Palm Desert, California
July 23, 2009
This was a surreal day. It reminded me of the works of Salvador Dali, especially his paintings with melting pocket watches.
The Church teaches us that during the Divine Liturgy we are somehow temporarily removed from time. Our spiritual service of worship allows for the world outside to wash around us as we celebrate. We are reminded to lay aside all earthly cares, while experiencing with the rest of His Body the one eucharistic Offering of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in all places at all times, reaching back to our founding yet forward to the end of the world. In a similar sense, our meeting in the hall at the Desert Springs Marriott was apart from time. Certainly not in a holy, godly eucharistic sense, but it did touch that part of our nous that understands when something is out of kilter; when the world as we know it seems off somehow.
While our SOYO teens were gallivanting about, enjoying the comfort of iced drinks from the Starbucks outlet in the lobby and relaxing in the intense desert heat, in the cavernous meeting hall something different ensued.
As delegates entered the meeting hall, they were greeted by a unique sight. Television cameras were mounted on a small platform in the midst of a sea of round tables set up for the delegates. Each parish had an assigned table, like desks in elementary school. It helped organize things, but left a lot of seats empty. At one end of the room, there was a huge platform set up as a dais. It must have been sixty feet long, in two layers. Atop this were two ranks of tables for the various dignitaries and officers: our beloved Metropolitans Philip, Paul and Nikitas, our diocesan fathers and husbands Alexander, Antoun , Basil, Joseph, Mark and Thomas and the members of the Board of Trustees. At each end of the dais platform were placed lecterns for presenters. Further to the left and right of the dais were huge projection screens that displayed to the delegates what the cameras saw.
Towards the front of the huge school of tables, about fifty feet from the dais, were spread out three microphones for questions from the delegates. Later in the proceedings, Sergeants-at-Arms were specified only to monitor the goings-on at these microphones, and after each departmental report was presented they read aloud the names of those who made motions or seconded them. In almost every case, the name of the one who made a motion to accept a departmental report was the senior priest of a prominent parish, and that of the one who seconded, the priest of a lesser parish.
What greeted the eyes of those who entered was a well-planned, well-executed event. This should not surprise, since it had the hallmarks of the Los Angeles event planning group, who has such things down to a science. These events are meant to run smoothly, so that people can enjoy their stay and the convention.
However, there were manifold flies in the ointment.
As the meeting was getting under way, there were several items placed on the tables to gain the attention of the delegates: business cards, placards and other marketing pieces. Many tables had a comb-bound report sitting them. It was titled: “Report on the Necessity for an Ongoing Independent External Financial Audit of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America”. This didn’t seem to fit. The delegates entering the hall thought this was going to be a typical Archdiocesan meeting: a series of boring reports mixed with lots of praise for our Metropolitan, blessed be his name, and punctuated with off-key glee clubs, the song “You are my Sunshine”, “Happy Birthday To You” in Tone 8, and fragments of the poetry of Khalil Gibran.
Instead they were faced with a bit of chaos at the front door. A well-dressed tall man handing out copies of the reports was being pushed out of the hall by a priest. Another man grabbed him from behind and tried to move him further away from the door, across the hall, but now the delegates wanted the report because of the fuss, so he and a few others continued to hand them out. Meanwhile, there were men inside the hall going around to the seated delegates reading the report telling them that it was not official. Back outside in the hallway, the Convention security guys, each in a baby blue shirt with “SECURITY” printed in large yellow letters on the back, continued to harass the people handing out the report. Because they acted like thugs, they failed in their objective of quashing dissent. This made people want to read the report even more.
Later, a priest was discovered reading the audit report and another priest forcibly took it away from him, proclaiming, “This is not authorized. You are not allowed to have this in the room – by order of the Metropolitan!” How can this happen? Unless the report-reading priest was in Metr. Philip’s diocese, he had no authority to order anything. From Metr. Philip’s own lips we hear that we have diocesan bishops. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
People wondered if the blue shirts were poseurs: why are they acting like hotel security people? They have no authority to do such things! This caused even more chaos. One thing must be noted: while there might have been several of these men who were sympathetic to Metropolitan Philip, having Convention staff acting as security is de rigueur for the Los Angeles planning group. In order to save costs and maximize the profit to the hosting parish from such conventions and Parish Life Conferences, local parish members are recruited to act as a small, informal and casual security force. Makes a lot of sense, until your wannabe security people start acting like members of a gang in East LA. Besides, everyone knows that in Palm Desert and environs, in proper society one wears white – at least until Labor Day.
At the same time there was a man wandering around looking for someone named “Stookey”. While some older folks thought he was looking for the Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary, he obviously meant “Stokoe”, as in Mark Stokoe, but in this context it was hilarious. Actually, it was more like Alice and the Looking Glass: Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the knights of the Red Queen in blue shirts, and the Cheshire cat up on the dais. I felt like any moment I was going to hear the beginning of Jabberwocky from the overhead speakers:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe …”
It was sad, distasteful, awkward, silly and spiritually disheartening all at the same time. If we are supposed to be open and transparent as an Archdiocese, why are such tactics allowed? How does thuggery become us? What comes next, a horse’s head in the bed of one who disagrees? Whether they were acting on their own – in what they thought was an honorable fashion – or were instructed to quash any dissent, it was a bad, stupid, not well-thought out decision.
Once the proceedings began, things settled back down into a standard pattern of thanks, congratulations, motions to accept and ayes counted. For an organization that isn’t supposed to run these meetings by Robert’s Rules of Order, there are a surprising number of those Rules in place.
The first highlight was a presentation by Myriam Shwayri on the Al-Kkafaat Foundation of Lebanon and the wonderful work they do with disabled people. We often forget in America that in other cultures, disability of any sort is a cause for disdain, mixed with contempt and fear. Seeing images of those helped by this Foundation was quite moving, and caused me to pray for each one.
Then the interminable departmental reports began. The first was that of the Nominating Committee, and wonder of wonders, a motion was made at the left microphone. A woman walked confidently up to the mic, got permission to speak, and presented a resolution to this effect:
“Resolved, that no person who has been an officer or director of a company which has been convicted of or a settled criminal charge or who has personally been convicted of or settled criminal charges may be a member of the Board of Trustees or the Local Synod.”
Wow! Why would someone bring that up? Metr. Philip muttered something about not being aware that any felons were on the Board of Trustees. This resolution was passed with a resounding number of “Ayes” and sparse and weak “Nays”. Amazing. Something actually happened. It not only added spice to the meeting, but it was extremely important. Beyond our spiritual obligations to the Church and the world, restoring integrity to our Archdiocese should be a primary goal. This woman became a heroine with a few simple words and a lot of moxie.
We quickly settled back into hearing the departmental reports.
– Delegate with Portfolio