I finally came out officially to the church as a gay United Methodist clergy, breaking the heavy closet doors open, and experiencing a surge of the Spirit of liberation.
I must say, it was such a fabulous way to come out: rocking a rainbow bow-tie, all the way from Mozambique during a Panel on Human Sexuality hosted by our denomination’s Connectional Table, and was telecast online! I invite you to watch it here.
My intention was clear: to share my story to inspire my LGBTQ community in The UMC to remain steadfast in their witness, and reach out to people of faith struggling with fully embracing and welcoming us in Christian fellowship. Let me share with you some details of, and lessons from, this watershed event in my faith journey.
Weeks prior to the trip, I came out to our bishops in the Philippines and informed them that I intend to share my faith journey and come out during the panel. My bishop, Rodolfo Juan – who just appointed me to serve with RMN – was gracious in his response and told me he was praying for me and wished me well. Since I was also representing our Philippines Central Conference, I asked him what our stance was as a central conference. I was pleasantly surprised to learn from him that our College of Bishops has mandated our national youth organization to spearhead open and honest conversations around human sexuality, expressing hope that the Spirit will imbue us with wisdom as we respond to the stories of LGBTQ persons in our church. Ah, I see an organizing opportunity there!
I was initially afraid to go to Mozambique and face the Connectional Table.
In addition to the long flights, I didn’t know if there would be other LGBTQ people in the conference room during the panel. I was right. I would have been the only out LGBTQ person there if not for the presence of Danilo da Silva, executive director of Lambda Mozambique, the LGBTQ advocacy group in that country. I connected with him weeks before my trip and invited him to attend the panel discussion. I introduced him in my opening words as my “witness.” I visited Lambda’s office and felt that it was the safest space for me as a gay man in Maputo. Danilo is not a professing Christian nor a part of any religious group, but the bond of solidarity and affirmation between LGBTQ persons and our allies exemplify the reach and power of grace.
In preparation for the panel, speakers were asked to prepare a brief personal introduction that touched on our common Wesleyan identity, and the core values we share as United Methodists across the Connection. I focused on Baptism, seeking to do no harm, and the Reformation’s openness to change when the Gospel calls for it. Responding from the Philippines’ ministry context, I centered on the family – we are part of the church family – as Filipinos generally have tightly-knit familial bonds.
I was asked if I was still a minister, after coming out to my bishop. I shared my experience of coming out to my district superintendent years ago. She was concerned about the effect of being an out gay pastor.
I said, “God knows if we are LGBTQ even if we are in the closet. This is not the Spirit’s problem, for many LGBTQ clergy and lay are blessed in the ministries they are engaged in. This is The UMC’s problem. The fruits of the Spirit in our witness – from our Baptism, confirmation, and our common ministry of reconciliation – flow from the power of grace.”
I purposely didn’t read advance copies of what other panelists would say, although I had a gut feeling of what their views were. I didn’t want to come to the table with any prejudice toward my co-panelists. I wanted to be surprised, and the Spirit of grace didn’t disappoint me. I have organized with labor unions and progressive community groups prior to working with Reconciling Ministries Network. Every time I had a chance to confront powerful and influential decision makers with truth and the call for justice during protests and tense one-on-one conversations, it is mostly expressed in the language of prophetic anger and rhetoric.
Coming out in Maputo was totally a different experience. It was all about grace and truth-telling.
When I heard the hurtful words coming from a brother in Christ telling me that I need to change my sexual orientation in order to be accepted by the church, I knew that I was surrounded by prayers that day because I felt peace in my soul. It was painful, but I harbored no anger at the person attacking me with dogma rooted in discrimination and exclusion. Responding in love is only possible when we channel the power of grace.
Up on a stage, seated between my co-panelists, and in front of bright lights, I tearfully recounted my own struggle with God: Why call me into ministry in a church that would not accept me for who I am, a gay man. Now I know why I was named Israel, for like Jacob, I wrestled with God and was transformed from hating who I was to celebrating my identity as a gay man. I shared that I have been asked many times why I remain in The UMC. I continue to stay because I love the church that brought me up in faith and taught me to be compassionate and prophetic. I stay because I want to see our church finally fulfill the promises it made to me at my Baptism.
God took the risk in loving me for who I am, and I am taking the same risk of loving the church, even if it is not yet fully open to me, and my LGBTQ family.
This leap of faith is an expression of the power of grace. On my way back to San Francisco, as I reflected on the overwhelming experience of love and grace as I opened the closet doors that shut me in for most of my life, I knew that I had left my heart in Maputo.
Featured image photo courtesy of UMNS