The 222nd Annual Conference (July 12-16, 2008) and the 300th Anniversary of the Church of the Brethren was held in the Richmond Coliseum, 601 East Leigh Street, Richmond, Virginia 23219. The facility opened in 1971 at a cost of $24 million with 10,000 seats and was upgraded in 1993 with additional seating for 2,500, all on Five Levels. Nearly 180,000 square feet was available for Brethren Exhibits that were displayed in the Greater Richmond Convention Center, located just across the street from the Coliseum at 403 North 3rd Street. Registration took place in the massive front lobby. The second floor Food Court was one of several on site eateries. Smiling Faces and happy tummies were easy to find. As in other years, Contracted Buses assisted Brethren moving back and forth from their hotels and the Conference site.
This year marked an historic event as two of the largest Brethren denominations that emanated from the original Schwarzenau Brethren, the Church of the Brethren and The Brethren Church, jointly worshiped and fellowshiped in a spirit of unity. A unity that had not occurred at the denominational level since the year 1882 when H.R. Holsinger was repudiated or disowned by Annual Conference (then Annual Meeting). His progressive wing of Brethren members quickly joined together the very next year to establish The Brethren Church.
It was auspicious that this Conference of Unity took place in the historic city of Richmond, Virginia, for it was here that Abraham Lincoln came on April 4, 1865, immediately following the evacuation of the Confederate government and only five days before the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House. Then, it was a time and place for healing national wounds. Now, both the Church of the Brethren and The Brethren Church would seek to heal denominational wounds that have left scars since their split more than a hundred years ago. Lincoln's visit was more symbolic than substantive. Some residents looked upon Lincoln with disdain. He was greeted mostly by Freed Slaves. Much of the city Lay In Ruin, either from bombardment or set afire by fleeing Confederate soldiers. The mercantile Shockoe District (pronounced SCHOCK-ohh) was immediately rebuilt and still retains the same pre-war appearance. Shops along its Cobblestone Streets make it a great walking tour. It is especially noted for shopping, dining and entertainment. You'll be greeted by an occasional Cannon Barrel which now serves as a depository for cigarettes. President Lincoln came to Richmond To Bind Up the Nations Wounds. It would be many years before genuine reconciliation occurred between the North and the South, but Richmond was a beginning. Likewise, it will be many years before both Brethren denominations stand in full reconciliation with each other, but Annual Conference 2008 in Richmond was a step in that direction.
Also sharing space in the front lobby was the 300th Anniversary Quilt, composed of 4,779 two inch squares made from 223 different fabrics, intricately pieced together by artist Rachel Brown. On a Convenient Table was a large book detailing all the submitted Patch Work. This quilt represents the Colors and Textures of people that are bound together by common threads. The more diverse are the colors the more beautiful the overall appearance. Brown reflects on her project: At every step of the way, I found myself wondering how grand the church of Jesus Christ could be if we would begin to treat each other as pieces in a quilt ... If a block seems out of place, think about the people in your community that might feel out of place in your church ... The church needs to be the model for a world unraveling.
Wide Pedestrian Areas between the Coliseum and the Exhibit Hall provided room for spacious exhibits such as the Eyes Wide Open peace exhibit. Each pair of boots represented a fallen US service man or women and each pair of shoes represented a civilian Iraqi casualty. The presentation was organized by the American Friends Service Committee and sponsored by the Brethren Witness/Washington Office and On Earth Peace. This wide area also gave opportunity for presentation of The John Kline Horses. Newly released Business Session Delegates happily stopped to enjoy some hands-on interaction with the horses, even Little Hands. Tuesday evening is the traditional time for the Children's Choir, and solid color T-shirts are an instant give-away that Our Youth are involved in a well planned schedule of indoor and outdoor activities. The Adult Choir delivered inspiring musical selections for worship services.
It has been almost 126 years since members of the Church of the Brethren and members of The Brethren Church last worshipped together at their Annual Meeting in a field in Kosciusko County, Indiana. On Sunday July 13, 2008, members of both denominations worshipped together again, to mutually celebrate their 300th Anniversary. It was only appropriate that they sang that historic hymn: Brethren, we have met to worship and adore the Lord, our God.
A highlight ceremony of unity was the mixing of Waters. Poured into a Common Pool was symbolic water from: the Eder River (scene of the original European baptisms), both denominations, numerous districts, congregations, agencies, and church camps. It exemplified a spirit of reunification as they mixed their differences into a Final Commonness.
First Sermon: Arden Gilmer, pastor of Park Street Brethren Church, Ashland, Ohio, titled, No Root; No Fruit.
Second Sermon: Shanthi Edwin, pastor of Brush Valley Brethren Church, Adrian, Pennsylvania, titled, Power In Unity.
Third Sermon: Chris Bowman, pastor of Oakton COB, Vienna, Virginia, titled, Well Grounded Grain Brings Phenomenal Fruit.
The 2008 Annual Conference officially began the previous Saturday evening with Moderator Jim Beckwith, pastor of Annville Church of the Brethren, Annville, Pennsylvania, calling all Brethren to unity with the sermon title: Begin With Surrender. Beckwith spoke of the challenges faced by Alexander and Anna Mack as they sought to do the Lord's will at a time when European state churches were hostile to people seeking their faith mission outside of their established protocols. He was 27 and she was 25 but they risked everything to count the cost of radical discipleship, by surrendering all they had known and fleeing their home. Beckwith also revealed his personal genealogical connection to the original founding eight Brethren, My great-grandmother, was a Vetter, descended from Lukas Vetter, one of the first 8 Brethren baptized in the Eder River at Schwarzenau in 1708.
Brethren are partially defined by their Fellowship around mealtime. Richmond was no different. Numerous Groups related by congregation or district sought nice restaurants to celebrate another year together. Eugene had exceeded his gastronomic limits but ordered desert anyway, thinking that there was still room for Chocolate Cake. He was wrong. Several people gratefully came to his rescue. This eatery was one of several great restaurants in the historic Shockoe part of Richmond.
Technology is becoming more a part of the Brethren lifestyle. Use of personal Laptops during Annual Conference is increasing. Business sessions are accompanied by a greater dependency on the digital side of things, and occasionally you may see Two Laptops in the same row. These conference goers might be researching the history surrounding a current item of business on the conference floor, or searching for a good restaurant, or perhaps using a map program to better navigate the city -- but certainly not playing games.
As membership of the Brethren continues to diminish, it would appear that their Exhibit Space at Annual Conference continues to increase. Much of the increase this year was certainly due to the 300th Anniversary Celebration. Brethren Memorabilia of all types from Several Collections were on display, including the first and second edition Christopher Saur Bibles. The Saur editions are actually reprints of church reformer Martin Luther's German Translation. Of special trivia note is that some leaves were reversed: Psalm 38 before Psalm 23. Note: Slideshow of exhibits is now under reconstruction.
2008 Conference Officers were Moderator James Beckwith, pastor of Annville COB, Annville, Pennsylvania; Moderator-elect David Shumate, District Executive of the Virlina District; and Secretary Fred Swartz.
They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them,
should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders (about this question).