Since the 2016 election many have been eager to differentiate themselves from the hate and harm embraced in the ideology and values which now reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Bumper stickers, T-shirts and social media pages are full of disclaimers; “Not My President,” “Don’t Blame Me, I Didn’t Vote for Him”, “Fake vs Facts” , “Love Trumps Hate!”
I understand the impulse. Folx don’t want to be identified with the often violent and destructive attitudes and beliefs which this election unveiled. As white nationalism has been emboldened, bias crimes have surged. Mosques have been burned. Jewish Cemeteries have been desecrated. BLACK LIVES MATTER banners have been defaced and rainbow flags have been ripped to shreds.Federal protections have been withdrawn while legislation that harms trans kids and youth has passed in some states. Legislation prohibiting same-sex couples from adopting children in need of loving families has been instituted in others. Our undocumented parishioners and neighbors fear going to work, school or worship. Parents and their children who attend Jewish Day Schools are threatened and hijab wearing women are accosted at the grocery or department store.
And so I celebrate with caution the 25 congregations and communities which have joined the Reconciling Ministries Network since November 8th.
In fact, 66 have joined since the 2016 General Conference. Folx in the Midwest know I share the news of new groups on social media with a warm and genuine “welcome!” Today RMN numbers over 34,000 individuals and 837 congregations, communities, and campus ministries. That’s a growth of 7.8%. Why then do I speak of caution?
38 of these new network members are congregations. After some months of discussion, education and discernment the church’s members have voted to differentiate themselves from the discriminatory policies and practices of our denomination and publicly declare a full welcome to all, regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. After submitting their paper work, the congregation is added to the RMN website’s “Find a Reconciling Community” list, and shared with our ecumenical partners. They add them to their lists. These lists are used by LGBTQIA+ folx, their families and friends when searching for a new faith community where they will be welcomed. Many also use this list when vacationing or traveling for work.
Among these new groups however, are 28 “communities” often within congregations. They are Sunday School classes, choirs, and UMW units. Some of these faithful folx have a strong need to differentiate. They declare their “welcome” though the whole congregation may not yet “be there” or their current pastor may be unsupportive of inclusion.
These good people want and need others to know they stand outside the harm, hate, and exclusion of our UMC and intend to practice another way now, rather than waiting for some uncertain future. I commend their bold spirit and in some places sheer courage. But here’s my caution.
In a recent posting, a picture of a handful or two of smiling United Methodists accompanied the announcement. Their SS Class was then added to RMN’s website. What happens when a lesbian couple with children visits their church? How likely is it that they will, in fact, find a welcome? Does the Sunday School registration allow for Parent’s names rather than Father and/or Mother? Will they, and others who might visit, hear a graced-based message of a loving God or a proclamation of judgment? Will they encounter warm smiles or cold shoulders?
We dare not, out of our impulse to disclaim the Book of Discipline’s punitive laws and denomination’s harmful practices, (” my heart…my mind….my doors, are REALLY open!”) no matter how true, send LGBTQIA seekers and their families and friends into unsafe, unwelcoming congregations of judgment and exclusion. This would be an act of spiritual abuse and an affront to the Jesus we so love, the Jesus who beckons “Come unto me…”
Currently on the “Find a Reconciling Community” page, Reconciling Campus Ministries are listed with an asterisk to denote the particular nature of the group. Perhaps Reconciling Communities (small groups within a congregation) should be listed with an arrow to indicate that their congregation includes a small group open to all, seeking to LEAD others in the congregation to a new openness to inclusion regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
That is the work to which I believe these “communities,” of faithful disciples, must commit. We must become change agents. It isn’t easy work.
It is, however, already begun in those small group public declarations. You have spoken your heart to those who sit next to you in the pews or sing in your choir or serve on committees with you, or place their children in your care in the nursery. Now you must find or create opportunities for you to share your stories and listen to others; to explore the teachings of Jesus; to watch films, read books, meet gay, lesbian and trans guests, address concerns, and pray for the leading of the Spirit who “is doing a new thing” until a great majority of your congregation is ready to vote to genuinely welcome and fully include LGBTQIA persons.
This process can take years. It requires patience and respect. It is the reconciling process of our network.
If we are honest, it must be on-going work. Campus Ministry participants change annually with a full churn every four or five years. Congregations periodically get new pastors and if they are fortunate are attracting new members regularly. Practicing the radical hospitality of the Living God will forever need to be modeled and proclaimed!
My prayer, of course, is that each “community” will eventually find themselves not the exception in a congregation but reflective of the whole church, now unquestionably safe and welcoming.
In addition, I hope their leadership will be celebrated as Arrows who “mobilized United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”
- Arrows of Love and Inclusion - March 16, 2017
- We Will Not Abandon - October 21, 2016
- Caring for those in grief after General Conference - May 31, 2016