Odd Place, Expanded View

While scrolling through Facebook, I ran across this picture of my son, Ben. My initial thought was, how odd, Ben is standing on his car. Why? After thinking about it, I believe that by awkwardly climbing on top of the car, he expanded his view. He was able to soak in the peaks, the valleys, the colors, and the shadows, with full attention, appreciation, and focus. It seems to me, when we fully breathe in the view or situation, God can reveal to us so many details, truths, realities, and understandings that we most certainly missed before.      

Our Church has awkwardly moved to a very odd place while bickering over LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer/Questioning) persons’ place at God’s table. While in this predicament, we have entered a time of focus and attention. In this moment in time, the full landscape is available for us to experience, be inspired and grow from. Yes, the peaks are present and so are the shadows.  In this landscape, we as a Church have an opportunity to experience a little more of God’s love, compassion and truth as we accept our responsibility to Love Our Neighbor.

I would like to introduce you to my family’s story.  Imagine, how different our lives may have been if only the messages that Ben received were replaced by the ones that you will hear in this video. What if all of God’s people could hear these messages? It’s time, to change the message.

Those who are targets of LGBTQ discrimination within the Church are harmed, as are their loved ones and all who witness and all who play a part. No matter what “side” an individual stands on in this matter, each is impacted by toxicity while a group of people are devalued. There has been much, so much, pain.   

Consider these statistics from The Trevor Project.

Why is the institutional Church not reaching out and embracing LGBTQ persons saying, you’re safe here; we should be saying we will shelter you; we celebrate you as you are beautifully and wonderfully made?

My son, had been teased and bullied periodically throughout his childhood.  We changed schools from public to private, back to public, to private and back to public again.  Through all of this, Ben was wounded but remained kind and grounded.  He found pure joy and solid friendships in our United Methodist Church youth group.  He was funny and his confidence grew with beautiful shared joy.  Unfortunately, with a shift in the youth leadership, there was a change in the message.  Ben was singled out by the leader while in a circle of his friends. In other words, the intimidation, the misuse of power, and the bullying began again. This time it was inflicted by an adult in authority representing the United Methodist Church. The unsaid message was eventually spoken in full ambush fashion.  Ben was outed as gay (based only on suspicion but Ben did not deny), and was given the message that he did not belong.  He was not worthy to be a part of the group and was no representation of Christ. It was announced that he was going to hell. His  spirit was irreparably damaged for the remainder of his life. Each of us felt so many raw and difficult emotions. We, as his family, could not say enough, pray enough, love enough to undo the damage.  Ben, his father, I and many others were changed forever because of that cruel and betraying message.  This type of betrayal by the church which we had trusted, invested in, and loved, produced trauma to every cell of our body and being. This I know; our faith community seemed to have been paralyzed in addressing the abuse. I hold the Church responsible for not taking steps to safeguard our children and all who walk through the doors. The United Methodist Book of Discipline gives so many contradictory positions that pastors and congregations seem to be on one side, the other, or in a confused avoidant state of non-choice. The United Methodist Church seems to be more concerned about it’s denominational survival than about the people who are the church.

The effect of being belittled, shamed, and degraded results in spiritual trauma. Changes in outlook and in the psyche takes place. Feelings of safety and belonging become unclear. The belief system that had  been the foundation for life, now became a lie.  

In May of 2012, we were in our small town for a spring celebration where many strolled around in little traditional family units. Ben said, “Mom, I will never be accepted here.” I responded, “Honey, most people are good and kind, they really are”.  In a defeated and certain voice, he said, “Mom, you live in a bubble.”  The North Carolina vote for Amendment One (taking away many rights of same sex couples) took place on May 8, 2012, thus piling on more heavy layers of emotional loss from disregard and abandonment.  Not only had Ben’s church and his community degraded him by denying equal respect and rights, so had his state. Ben’s faith in God and humanity withered in an insidious manner.

Ben took his life on May 8, 2013.

As it often occurs in life, I had an experience that provided me with much greater insights into Ben’s journey. I was a delegate at Western North Carolina Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska in June 2015. Me, a straight, white, middle aged daughter of a United Methodist pastor, absorbed the impact of insidious harm caused through prejudice; the mistreatment of LGBTQ persons by the Church.

The Bishop announced to stand up if you vote in favor of the petition to make the changes to the Book of Discipline (to remove the language that is derogatory of LGBTQ persons). As two youth delegates, another adult from my current Reconciling church (congregation which is affirming for LGBTQ persons) and I stand together, a lady behind us judgmentally blurts out  “Who is raising these children?” We ignore the outburst and stand committed. I am thrilled when 568 stand up! This is great!  We have been seen; the inequity, the injustice has been acknowledged!

People are sitting though.

The counting is complete and we are asked to sit down. It is done. All who were going to stand with our gay children, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters have done so.  

The Bishop announces, stand if you vote in disagreement of the petition (thus leaving in the derogatory language). With the sound that I know from movie theater seats, chairs begin to flip up as people stand…..flipping and more flipping as people boldly stood to their feet. I feel my head fall down into my hands. How do they not see what they are doing?  Don’t they understand? My mind is racing; my body queasy and on fire.  Panic fills me and screams are held inside. I feel as though my insides are quivering as I shake.

With celebratory triumph as 763 people were standing up from their seats, to keep the hateful words, the man behind me triumphantly shouts “God is Good!”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, best describes my feelings when he once told the Calvinist;

Your God is My Devil!”

Some biblical words are emphasized and some words ignored all to elevate a false perception of superiority. Some words are manipulated to justify bad and mean behavior.  How dare God be used in this way. Where is the radical hospitality that I hear so much about?  Where is the reflection of Jesus Christ who we claim as our example, who went to the oppressed and fought for justice? “God of love and mercy we need you, we need Your healing”.

The helplessness of our church trauma and the primal grief of my son’s shocking death all  entered that moment. Giving every effort not to scream and with a contorted mouth of one fighting

to restrain sobs, yet dripping tears, I turned around to the man behind me and was able to say these words:

How? How can you believe this way?  People are suffering and dying because of these words, this dogma.  My son, my son is dead! !!  He is dead! These words contributed to the death of my son.

His  Response,  “Lady, the church didn’t do anything to your son”.

Through a blur of tears, I look into the eyes of one who dismisses my experience, my pain and my plea.    I feel helpless, why can’t they understand? Why don’t they care?   Hopelessness begins.

The sounds of the chairs flipping would not stop.  Echoes of the flipping sound continued in my head and in my sleep.  The use of God to justify hate….….flip…..… flip………flip.

I join with my son and with marginalized groups of people through all of time as we share this scene, this feeling, this soul assault of disregard.  

In this place, with no more than two feet between us, played out yet another scene of the conflict that exists within many in faith communities. In this case, one United Methodist wants the recent derogatory words against LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Book of Discipline to be removed and the other United Methodist wants them to stay.

After conference, the tears just did not stop. My outlook and my attitude seemed to be shifting to the cup half empty instead of half full. I was increasingly sad and so tired.  Why are people so mean-hearted?   Everywhere I looked, things were cruel and I started to accept that no, the church, will never care to understand. All that I had been taught was all a lie. There will be more kids, more people, betrayed, rejected, shamed and there is no one that will hear our voice.  No wonder Ben gave up.  Insidious harm continued, subtle, but potentially with fatal consequences.    There is a fading of life. It is much like when water spills on a watercolor painting. The water seeps and spreads out slowly to diminish the color/the light, and distorts life.

I needed guidance to help me understand what was happening to me.  It was explained by the therapist that trauma can get “stuck” in the brain.  He used EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to help me process the trauma amplified by the vote at Lake Junaluska. The sounds of the chairs no longer intrude upon my thoughts, and I have come to recognize that “The Vote” at Lake Junaluska is another part of my life journey. I understand that even if we had been able to keep Ben, our treasured child, here on this earth, this trauma inflicted by the exclusion of LGBTQ persons, would have been the same.  The impact had to be faced head on and worked through so that the experience may be used for good in some way.

We can create shifts in understanding!  We must!  Look to the parallels of desegregation in the 1960’s.  Dr. W. Astor Kirk, PhD recorded the process that he, the “Committee of Five” and others followed to create change, yes including the Book of Discipline,  to desegregate the United Methodist Church.  The book is, “Desegregation of the Methodist Church Polity, Reform Movements That Ended Racial Segregation.”

The following is quoted from a letter that Dr. Kirk received reflecting an incredible shift:

“Until a few hours ago I would have opposed this Amendment, I support it now because we hear and gain insight into this matter and I realize…those of us who have tried to be moderates, who have tried to be a bridge of understanding, must at some time come out of the bushes and state what we believe is the right order of preference in this church.”

The view was expanded!

After years and years of advocacy, blood, sweat, and tears, the Methodist Church was desegregated. The denomination redefined itself in many ways between the years of 1968 and 1972. In addition to the Church being desegregated, United was added to the denominational name, and ironically the derogatory language towards LGBTQ persons was added.

It’s time! It’s time for church leaders to come out of the bushes and state what we believe is right!  Love is always right!

I go to meetings, conversations, where those in leadership give every effort to keeping a “lid on” the opposing passionate views. They hope that both sides of this issue may be allowed their stance. Please, stop this. No progress is being made as people are just being polarized and LGBTQ persons further devalued.

Our Church as an institution is in a very odd and strange place. Some would prefer the noise to stop.  Others, the harmed and the allies, are crying out for a simple application of the Golden Rule and for justice. The plea is an urgent one because we know that while LGBTQ persons are deemed “incompatible/unworthy,” the suffering continues. People are harmed and sometime lives are tragically ended. It feels strange to be a part of such fiery disagreements. It is uncomfortable and awkward. We even feel off balance.

Thank you God as you never give up on us. You help us grow and teach us as you reveal truths by expanding our view. We take in more and more of You. Insights change as words are changed to ensure that the sacred worth of each individual is tenderly held dear and understood as holy.

We, as a people and as a Church, can do this!  We can love our neighbor as Jesus taught us. We can stop arguing over how much hospitality and honor should be given to the LGBTQ children of God.  We CAN show radical hospitality!  We must change the message!

If you’re thinking about suicide, you deserve immediate help – please call the Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386.

Featured Photo Credit to Evelyn Pierce, one of Ben’s awesome friends.

Julie Hilliard Wood

Julie Hilliard Wood lives in North Carolina with her husband, and two daughters. She works in the Human Services field, serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Julie is a lifelong United Methodist and the daughter of a United Methodist Minister. Julie has a passion and commitment, as a mother and ally, to facilitating justice in our churches and society for individuals who are LGBTQ. Julie celebrates the beauty of her son, Ben, who is now in heaven and strives to ensure that his death will not be in vain.
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