Originally created 02/28/04

State senator loses affiliation



AIKEN - The missionary branch of the United Methodist Church is distancing itself from a state senator from Charleston who has sponsored pro-gambling legislation.

A spokesman for the General Board of Global Ministries, which supports missionaries worldwide, said Thursday that Democratic Sen. Robert Ford has not been affiliated with the New York City-based organization since 1998, although the senator contends otherwise.

Mr. Ford's proposal to build casinos along South Carolina waterways such as the Savannah River in order to boost the economy has concerned Methodists.

"I cannot understand why any active United Methodist would advocate gambling," said Elliott Wright, a spokesman for the board.

"The church and board are utterly and completely and forever opposed to gambling."

Mr. Ford, who was identified in a Jan. 28 Augusta Chronicle article as a community developer coordinator for the board, contends that he has been associated with the organization since 1968 and continues to receive its support.

Mr. Ford said he doesn't gamble, "but as a community developer and member of the South Carolina Senate, my job is to empower the community."

His support of gambling doesn't sit well with Mark Maund, a member of St. John United Methodist Church in Augusta, who said he contacted the Methodist board in New York after reading Mr. Ford's pro-gambling statements in the newspaper.

"If he wants to push for a gambling bill, that's OK," Mr. Maund said, "just don't be associated with the Methodist church."

Mr. Ford started working in Charleston as a Black Community Developer in 1968, he said this week. It was a position created by the United Methodist Church for individuals who went into and lifted up socially and economically depressed black communities, Mr. Ford said.

Along the way, he's stirred the pot and his current spat with the United Methodist Church isn't his first, said Mr. Ford, who describes himself as a member of the church in the South Carolina Legislative Manual and was arrested 73 times during the civil rights movement.

He joined the Charleston City Council in 1974 and has made political waves over the years by sponsoring economic boycotts, holding flag rallies, and picketing other city and county councils, Mr. Ford said.

Many of the council members he protested belonged to the United Methodist Church and have complained to the General Board of Global Ministries.

"When they find out they're paying for this kind of stuff, they get (mad)," Mr. Ford said of other Methodist members.

The board recently contacted Mr. Ford after learning of his pro-gambling legislation and told him he is no longer affiliated with the organization, Mr. Wright said.

"It is not a program for free-wheeling individuals," he said.

The board's community development coordinators, who no longer go by the moniker of Black Community Developer, must affiliate with United Methodist Church congregations that sponsor them, Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Ford, he said, hasn't been associated with the Charleston congregation that once sponsored him since 1998.

Mr. Ford said he formed his own independent nonprofit development group that year, but continues to receive support from the board. He said it paid for him to attend a community development conference in Washington just last year.

"It may well have," Mr. Wright said. But "going to a conference doesn't mean he has a professional relationship with the church."

"How it came to be that he was at that conference, I can't tell you," he said. "The woman who was in charge of the program at that time has retired."

The fact that past members of the board who worked with Mr. Ford are gone is one reason his status is being questioned, the senator said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.