Thankful for the Connection of the UMC

By Audrey Stanton-Smith

Audrey Stanton-Smith reflects on a connection that was brought full circle this week in her work at General Conference.

I am not a graduate of Africa University, but it and Volunteers in Mission have everything to do with why I’m in the newsroom at General Conference this year.

As I listened Monday afternoon to representatives from AU talk about the growth of the school and the success of its graduates, my mind was transported back to nearly 30 years ago.

In 1997, I was a new United Methodist and a recent West Virginia University graduate. Two months after graduation, I joined a group of Volunteers in Mission on a trip to Zimbabwe, a faraway place that people in my home church couldn’t even pronounce correctly. There I stood in front of a dormitory construction project with a dozen or so other volunteers from the West Virginia Conference. We were ready to hammer nails, paint walls, and snap photos of elephants and giraffes.

Our host, Andra Stevens, asked us to line up and listen. At the time, Stevens served as director of communications in her AU campus office in Mutare, Zimbabwe. One-by-one, the members of our work team answered her question: “And what can you do?”

As I listened to the answers of the other volunteers, I realized I may have been woefully unqualified to be of any help whatsoever. Some among us were construction workers, carpenters, efficient painters at least.

I opened my mouth to ask for a paint brush and instead found myself saying, “I don’t know. I just graduated from college.”

“And what, my dear, was your major?” she asked.

“Journalism,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.

Stevens simply moved on to the next person. Minutes later it seemed everyone but me was wearing a toolbelt and walking toward the construction site. I just stood there, waiting for this beautiful, bold woman to point me in the right direction or maybe even ask me why I bothered coming.

“You,” she said, smiling. “You come with me.”

And with that, a seed was planted. For the next week, I joined Stevens in her office, helping her work on some of the university’s first brochures and student handbooks. I did get to see the elephants and giraffes, but what I really saw was that God could use me in unexpected ways.

At Stevens’ request and with financial help from my church family at United Methodist Temple, Beckley, I returned to Africa University later that same year and stayed for three months to finish the projects.

The seed took a while to sprout. I didn’t immediately jump onboard the church communicator train. Life happened. I took a job as a local newspaper reporter and later a regional magazine editor, grew a family, and sometimes pulled out my old AU photos for a stroll down memory lane.

Five years ago, though, my then-district superintendent, Rev. Joe Kenaston, asked me if I would consider doing a little volunteer writing for the West Virginia Conference communications team. Rev. Deborah Coble, who headed the team at the time, made it hard to say no, and I didn’t.

I wrote about things like the West Virginia Conference’s Clean Water Resolution and a local church’s quest to put Naloxone in the hands of members to combat the problem of opioid overdose in West Virginia. I wrote about a historically Black United Methodist Church that worships in a building that still bears a cannon ball scar from the Civil War, and I covered the business of holy conferencing.

Through our United Methodist connection, I received an email one day from Praveena Balasundaram, United Women in Faith’s director of communications, asking me if I would consider applying to serve as interim editor of response magazine. I’ve held the post for nearly two years.

Along the way, I joined the United Methodist Association of Communicators, and one day in 2020, I spotted a familiar face in one of their Covid-time Zoom workshops.

“Remember me?” I messaged Stevens privately.

I watched her smile as she made the connection. It was all I could do to keep from waving frantically on the screen. Last year, during a UMAC event in Charleston, S.C., we met in person for the first time since 1997. And last week, we reconnected here in Charlotte at the Postponed 2020 General Conference.

Isn’t that what all of this is about? Connection? All around me, visitors and delegates are reconnecting with old friends from seminary or with church family members who have relocated.

West Virginia Conference Rev. John Langenstein, pastor of North View UMC and United Methodist Temple, Clarksburg, is here with me working in the press room. Nearly every time I walk with him, he runs into someone from college, or from seminary, or from some other church connection, and they catch up.

And at a table in front of where we sit in the press room, my friend Andra Stevens types fervently, still communicating on behalf of Africa University. Still doing the work of The United Methodist Church. Still planting seeds.

Monday during a General Conference report, I saw how beautifully some of those seeds have sprouted and been nourished on the campus of Africa University. They have bloomed in places all over the world, and I give thanks for AU, for Andra, for Volunteers in Mission, and for all the seed-planters throughout our beautiful United Methodist connection.

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