on its original campus, and its sanctuary was constructed in 1886.
By Jessica Connor