I was born and raised a United Methodist. I can quote John Wesley, just as well as I can quote passages of the Bible. I spent every Wednesday evening, Sunday Morning and Sunday Evening at my home church and many days in between volunteering. I was an avid member of every Sunday School class, kids club, bible school, youth group and any committee that they would let me join and put my two cents in (even if they didn’t use that information for making decisions). I loved mission trips and fundraisers. I was always part of every church play, liturgical dance, choir and event that was available. I was on every district committee available for a teen and started many outreach events that were pivotal for our small committee in Southwestern Virginia in the late 90s.

While the other UMCs were doing the same UMYF events from the 70’s and 80’s we created city wide ecumenical events that brought awareness to hunger and disabilities. Yep, I was that kid. And… in a very conservative church which wasn’t always very supportive of what we were doing.

Very early on, I realized that there were a lot of teens that had never been to church or who did not feel welcome there. So, as I made friends with them, my mom would load them up in our large 8 person passenger van and they would all go with us to church on Wednesday night dinners and Sunday for youth group. Most of these kids would be considered outcasts. They were thinkers, artists and extremely intelligent. As each found the love of Christ, they brought great gifts to our group and the differences they presented brought wholeness that we’d never experienced. We roped in people who were amazing and talented.

One of these individuals, which was a very close friend of mine, felt the call to the ministry and spending several years with our group, praying and reading scripture like mad. This is a huge decision for any individual and he did not take it lightly. As a senior in high school, he was making decisions for his future and decided to sit down with our Senior Pastor to discuss the next steps he needed to take regarding taking the steps to follow the call to the ministry. As he was discussing this heartfelt desire and push he felt he from God, Pastor Stan interrupted him, saying, “Aren’t you gay?” My friend answered, “Yes.” And the Pastor continued, “Well, then, you will just have to choose something else then, because God would not call someone who is gay to the ministry. I’m sorry, it is not compatible with Christian teaching and you cannot be a minister if you are gay.”

(enter your gasp here)…..Yes, a Pastor actually said this to my friend. This has weighed heavy on me all these years. That friend struggled greatly with this and has never quite recovered from this. He did floundered with “what to do with his life” and I believe he still does struggle. He obtained a degree from a University that he doesn’t use and has never felt accepted by the Church since.

Sadly, this incident, ruined his outlook all together.

It took me many years to re-enter that same church after I heard this from my friend. How could a place where I was nurtured and loved so much, turned someone away like this? How? So…skip ahead 4 or 5 years. I’m a young mother with a little boy.  It wasn’t a planned pregnancy and the father, which was my first love, is out of the picture. I am raising my son on my own, as a single parent, and my child has been diagnosed with autism. He is 3 and non-verbal and I am completely engrossed in this diagnosis. I’m struggling with all that being a special needs parent calls me to be and at this time, I could use the love of a good Christian community more than anything. I’ve been invited by an old friend from my Home Church to come to a Bluegrass Music Event that they are holding. She tells me it’ll be a relaxed event and he’d be able to get up and move. “No pressure.”

We decide to go. At the beginning of the service, the new Pastor says, “If the spirit moves you, get up and dance.” It isn’t two songs into the music that my beautiful child, makes his way out into the aisle and starts stimming. His stim presents with a hand-flap and walk/run back and forth, back and forth. He does this through one song and is completely enjoying himself. At the end of the song a lady behind us taps on my mother’s shoulder, as she’s come along with us. She tells her, “If you cannot control that child you will need to leave. He is disrupting the service.” With tears in my eyes, we pick him up and leave. Those words stung more than I ever imagined. I could never imagined that such a thing could have happened, but it did. We were not welcome there either. Plain and simple.

It took me a few more years to find a Church that was accepting of my sometimes squawking, flapping child being with me in a service, but luckily, such a haven does exist in this world. The wonderful little church that became our family/community allowed me the honor to be a volunteer youth leader for several years and I had the great responsibility of leading 10 teens in their relationship with Christ. I felt God calling me to let these teens know that no matter what, they were loved and accepted for who they were. I felt that message coming back to me over and over again. Of course, we would have devotions on a lot of things, but at least once of month, acceptance of others and God’s grace and unending love came up.

Several years later they all are all in their early 20’s, in college or just out of college.  Out of those 10 teens, 4 of them identify as LGBTQ. What are the odds? Did God send those specific teens to me at that time in that small town for a reason? Did he know that they needed those continued messages of acceptance and to know that God loves and accepts them, just as they are? When you are in a small, southern town that doesn’t exactly move forward with the times as quickly as one would hope, maybe God was placing them in my path so that they would find a message of hope, grace and acceptance. Looking back, it seems like complete synchronicity for sure and I feel so thankful that they all were gifted to me at that time. I learned so much from all of them, more so, I’m sure then they did from me.

In May 2014, we moved to Charleston, SC, to find better autism services for that child years ago who caused such a stink in that music service. He was now 11 years old and had aged out of all of the standard services that the Southwestern Virginia area had to offer. With a 4 year old little brother in tow, we were so excited to be moving to the Holy City. It seemed like there was a Church on every corner and surely we’d have no problem finding one that was open and welcoming to ALL people, right? Well, here came another struggle. My two sons and I church shopped for two years going from church to church. At first I thought it might be alright to try something new and we tried out the United Church of Christ and found it so opening and welcoming. They had already broken through all of the equality barriers that we are facing The UMC.

It was diverse and pretty fantastic. However, I felt immediately that all the work had been done. And being a Reconciling United Methodist, I couldn’t give up the good fight and walk away. There was still work that needed to be done. I wanted to stay within The United Methodist Church. I kept telling myself I would find a church that was open to the reconciling ministry and clearly stating that they were affirming and welcoming to all. Yes, our motto states “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” but, I’ve found, United Methodists to be, anything but open. We have a book that states what we are….that is that. Period. We like our rules (methods) and it is terribly difficult to change them. So we kept visiting, searching and I kept talking to everyone I met at each church, hoping that one would be “it.”

After the 2016 Annual Conference, I, like many of my fellow RUM’s felt lost. There was much talk about a schism in The UMC. Of course, sending the LGBTQ issue to a committee only delays the issue, but it doesn’t stop it. The reconciling issues are not new. They have been going on for 42 years. But for most of those years they were silenced much more swiftly. Yes, The UMC is antiquated and it doesn’t move swiftly.

After mulling over Annual Conference and the decisions that came out of it, I wrote a thoughtful letter to all of the Charleston County District UMC clergy (approx. 70 Pastors) with my story and telling them that I felt that God was moving me to help the LGBTQ Community at this time and the Reconciling Community in The UMC. I stated that “I felt one of the greatest ways that The United Methodist Church can move into this generation is to become a universal reconciling and welcoming Church. We are missing out on so many people in our communities, specifically the LGBTQ community who are wanting a place, whom do not have it. We are turning them away with our doctrine and are generally being unwelcoming.”

From this letter, I received responses from only 2 pastors. Yes, only 2.

Some might see this a defeat. However, I do not at all. I see this as the greatest gift. The response I received helped us, finally, find our place! On November 21, 2016, my boys and I joined North Charleston United Methodist Church after 2 ½ years of praying, hoping and searching. I was so happy to speak in front of the congregation and tell my story. In that testimony, I was able to share who lucky we felt that all were truly welcomed there without judgment and how blessed I felt that neither of my children will ever hear that that they are “incompatible” with the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

Yes, it may seem like it would be easy for a White, Cis-Gendered, Straight Woman to find a church home, but the struggle is real when you want to be an advocate for true equality for all people. It’s easy to say, “This problem doesn’t affect me.” But, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” – Spock.

So, ask yourself this advent as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child:

“Is your Church loving and welcoming?”

“Is it the same as it was when you were a child?”

Sometimes a Church “being the same” seems comforting to you, but can be hurtful to someone else. In The United Methodist Church, our motto states that ‘our doors are open,” but they simply are not.

They are still closed to so many. When our Book of Discipline states that many wonderful and amazing people are “incompatible with Christian teachings,” we are not leaving room in the Inn for our neighbors whom Christ directed us to love. It’s time to fix that. I believe it can and will be done, simply because over 2000 years ago Jesus told us to by his simple command to “love your neighbor.”

Your Inn is not too full.

Sarah Fitzellen

Sarah lives in Mt. Pleasant, SC with two boys and her life partner, Matt. She spends most of her time at sporting events with her boys and advocating for equality for all peoples, especially the LGBTQ community and individuals with special needs. Her dream is that all people feel welcome and included in The United Methodist Church

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