“If we do not give up”: Reflections on Disability and LGBTQ+ Advocacy

When I was younger, I went over to my neighbor’s house where he had friends over. Little did I know that they were whispering to each other about how they thought I was “retarded.” The girl who was sitting next to me heard them and informed me of what they said. Since I was so young and did not know what the word “retarded” meant, I went home to ask my mom. She did not answer me at first; instead, she wanted to know who had called me that.

The events of that day were hurtful for both my mom and me since I am not “retarded” after all. But, from that moment on, whenever I’m getting dressed, I make sure that I always look good – that my hair is always combed and not messy, and that the buttons on my shirt are buttoned correctly so there is no reason for someone to say anything unkind. Even so, I do not believe that being called a slur should be acceptable in our society. By working to develop good character, we can learn to accept and support one another, even when we may walk, talk, look, or love differently. I even wrote a song about this experience called “It’s Okay to Be You,” which describes my journey with accepting my disability and how it affects my physical coordination and fluency of speech. I also feel comforted by one of my favorite songs: “Rainbow” by Kacey Musgraves, which I recently played and sang on the piano.

Ever since then, I’ve been committed to advancing the cause of disability pride at my school, Bucks County Community College. For the past two years, I was fortunate to run the school’s Disability Pride Club, where disabled students and their allies can meet on Zoom to socialize, talk about how their disabilities impact their lives, and become good friends. Most importantly, we were able to honor a former student and Disability Pride Club member of ours named Steven who unexpectedly passed away last year. One of the things that we did in Steven’s honor was host a virtual memorial so we could all share our many memories of him. While it was a sad day indeed, it gave us the opportunity to develop a strong bond with one another, just as Steven would want.

At Disability Pride, we strive to live out Steven’s legacy by safely living life to the fullest. Steven was involved in so many other clubs, including our school’s LGBTQIA+ club, to the point where his dad said: “Steven used to get up at 6 am to ride the SEPTA bus to school, and then he would arrive home at 9 pm. I was not even aware of all the great things he did!” I remember attending meetings for the Student Government Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee that we were both a part of, and Steven played a reserved, yet supportive role. He advocated to fix broken handicap buttons on campus. He wanted to make the College more inclusive and accessible for all. My favorite memory is when he sat with one of our friends at lunch and then helped walk him to class afterward.

As a shy child who stuttered, I did not even imagine that I would befriend Steven or join a Disability Pride Club in college. In elementary school, I was content with walking slowly and standing in the back of the line and elsewhere to follow others around since my disability tightens my leg muscles and impairs my coordination.

Because of the challenges I’ve had and continue to experience, my desire to be still and listen to others’ stories in Disability Pride Club may be what led me to enjoy studying theology as I continually strive to become a stronger advocate for the disability and LGBTQIA+ communities. Last year, I attended a homiletics lecture given by Dr. Kathy Black, who is a disability theologian and Chair of Homiletics and Liturgics at Claremont School of Theology. I learned that some Christians in Church history believed that having a disability was a sin and that disabled people should not show themselves in public. This could be because of the passage from Leviticus 21:16-24 in which God said that people with deformities were not permitted in His Temple. Yet, in response to a question from His disciples about the spiritual state of a disabled man, Jesus said that the man’s disability was not a sin (John 9:3) and that God affirms people with disabilities just as they are as part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:22-26). I believe Jesus feels the same about eunuchs (Matthew 19), a possible reference to LGBTQIA+ people as well.

Instead of telling people to change, suppress, or hide who God created them to be, I believe it would be best to embrace the new knowledge we have learned from the field of biblical scholarship and advocate for the full affirmation of LGBTQIA+ people, including those in the disability community. By doing so, we can base our theology on a correct interpretation of Scripture that properly bears good fruit and reflects the love of God. I am so excited about a new, informative documentary coming out this year called 1946, which encourages us to move forward in this way!

When LGBTQIA+ people are fully affirmed in the Church and elsewhere, they bear witness to God’s creativity and the variety of ways in which fruits of the Spirit like love, joy, and kindness can be expressed to others. Similarly, people with disabilities may experience gender, sexuality, and life differently because of their diverse bodies and minds. I think the intersectionality of the disabled and LGBTQIA+ experience is something we should celebrate! 

In conclusion, my hope and prayer is that we would seek to foster the kind of love and pride for others that Steven exemplified in his daily life, and that in turn, we would continue to advocate for a more inclusive, accessible, and unified Church where all people, especially those part of the disability and LGBTQIA+ communities, are affirmed and celebrated for who they are. I know we can do it with God’s help. As Scripture says in the book of Galatians: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”

Bishop of Virginia Annual Conference Unwilling to Reach Just Resolution

FAIRFAX – The June 16, 2022 meeting of the Virginia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church (UMC) marks 1,000 days of living under complaint for Rev. Drew Ensz, who presided at a same-sex wedding for a former student in 2019. Although the complaint process is rigorously detailed in The UMC’s Book of Discipline, Virginia’s Bishop Sharma Lewis has flagrantly evaded the duties of her office to seek resolution with Rev. Ensz. 

The Bishop is required by the Book of Discipline to either resolve the complaint, dismiss it, or refer it to the Counsel for the Church A thousand days later, this Counsel has been identified and trained but not formally appointed. As recently as December 2021 Bishop Lewis refused a request from Rev. Ensz to enter into a Just Resolution conversation with the Counsel for the Church. According to the Book of Discipline, the goal of any complaint process is a Just Resolution.

The complaint process as outlined by the Book of Discipline is designed to handle instances of egregious harm committed by a minister. It was not designed to prosecute theological differences, as is in the case with Rev. Ensz. This prolonged and unresolved complaint has had a chilling effect on ministry and community-building with LGBTQ+ United Methodists in the Virginia Annual Conference. In addition, this willful negligence is a violation of the Book of Discipline and one that has gone unchecked for over two years.

Says Rev. Ensz: “For the past 1,000 days our ministry, the Virginia Conference and my family have had to undergo incredible stress and emotional and spiritual harm. At any moment my livelihood can be at risk, and I have not had the opportunity to resolve the charges against me. Our family continues to make hard decisions, such as whether to take additional time off to be with my infant daughter and turn in my credentials or continue to be in full-time ministry while my wife and child were in the NICU.”

While most bishops of all theological leanings have agreed to hold in abeyance complaints about LGBTQ+ ordination and weddings through the next meeting of the General Conference, this unresolved complaint is an ongoing act of harm and not in the spirit of the abeyance. For Rev. Ensz, this standstill has resulted in personal and familial hardship, including the inability to take a family medical leave of absence when his youngest child was born prematurely at 31 weeks. As far back as January 2021, Rev. Ensz raised the concern that if a family member became sick, he would have to choose between caring for the family member or turning in his orders. 

Soon after receiving a letter from Rev. Ensz to discuss this concern, Bishop Lewis offered to meet. In the conversation establishing the meeting time, Rev. Ensz was assured that the meeting had nothing to do with the complaint against him and he should not bring his advocate. However, Bishop Lewis did not discuss the letter, and she utilized the meeting to instead demand information to see if Ensz had officiated at the wedding of another same-sex couple in November 2020. 

Rev. Ensz says: “Bishop Lewis in my understanding of The 2016 Book of Discipline has failed to live out the process as required and does great harm to myself, my family, other colleagues, members of the LGBTQ+ community and Virginia United Methodists as a whole.”

###

Living into its shared baptismal covenant, Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) equips and mobilizes United Methodists to resist evil, injustice, and oppression as we seek justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. RMN  envisions  a  renewed  and  vibrant  Wesleyan  movement  that  is  biblically  and  theologically  centered.  As  committed  disciples  of Jesus  Christ,  RMN  strives  to  transform  the  world  by  living  out  the  Gospel’s  teachings  of  grace,  love,  justice,  and  inclusion  for  all  of  God’s  children.

For more information, contact:

Ophelia Hu Kinney, Director of Communications
Reconciling Ministries Network
773-736-5526
ophelia@rmnetwork.org

Dear friends,

The multiple delays in the General Conference along with other realities have caused many on the Protocol Mediation Team to remove our names from the document titled “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” (a.k.a. The Protocol). The legislation itself remains properly before the delegates to the next General Conference at this point. (Note that questions about delegate elections and legislation submitted for the 2020 General Conference have not been answered yet). 

The Protocol resulted from several months of professional mediation and consensus-building across a diverse group of centrists, progressives, centrists, and traditionalists. At its best, it was a compromise and an attempt to offer an option for a “gracious exit” rooted in a genuine desire to lessen harm and to do all the good possible during a process of discernment and action. It also paved the way for future legislation that would enact global regionalization throughout The UMC as well as legislation that would remove the mandate for discrimination against LGBTQ+ United Methodists.

In addition to hearing from many of you that it was time to withdraw support for The Protocol, there are two reasons that reinforce that The Protocol had outlived its time: 

  • The Protocol was intended to serve the denomination through a specific window of time: five months. The General Conference has been delayed for a full four years. Had we known that a pandemic was around the corner and such a delay was ahead, our process, compromise, and legislation would likely have looked very different. 
  • The primary purpose of The Protocol was to offer an option for fair and gracious exit. In its absence, an equally fair and gracious alternative has been found, the GMC has launched, and disaffiliation has begun. BOD ¶2553, a path for disaffiliation, was strongly supported by traditionalists and adopted at the called General Conference in 2019. 

The delay’s impact on local churches continues to grow with this lengthening delay. Misunderstanding and confusion are rife, sometimes caused by deliberate disinformation. Alarmist language and fear-mongering are at play and not always easy to recognize. Stress levels are high, perhaps most especially among the many United Methodists who have only recently become aware of what’s at hand.

The RMN staff is working on sharing correct information and shaping The UMC into a more equitable and inclusive denomination. Our Engagement Toolkit is an RMN document full of helpful suggestions for churches and individuals. It is a working document updated frequently during this season of rapid change in an attempt to resource and encourage Reconciling United Methodists across the connection. I encourage you to visit this document often over the coming months as it evolves.

I will close by saying that the intent of The Protocol remains, but both The Protocol and its enabling legislation are outdated and inadequate for this moment. It is time for something new.

Yours,

Jan Lawrence
Executive Director

Click to read a joint statement from members of The Protocol’s Mediation Team and Endorsing Organizations.

Dear Reconciling family,

Today I begin my sixth year as the Executive Director at Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). We’ve gone through some stuff together, haven’t we? RMN, our Church, and indeed our whole world are transformed from June 1, 2017. 

On that day and in the weeks that followed, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into: a seemingly insurmountable financial challenge, a strong but fatigued movement after the 2016 General Conference, and a Church that had placed its hope in the hands of what became the Commission on a Way Forward. 

At times I reminisced about the brief retirement I left for this calling. But more often, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I came to learn the breadth and depth of this movement. I got to know the committed Christians who lead it. And more than ever, I realized this organization’s deep impact on so many lives in The UMC.

Five years later, I remain exceedingly grateful. I am grateful for: 

  • A tireless staff that believes in our movement and maintains hope for a more inclusive UMC. 
  • Donors who have reached deep during times of need. 
  • A board that is open to new ideas and is engaging with the staff as we work for a more equitable movement.
  • A continuously growing movement.

We have accomplished so much in these last five years that will impact the years to come for RMN and The UMC. 

  • We’ve grown partnerships across the connection with others resulting in things like Big Tent Methodism Reimagined. 
  • We’ve witnessed the explosive growth and change of our constituency after General Conference 2019. 
  • We’ve increased our virtual presence to include Virtual Porch gatherings, worship experiences, and a growing resource library that will carry us into the future. 
  • The RMN board and staff are engaging in deep work to decenter whiteness and dismantle policies and structures in our own organization that are not yet equitable. Rev. Dr. Valerie Jackson is leading our new Equity Council in that work.
  • And in the near future, look out for announcements about additional toolkits and resources, a new website, and updated mission and vision statements from us.

We live in a time of great challenge. We have been in a global health pandemic that has left many vulnerable people even more isolated – including older adults and marginalized people. We are facing increased racial violence and threats to LGBTQ+ life in the Church and in the world. 

While there is still much work to do, I am grateful to each and every one of you who has engaged locally, donated to RMN, participated in virtual events, followed us on social media, read our emails, and worked for LGBTQ+ justice in our Church. In this Pride season, we are exceedingly proud of this movement’s resilience and the ways in which LGBTQ+ people have been the Church in spite of the Church’s discrimination.

If you’d like to join me in celebrating Pride and my five-year anniversary here at RMN, please consider making a donation to RMN here.

Thank you for the opportunity of these last five years. And thank you for being the hope of the years to come.

Yours,

Jan Lawrence
Executive Director
Reconciling Ministries Network