In Acts chapter 6, the early church leaders in Jerusalem faced a dilemma. The Greek- speaking Jewish Christian leaders complained that their widows, unlike the Aramaic- speaking Jewish Christian widows, were being neglected in the distribution of food. The church leaders met and promptly decided to appoint “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom” to attend to the needs of this neglected group.
Addressing the needs of the marginalized was also the intention of Resolution Relating to Radical Welcome 2017 -11 presented to the 2017 Eastern PA Conference gathering in Oaks, Pennsylvania on June 17. The resolution, submitted by Rev. Herb Snyder, called on the conference to encourage Eastern PA churches to practice “radical welcome” to LGBTIA persons by holding special events on the Sunday closest to the National Coming Out Day in October. It also encouraged churches to offer special prayers for LGBTQIA persons and their families. Finally, it asked the conference to invite “the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania and other interested churches to represent the Conference as a welcoming presence at Pride Parades and Outfests in their communities.” The resolution was prefaced with statistics citing that as many as 43% of homeless teens identify as a LGBT and that between 30% and 40% of LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
At the 2016 conference gathering, a similar resolution passed with relative ease. This was not to be the case in 2017. Multiple individuals approached the conference floor mikes to offer amendments. Some amendments suggested removing the specific references to Pride celebrations and National Coming-Out Day.
“Shouldn’t we welcome gay people in our churches all the time,” reasoned one speaker. “Why the need to mention these specific dates and events?”
Another argued that that resolution itself was unnecessary because “we are called to love everyone. All lives matter to God. Why do we need to single out gay people?”
Yet another said that the church calendar was already too full and there simply wasn’t enough room for more “special Sundays.”
In amendment after amendment, specific references to Outfest, Pride events, and even “Reconciling” United Methodists were stripped from the resolution. Many of those offering amendments suggested that they were seeking to improve the resolution by making it less controversial and more broadly appealing.
Whatever the intention of those proposing amendments, the effect was to send a message to LGBTQIA persons that their events did not matter.
The passage of the amendments communicated that the church was not comfortable with gay and trans people who “come out” and who reconcile their sexual orientation and gender identity with their faith in Christ. In the words of one LGBTQIA ally, “Every time someone would offer another amendment to the resolution, it felt like someone was taking a dull knife, and scraping off my skin, little by little.” Given the watering down of the resolution, the Reconciling United Methodist leadership of Eastern PA made the collective decision from the floor to withdraw the resolution. When we did so, there was an audible gasp in the room.
Many seemed unaware of the pain experienced by a marginalized group in our midst.
In the passage in Acts, there were no pious proclamations that “all widows matter.” Jerusalem’s church leaders responded to specific need of a particularly vulnerable community, and took direct action. This is the kind of leadership that The United Methodist Church needs today. Despite the efforts to diminish real and tangible efforts to reach out to LGBTQIA persons, many church members moved by the Spirit attended the Philadelphia Pride Parade held the Sunday after annual conference. Joining the procession of United Methodists in the parade was our very own Eastern PA bishop, Peggy Johnson. As Bishop Johnson has recently and rightly stated, “we are mandated by our Discipline to be in ministry with all people, and all means all.”
Although the floor debate over the resolution relating to radical welcome was painful to many LGBTQIA persons, I pray that it can be a teachable moment, in which we remember that all lives do indeed matter, but there are some groups who have been alienated from the church and need to know of God’s unconditional love more than ever.