I caught Helen on the first leg of her journey from home in North Carolina to Mobile, Alabama. North Carolina is where Helen resides with her wife, whom she endearingly calls Mrs. Lovely, and their dog, Bella. The traffic had lengthened Helen’s drive considerably, but she was determined to be in a church where she was certain to meet new friends, eager learners, and maybe some pushback.
This is one of countless visits Helen has made in the past four years around the 437,195 square miles of the Southeastern Jurisdiction. In her travels, Helen deepens relationships with individuals and churches wrestling with LGBTQ inclusion and in different stages of the Reconciling process. She calls herself a cheerleader for the Reconciling movement in the South, and she’s an excellent cheerleader. She’s relentless on the road, deeply empathetic, and adamant that French toast is a savory food best eaten with ketchup.
Wherever she goes, she brings a small figurine of John Wesley on horseback — reminding her of the roots of the Methodism, here and in England. Here, Helen talks to us about what she does at RMN and why she does it.
What does the Southeastern Regional Organizer do?
I work to encourage and equip RUMs in my jurisdiction to do the work of inclusion in the Church. Most of my time is spent encouraging people, cheering them on, and giving them a friendly nudge to pursue the things they’ve been talking about doing. A lot of that happens online and through video calls and phone calls. While the numerical goal is to get more Reconciling Communities, it takes a while for that to happen. A lot of my time with local churches is spent helping people move through that process.
And then at the Conference level, I help local RMN teams provide a presence and witness across their conference, especially at Annual Conference each year. And in this season especially, I’m doing quite a lot of travel to reach out to delegates, have conversations with them, and do my best to help them understand the experience of LGBTQ United Methodists in the church.
There are no average days! Every day has a different focus. I schedule phone calls and follow up with what’s going on in people’s communities. I travel to meetings with individuals or groups. And emails, lots and lots of emails, and Facebook messages and texts… pretty much every way you can imagine that communication happens.
Why do you stick with the work, especially when it gets tough?
Before I got into this work, I was in the corporate world and living in Provincetown — the gayest place on the planet. At some point, I felt that God was calling me to do something else. That call was triggered by an event where some kids were trying to set up a GSA at a high school in East Tennessee. There were people of faith in that community doing harm to queer kids because of bad theology.
I had to make my own journey from bad theology to affirming theology. If I could make that journey away from bad theology, then maybe there was something I could offer. I want to help UMCs in the South to become places where kids can be welcomed, affirmed, celebrated, and nurtured as the whole human beings that they are.
The Reconciling family in the Southeast has the most extraordinary people who are holding a light of hope out in very hard places. There’s definitely a greater number of places that are non-affirming in the South. You swim in the soup of assumed heteronormativity.
In most places, when you peel beneath the layers, there’s kindness there. Everyone’s got an LGBTQ family member or a friend, now. There’s a tremendous amount of potential if more people would connect with each other and, together, give each other the courage to speak out in places where few people are willing to speak out. You don’t have to dip very far beneath the surface to find people who are kind and compassionate.
What advice do you have for someone reconciling their faith and sexuality?
Reconciling faith and sexuality can be a very long journey. I was working for RMN, for an LGBTQ faith-based organization. And still, there was that voice on my shoulder saying, “What if you’re wrong?” And that was years into my journey.
So my advice is to give yourself a lot of grace, have a lot of conversations, and be constantly open to having your mind and heart moved in new directions. The voice was finally silenced for me in 2016. I learned: how could something that supposedly emanates from a God that we believe to be good and loving create so much harm in people’s lives? How could an un-affirming interpretation of Scripture be of God if the fruit in the lives of LGBTQ people has been so much full of harm and death and destruction and broken relationships?
Where do you see RMN in five years?
This is so important! There’s a sense that, if the church makes a good choice in February, then there’ll be less need for RMN. And that is so not true. It took 28 years for a woman to be ordained in Mississippi! RMN’s fundamental work – our core work – is to continue as long as it takes to help people in The UMC take this journey toward inclusion for the LGBTQ community. And that work that doesn’t have a foreseeable end at the moment.
Sometimes it happens organically, but most of the time it needs the cheerleading, educating, equipping, training community that RMN provides to keep it moving forward. We’re still going to be pushing against an environment that resists our message. The work we do now is the work we are going to have to do.
What advice do you have for someone feeling hopeless with the state of the Church right now? How can they make a difference?
In every congregation, even in the most conservative places, people are having inclusive thoughts. They are wondering, “Is how I’ve thought about what the Bible says right? Is there a different way of interpreting those scriptures?”
Go find the other people having inclusive thoughts. Go share your story. I told my story at a very conservative church in Virginia Beach that wanted all views represented. And I had a line of people afterward telling me their stories: stories about their aunt, their brother. Those folks are everywhere. It’s so important to keep speaking up. Keep finding the other folks.
At the moment, there’s so much imbalance against those who are willing to speak out, but that’s because the people in the pews with the questions are being silenced.
If we want to see change, that means we have to get up and be willing to open our mouths. Reach out to someone by sliding across the pew and saying, “I read this article,” or “Have you been following the news about this?”
Take the risk. You might be surprised at what you find. We don’t get to see change unless we take risks. And anyone can do that. If you’re going to say something about what you hope for The UMC: now’s the time. We can’t delay. This is it.
I know there are many people who’ve been doing this work for decades, and I’m constantly aware that I’m walking the paths that other people have been walking for a very long time. This February, we don’t actually move the train. We either point the train in the direction of hope, or we put rocket fuel on the train and point that train down the track of extreme fundamentalist views of faith. Will we cement the legacy of The UMC as the church that was so determined to take a particular perspective about people that they laid it all on that one thing? Will that be our epitaph? “We pointed the train the wrong way.”
So, everyone has a part to play. Not everyone has to drive to Mobile, Alabama. But everyone can put their rainbow pin on and be visible, because if you aren’t visible, people won’t know. Then turn to the person next to you in the pew. Invite them to a conversation. That’s it.
- What to Do With a Church - February 19, 2019
- Circuit Ryding with Helen: What Does it Take to Build a Movement? - October 15, 2018
- A Personal Interview w. Executive Director Jan Lawrence - September 26, 2018