Rocky lecture series looks at civility in contentious times


The Rev. Gary Mason speaks at the East Belfast Mission in Northern Ireland in 2008, at an event attended by Queen Elizabeth. Mason will be speaking as part of an upcoming lecture series at Rocky Mountain College.

The subject of a series of lectures to be presented at Rocky Mountain College in early March was chosen nearly a year ago, but it seems more timely than ever now.

The Wheatley Lectures, scheduled for Thursday and Friday, March 8 and 9, will focus on the theme of “Creating Community in Fracturing Times: Returning Civility to Civil Dialogue.”

Pointing to recent episodes of anti-Semitic and anti-gay vandalism in Billings this winter, the Rev. Kim Woeste said, “We’ve got some pretty deep fractures in our community right now. … I think we kind of hit our target.”

Karen Oliveto

Karen Oliveto

Woeste is the campus chaplain and director of Spiritual Life and Church Relations at Rocky. She worked with a small group of people representing the college and the United Methodist Church to revive the Wheatley Lectures, which were established in the late 1990s to honor Bishop Melvin E. Wheatley Jr.

Three speakers will be featured in the series next month: the Rev. Gary Mason, who spent 27 years as a Methodist minister in Belfast, Ireland, and played an integral role in the Northern Irish peace process; the Rev. Karen Oliveto, the first woman to serve as senior pastor in one of the UMC’s 100 largest U.S. congregations; and Rabbi Uri Barnea, formerly the director of the Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale, who has long been actively involved in human rights issues.

The moderator will be the Rev. Matthew Charlton, assistant general secretary of the Division of Higher Education of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the UMC.

The series will consist of three lectures, each followed by a panel discussion involving all three speakers. Woeste said the speakers were asked to talk about whatever they wished on the theme of the series.

All of those events will be in the Taylor Auditorium in Losekamp Hall, on the RMC campus. Oliveto’s speech will be at 4 p.m. on March 8, and Mason’s will be that evening at 7. Barnea will deliver his lecture at noon on March 9.

Woeste said organizers are still working on the details of two other events — small-group discussions with Mason and Oliveto, which will take place at 1 p.m. on March 8 and 9 a.m. on March 9.

Mason and Oliveto will also be speaking at Rocky classes, so it is not known yet which of them will be at the March 8 discussion and which at the discussion on March 9. That will be announced later, as will locations, Woeste said. People who show up at Losekamp Hall either day will be directed to the proper place, she added.

Woeste said said the lecture series, like the original lectures, is sponsored by an endowment established by the Yellowstone Annual Conference of the UMC and RMC to perpetuate Wheatley’s name and contributions to the church and society.

The original series may have lasted as long as 10 years but then was discontinued sometime in the early 2000s. Talk of reviving the series began a couple of years ago when Rocky President Dr. Robert Wilmouth was meeting with a group of Billings clergy and was asked what had become of the endowment.

The endowment and lecture series predated Wilmouth’s time at Rocky, Woeste said, but he promised to look into it, setting in motion a process that led to next month’s series.

A description of the series on the RMC website says Wheatley was devoted to social justice, promotion of an inclusive church, academic inquiry, pastoral care and ethics. Woeste said the lecture theme of creating community in fracturing times was chosen because “we had some clues, at least in the political environment, that things were going from bad to worse.”

All three speakers have dealt with similarly contentious issues in similarly fractured times.

Besides his work in Northern Ireland, Woeste said, Mason has consulted in the Middle East, where he was involved in finding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he has spent the past 10 years teaching and lecturing, “applying the lessons learned in the peace process in Ireland and in other locations.”

Uri Barnea

Uri Barnea

Oliveto, who is outspoken on homelessness, economic justice, immigration, civil rights and LGBTQ rights, was the focus of considerable controversy herself. In 2016, she became the first openly gay person to be elected as a bishop in the United Methodist Church. She represents a region that includes Montana and Wyoming.

Although she was elected in compliance with church procedures, Woeste said, some church members argued that because she was openly gay, she should have been excluded from consideration.

It was an issue that would have resonated with Bishop Wheatley, who died in 2009. In 1982, he risked censure in the UMC for appointing the church’s first openly gay pastor. Two years before that, he broke with his fellow bishops by refusing to support a joint statement calling homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Barnea is a native of Israel and a son of Holocaust refugees. He became a U.S. citizen in 1982. In the early 1990s, in Billings, he was the target of harassing, anti-Semitic phone calls, and once he found a KKK flier tucked into the newspaper on his doorstep. He also had a beer bottle thrown through a glass door of his house.

As a result of all that, and a rash of similar racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic attacks in Billings at the time, Barnea became an active member of Not in Our Town, a community group whose work spawned similar efforts across the country.

In addition to the Bishop Melvin E. Wheatley Jr. Endowment, the UMC and RMC, the lecture series is being supported by the Margaret V. Ping Foundation and Humanities Montana.

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