Well, let’s give up on the illusion that I’ve been able to maintain any significant degree of professional (or personal) distance from the whole UMC situation.
The things I have said that have been meaningful to people have not come from that place anyway, so I’m just going to talk about pain and promise as I understand it. I have written elsewhere of the depth of my lifelong personal connection to the UMC, so I won’t rehash it here.
Like so many issues, this battle is situated in a particular setting, but reflects a much larger cultural struggle between those who seek to widen the circle of care and belonging and those who seek to preserve their own power for their own benefit.
So . . . as it turned out, yesterday as the global body of the UMC gathered for its final day of General Conference, I had agreed to be a part of a 5-hour community conversation hosted – of all places – at East Lake UMC, a congregation to which I belonged at the time God called me to seminary.
The folks at East Lake and their brilliant pastor have never been anything less than 110% supportive of me and my calling – and the group gathered yesterday were community-engaged folks from all over the city, BUT STILL. . .
I drove over there mumbling about how it was the absolute LAST F—ING PLACE I wanted to be on that day. And that was the God’s honest truth.
I walked in doing my feeble best at a game face and after registration turned and ran into my friend and brother, Ali. He innocently said “Hey! How are you?”
I promptly started crying and mumbling uttering incoherent things. Ali, baffled but enduringly kind, just hugged me, a perfect gift of peace in a wrenching moment.
It was a shaky few hours, but I was lifted up – as I always am – by the kinship of good people, some of whom knew it was a hard morning and others who didn’t have a clue.
Me, hanging in there, and Ali
I took a couple of breathing moments in East Lake’s sanctuary, which I consider the most beautiful traditional sacred space in the city (go ahead, fight me).
The smaller stained glass windows that feature the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Talents are my favorites. They sit in what used to be my line of sight when I sang in the choir there and I would often go at other times and just perch in front of them.
The lessons of those parables remain as important as they always have been – perhaps all the more so. And the shattered shards of East Lake’s beautiful current altar setting felt especially fitting.
After East Lake, I moved on elsewhere to a difficult but restorative conversation with someone with whom I’d had a conflict – and then on to drinks with good, hurting UMC people, followed by conversation with good, kick-ass queer clergy friends.
It was the people who made the difference. Therein lies both the pain and the promise.
For many of us, church is family.
Yes, you can worship God anywhere because God is everywhere.
Yet worship in isolation nearly always tends toward our cultural narrative of self-preoccupation, this noxious attachment to ego gratification and capitalist manipulation of desire.
Following Jesus – as with other religious traditions – is (blessedly) a communal endeavor.
No wonder the rejection hurts so much for so many people, including me.
It cuts to the deepest parts of the safety we find (or ought to be able to find) in family and community.
It is a devastating refusal of the God-given gifts we offer into family and community.
We are formed in faith and then violently ejected from its circle of care.
It is a sinful, human-driven, patriarchal-power-rooted, grievous misinterpretation of holy Scripture.
(okay, now please DO NOT oversimplify any of what follows. Hear it through before you decide what you think I’m trying to say)
I was given this UCC emblem when I was installed as pastor at Beloved Community Church. I’m not a big accessories person, so it mostly stays in a drawer. I took it out yesterday and slipped it in my shirt pocket before I went to East Lake.
Its weight there served as a tangible reminder of where I have landed – and how I have found a place to use my gifts and honor my calling.
I was trying to say something last night in a text reply about my adopted church and accidentally wrote that the UCC had adopted me.
And once I wrote it I knew that phrase got to the heart of the matter.
The UCC adopted me and loved me. (ain’t nothing perfect, but hopefully you can grasp the grace extended there – that’s the point). I have learned that one does not have to be a United Methodist to be a Wesleyan.
To those outside of such a relationship of love and care –
LGBTQIAP CLERGY AND LAY PEOPLE OF THE UMC – I completely get why you would choose to stay – especially if you feel a particular calling to do so.
I also fully understand why you would leave (that’s what I did – and it was utterly necessary and second only to coming out as a liberating action in my life). If you need help figuring out where to go, I’d be glad to help. I’m partial to Beloved of course, but not at the expense of wanting people to find places that truly resonate with their spirit – that is my primary commitment.
If you stay, please send out those who leave with your blessing as they seek to follow God’s call on their lives.
If you stay, please understand that you are in an abusive relationship. No matter how good your congregation is (and there are some fantastic UMC congregations locally and globally), as long as it remains in the UMC connection, it is not autonomous.
The relationship of the UMC to LGBTQIAP people is abusive.
So stay if you need to, but protect yourself.
Because you are loved fully by God and God wants your wholeness and your well-being so that you may walk in your calling, so that you may be God’s hands and feet in the world.
If you ever need safe space to talk, pray, grieve, or just be, let me know.
STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC CLERGY – I begrudge no one the necessity of making a living.
I am heartened by the solidarity and care I have seen expressed over the last couple of days not just by the usual bold souls, but by people whose positions make it harder to make those affirmations publicly. I dearly hope that you have glimpsed God as you have pushed the boundaries of your own courage.
Please remember that there is no neutral here. If you do not side with the marginalized, then you are siding with the oppressor. And when you compromise for the sake of unity, you are compromising the lives of LGBTQ+ people within your congregations (and there are more than you know) and far beyond those walls.
Please remember that in the days ahead and let that knowledge be reflected in your actions.
And if anybody is looking for an exit strategy for themselves or their churches, I’d be glad to connect you with good people not only in my denomination, but in other affirming denominations and with good non-denominational folks who can talk about their experiences.
STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC LAY PEOPLE – Many of you are dedicated allies in the struggle for justice – and many of you are hurt and angered by what has happened.
You too have the choice of staying or leaving. If you are leaving and you need a place to land, I’ll be happy to talk to you about progressive churches in the area, including but not limited to my own.
If you stay, please take care of your hurting queer church folk – and please understand that your hurt and anger are a fraction of what they are feeling. Be there for them, but don’t make it about you.
The heavy lifting of change in the days ahead remains with you. If you don’t change the UMC, it will not change.
That must be an active process. You all will have to organize and act to match and surpass the organizing and action strategies of the WCA-types.
Otherwise it will get worse and not better. It may get worse anyway. We do not control the outcome, but we do control our own efforts.
It’s up to you.
PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN THE UMC – please just go sit down. If you (or not you personally, but your church) are satisfied by the triumph of homophobia and transphobia in the UMC, I don’t care to hear about it. I think you’re wrong and causing great harm to vulnerable people (which is a sin), but you probably already know that and there’s no point in our discussing it.
PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE PROGRESSIVE THAN THE UMC – yes, we are more progressive. Some of us are handling our solidarity and shared pain on behalf of our UMC friends and neighbors with grace and skill. Others of us are being rather heavy-handed in our too-blatant efforts at recruitment or expressions of superiority. The first is good. The second, not so much. If you’re struggling with the difference in your efforts to reach out, give me a holler and maybe together we can figure out a way to word it that sounds loving not sheep-stealing or smug.
I have been writing throughout this experience from my own pain of exclusion from the church of my deep roots, so I have an odd insider/outsider dynamic that informs what I say – and that gives me some legitimacy to speak into the conversation (I argue – not all agree). When in doubt, try love and leave it at that.
Concluding lessons as I see them –
The pain is real.
The situation is heartbreaking.
The call to solidarity can take many forms. We are one body in Christ – and there are many ways we can be one body and in solidarity with one another. Those relationships can be – and I’d argue should be – more creative than those we’ve devised in the past.
Justice for the oppressed matters more than unity.
Oppressors are very skillful with the gathering, hoarding, exercise, and manipulation of power. Those who would dismantle oppression need to be equally sophisticated – though more ethical – in their relationship with power.
People make all the difference.
None of us is free until all of us are free.
The work to enact God’s transformative justice and God’s abiding mercy in the world goes on.