Part I: Sorrow
Three years ago I was the most average United Methodist you could imagine. I attended Sunday services fairly regularly, as I had most of my adult life. I attended adult Sunday school regularly. I had served as an officer on the church's preschool board of directors for as long as it had been open and I had been a steady volunteer for Vacation Bible School, finally serving as director for the 100-student program. I was married and pregnant with my third child.
My story really begins that spring when I was finishing up a Disciple study which was led by my dear friend, Mary, an excellent and gifted teacher who was in the second year of her three-year probationary status as a United Methodist deacon. Toward the end of the 32-week Bible study program, one of the members of the class read a prayer that included the following as a closing prayer for the group:
"Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask Your forgiveness and to seek Your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values. We confess that...
...We have worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism.
We have endorsed perversion and called it alternative lifestyle.
... Search us, Oh, God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and set us free. Guide and bless these men and women who have been sent to direct us to the center of Your will, io open ask it in the name of Your Son, the living Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen"
It included a number of other political rants thinly disguised as confession and had been read in the Kansas State Senate. My classmate had found it online. I was appalled and disgusted, but I didn't open my mouth and say so. I wondered if the rest of my class felt as he did.
A military therapist once described me as having "Catholic Schoolgirl Syndrome", and I hadn't changed my ways for Disciple class. Every week I faithfully (neurotically?) read the readings and wrote out the homework questions. That week our text informed us that Jesus had dragged his reluctant band of disciples out to the lepers, tax collectors and even to the women to preach. For homework we were asked to list the groups of people that our church was not reaching out to. I had a long list. I wrote, "poor people" (our church is in an imposing-looking building situated in the midst of a geographically segregated upscale neighborhood.) I wrote, "alcoholics" - no AA program. I wrote, "non-whites" - not very many of those here. I wrote, "single mothers" - no one here like that. I had a list of six or seven groups before I finally wrote, "homosexuals".
Immediately, a light bulb illuminated in my head. Our church sits right across the street from a large and expensive condo complex. Other than retirees, I thought, who would be taking out extended mortgages on apartments but people (or couples) who were not expecting children. This must certainly include gay people, I thought. Here was a group that we were not reaching out to, a group who might feel perfectly at home in this church - if only we would let them know that they were welcome. I was to learn that I was being quite naive.
Until that night I had had very limited experience with gay people. In the 1970's, as a 16-year-old homeless person, I had found safety sharing an apartment with a number of gay men who had welcomed me. Many years later, I had several gay female friends in the army who felt comfortable being open with me. I had worked with openly gay people in the pharmacy of Duke Hospital for a couple of years. But that's it.
I had, until then, not given a single thought to sexuality in the context of the church, except that I had been repulsed by the reference to "perversion" in the prayer read by my classmate. I resolved to atone for my silence the previous week by suggesting that we be intentional about inviting homosexuals to our church during the next homework discussion.
Now "homosexual" is a word I had never spoken before in public, and certainly one I had not spoken in church. I harbored some concern that the bigotry expressed in the Kansas Senate prayer might be shared by
the rest of my class. I could feel my face go red-hot with fear and embarrassment when I brought the topic up in class. Sure enough, the word brought silence to the classroom and an abrupt end to the conversation.
Afterward, however, Mary approached me and told me that the United Methodist Church had done a study on the topic of homosexuality, and that there were study materials available. She added that the study materials had even been mandated for use by local churches by the previous Annual Conference. She gave me the names of some people at the nearby Aldersgate UMC, which had successfully completed the study just a few months earlier.
I learned what I could about the UMC's homosexuality study, and asked my pastor if we could offer the study at our church. He acted as though he would consider it, and told me that he would need the church council to approve it before it could move forward.
I was to learn that this was but a tactic to placate me. He never brought it up to the council, even after repeated requests. Over the next two years he stalled and delayed until he finally told me that the discussion of homosexuality does nothing but divide churches and cause problems. He made it clear that we would not be talking about sexuality or, for that matter, any other topic that could prove divisive in his church, ever. Sadly, he was so fearful of this discussion that he made life for me very difficult at church. Worse, when my dear friend, Mary began to speak words of inclusion from the pulpit he began to forbid her to preach, and finally even to share prayers or speak at all from the pulpit. Her last year of probation became nearly unbearable.
Part II: Grace
During the next two years, I became active with the Reconciling Methodist movement and learned to work for inclusion in my church and denomination with some of the most loving, spiritual, knowledgeable and dedicated people I have ever met. I also found several others in my own church who shared my convictions about inclusion. We formed a Sunday school class centered on Christian peace and justice. With the RUMNC group I became active in church politics and in educating clergy and lay persons about inclusion, as well as working to provide worship, fellowship and support opportunities for people who felt excluded from other faith communities.
It was incredibly painful to feel excluded and rejected by the church that I had called home for many years. I had stayed long enough to see Mary ordained, but she left immediately thereafter. My church cancelled the Living Peace class, having determined that it was not "Christ centered" enough. Unbelievably, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church determined, in a 55%-45% vote, that Christians do not disagree about homosexuality. It became time for me to find a new church home.
I had begun this journey an average Methodist with a vague notion that excluding people based on gender or sexuality made no sense. During my time with RUMNC, however, I found that both my faith and my relationship with God had grown immeasurably. Through prayer, study and fellowship with these amazing peace warriors, I found myself able to more clearly understand my relationship with God, God's love and grace and expectations. I found scriptural basis for my convictions about inclusion. This, in turn, helped me greatly in finding a more appropriate faith community for my family.
Later this month I will be joining a new church. I know that his church is a wonderful place for all people to worship God and follow Christ, really and truly regardless of their race, economic status, gender or sexual identity, age, or stage of life. I know that this community will help me to find ways to worship and serve the God whom I love and who has always loved me. This church will support me spiritually through good and bad times. Moreover, this community will be a true partner in raising my children.
This has been an amazing journey. I have worked side by side with amazing people. I have been witness to true miracles of faith. I have been a part of sharing God's love with people who had not experienced it before. I have been energized in my faith. I am grateful to God and to my Living Peace friends and to Reconciling United Methodists. I hope that the United Methodist Church finds it's way to including all of its children. I must leave now and follow a different path,