Never far from controversy, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) has been forced to relocate its upcoming conference from an Episcopal Cathedral in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Entitled “Justice: The Path to Peace in Palestine-Israel” the September 28-29 gathering has been moved from the Cathedral Church of St. John to Immanuel Presbyterian Church. FOSNA is the American branch of Sabeel, an ecumenical Palestinian liberation theology organization headed by Anglican priest Naim Ateek.
FOSNA officials cite “significant harassment from the local Jewish Federation and their friends” and a local Rabbi in in the decision of St. John’s. In 2007, the group faced a similar controversy when Boston’s historic Old South Church received criticism for hosting FOSNA. The Boston UCC parish did host the conference, but attracted numerous protesters who charged that FOSNA had featured speakers alleged to be anti-Semitic, and objected to Sabeel equating Israel to racist apartheid-era South Africa.
A conference schedule provided by FOSNA lists workshops on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), “Christian Zionism in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist and Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches” and “Paradise Lost: the Transgenerational Legacies of Life Under Occupation: Native American and Palestinian Cultural Survival.”
While Bishop Michael Vono of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande and cathedral Dean J. Mark Goodman no longer appear on the conference schedule, the group still lists St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, Santa Fe, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, and the Northeast Deanery of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande as co-sponsors.
The National Council of Churches (NCC) spent almost their entire May governing board meeting in closed session, an indication that difficult decisions were being made by officials at the financially strapped group.
August brought news that the head of the ecumenical council’s poverty initiative, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and past NCC President Michael Livingston, was departing for the George Soros-funded advocacy group Interfaith Worker Justice. Additionally, the council’s longtime media specialist left the staff August 1, and two others – the development director and local/regional ecumenism coordinator – are no longer listed on the staff roster.
The NCC, which once had a staff of hundreds at Manhattan’s Interchurch Center, now lists 15 staff and new transitional secretary Peg Birk, who serves as a contract employee for her 18-month term.
“These have been months of unpredictable and diminishing revenues accompanied by severe reductions in staff and staff time amid constant pressures to deliver quality programs and mission,” summarized Associate General Secretary Clare Chapman during her May report as interim leader of the council. Chapman used the words “challenging and frustrating” to describe the period of leadership turnover and financial crunches.
“While some new and unanticipated gifts were received this current fiscal year, they were on the modest end of the spectrum,” wrote then-NCC development director Deborah DeWinter. “Other major gifts which had been anticipated fell short of projections.”
Just how short? The council budgeted $700,000 in revenue from foundations for FY 2011-2012, receiving confirmation of only $550,500 by May. For FY2012-2013, the council is projecting only $400,000 from foundations.
In addition to foundations, the council has seen a steep drop in unrestricted funds from its member communions. As of May, “22 of the NCC’s 37 member communions had not made an Ecumenical Commitment Fund (ECF) contribution for FY 2011-2012,” wrote DeWinter. Five member communions have not made any ECF contribution for the past decade. The NCC projected revenues for this fiscal year are $3.7 million, down from $6.8 million less than a decade ago. In the completed FY 2010-2011, the council spent $5.6 million, with revenues of under $4.3 million.
The NCC governing board meets next week September 17-18. There will be no General Assembly of the council in 2012, which has been turned into a bi-annual meeting in order to reduce the steep costs associated with the previously annual national gathering.