Two years ago, I wrote the below to speak to the North Georgia delegation. Before every General Conference, North Georgia has listening sessions, where clergy and laity can opt to speak to the delegation, without question or debate, on matters that call to their heart. It popped up in my Facebook Memories this week, so I shared it. Here’s what I said at Listening Session #2, 23 April 2016, Dunwoody UMC.

Grace and peace to you, in the name of Jesus the Christ.

 

I’d like to first, thank you for your time and your energy as you go forth as our delegation from North Georgia. Having been a volunteer in both Fort Worth and Tampa, I know how exhausting this work is, and you aren’t even there yet.

 

I would like to address phrases you will hear a lot while in Portland, but I’m going to narrow them down to single words. “They.” “Homosexuality.” “Incompatible.” “Sin.” “Issue.” “Abomination.”

 

I’d like you to look at me. Take a good look. What do you see? A woman. Middle-aged. A shoe queen. On the basis of my wedding ring, married. On the basis of my stole, a Reconciling United Methodist.

 

Now, think of what you know about me. Outspoken. Beloved child of God. One who loves God, Jesus, and the UMC. Intelligent. Cradle Methodist. Mother. Wife. Breast cancer survivor. One who believes a diverse range of perspectives makes us the best Church we can be. Sister. United States Marine. Ex-wife. Member at St. Mark. Involved United Methodist. Member of RMN. Volunteer for inclusion at the last two General Conferences. A connector, with friends both progressive and even Good News members. Lesbian.

 

You might not put all of those descriptors in the same order as I just did, but you would probably put my sexual orientation pretty far down the list, if you listed it at all. Having said that, I ask that in the coming weeks as you finish your preparatory work, you continue to keep that word way down the list.

 

I ask as you first enter into your committee meetings in Portland, meeting your fellow delegates face-to-face, let it – lesbian, my sexual orientation – begin to move upward. When in heated discussion, where “issue, they, homosexuals, incompatlbe” – the various words I first spoke – get used, whether in writing (petitions) or verbally, picture me in your head. Attach my image and my name. Can you do that? Will you do that?

 

I am not an “issue.” Like you, I am a beloved child of God. I am not a topic of debate. Like you, I am a faithful United Methodist, upholding our Church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

 

Back to attaching my name and image when you hear and participate in discussions and voting. How does “Julie is incompatible with Christian teaching” sound? Let’s pause there for a moment and think about our history.

 

That General Conference 44 years ago, right here in Atlanta. 1972, where the incompatibility clause was birthed from the floor and attached to 161F. Some of you might have been there that day. Some of you were not yet born. All of us, to this day, were and are affected by it, whether you agree with it or not. That phrase has divided families and the UMC. The Church missed the mark so clearly identified in Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus’ words used here from The Message:

 

‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’

 

Ah, grace. Grace. A word so wondrous that United Methodists recognize three different types of it. Grace and the incompatibility clause and its related barrier language just doesn’t work well for us individually or as a Church. Consider these phrases: Julie and Vanessa’s marriage is an abomination. Julie’s love for her wife is a sin. It’s a good thing Julie wasn’t allowed to be married at St. Mark by Beth, even though it was a fine thing for her to get married at Beth Eden by Carl when she married Jon. Julie would be wasting her time going to Candler in pursuit of her call to ordained ministry in the UMC because we’d never approve her candidacy. Julie’s so-called marriage makes a mockery of my own. 

 

Do these phrases sit right with you? Is there any grace in these phrases? They sure sound to me like someone burned out on religion would say them, not a follower of Jesus, and certainly not a member of the body of faith called United Methodist. Are you comfortable with the barriers the Book of Discipline has when you attach my name to them? Or the name of any LGBTQ persons you know? Your family members, congregants, neighbors, teachers, police, and coworkers. I can assure you, it is we who have a much harder time admitting the truth to ourselves and then to others in a world ready to condemn us.

 

To those who say LGBTQ marriage or LGBTQ clergy will destroy the Church, I say you are mistaken. 

 

There are many legally married LGBTQ couples to be found within our congregations across the country. So too, there are many LGBTQ clergy to be found within our congregations across the country. In both categories, some are “out” and others are generally unknown. Neither are harming the church and certainly not destroying it. It is the reaction to both becoming known that causes our problems. People formerly loved by their neighbors, peers, congregants suddenly shunned or worse. Love is not a sin. Love is so much more than sex. Think about your own relationships. The smile across a room. The helping hand with dinner clean up. Caring for them when sick. Teaching your child to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. Grieving with your spouse over the death of a parent. The swelling of your heart when you think of your spouse. All of the things that we know are love far exceed sex alone.

 

Add to this, changes in secular laws in states heavily populated by United Methodists. The so-called “bathroom bills” and anti-LGBTQ laws allowing discrimination based on religious beliefs recently passed in NC, MS, and TN, and narrowly avoided right here in Georgia, thanks to Gov. Deal’s veto. While they are too recent to affect General Conference, I have no doubt that that here in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, their effects will be felt. Do we really think the Church needs bathroom monitors? Do we want the greeters at our doors deciding this couple or that one should be barred from entering solely because of the greeter’s personal beliefs about same-gender couples? What if the pastor disagrees? What if a member within earshot disagrees as well? Would the couple being turned away really even hear, “Wait, wait, I want you here” from another voice? Which side would you believe? How do these actions exemplify the UMC’s phrase, “all individuals are of sacred worth” or Jesus’ command to love one another? They don’t. But with the passage of these laws, similar actions might soon be coming to Lake Junaluska or a church near you.

 

How did we ever move so far? From “A Future With Hope” to “Therefore Go” – an action already being evidenced by Bishop Scott Jons’ words on April 5th to Rev. Cynthia Meyer and the congregation of Edgerton UMC in Bishop Jones’ so-called Just Resolution proposal. Again, where is the grace in this? Where is the love? I, for one, fail to see any signs of Jesus’ directive to love one another in this proposal. Do we all need to agree when it comes to homosexuality and the life of the church? No, of course not. Then again, the General Conference could not even come to a consensus on that – Paragraph 161F – after more than an hour of debate in 2012. That’s just ludicrous. We couldn’t agree to change our wording in Paragraph 161F to say that United Methodists have different opinions about homosexuality and to urge unity over division and respect for co-existence. We so clearly do. The graceful way forward would be to say we are not of one mind because that’s also the truthful way. I pray we can do better in 2016.

 

So, I ask you again, to think of me and picture me in your head as you discuss and vote. A real person, a Christian and a life-long fellow United Methodist. Someone who is affected by these petitions in a way that you are not. Ask yourself if you feel you are upholding the promises you make in your baptismal covenant when your minds close as some children grow into and acknowledge their sexual orientation, whether young or later as an older adult and if your vote reflects that promise. If so, is it well with your soul? If not, please prayerfully consider voting to remove all barrier language as you contemplate, discuss, and debate such wording in committee sessions and during plenary votes. 

 

Julie A. Arms Meeks
Laity, St. Mark UMC – Atlanta Emory District
23 April 2016

So, here it is, May 2018. Both a lot and nothing has changed since I had the opportunity to speak the above. General Conference 2016 delegates didn’t even get to vote on any of this. The Council of Bishops created a Commission on a Way Forward to look at the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and church unity. A special General Conference has been set for February 2019 to address the Commission’s proposal(s) and Council of Bishops’ recommendation(s).

Two Colloquies have been held; I attended the first at Candler School of Theology, entitled “The Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness.” Human sexuality, in this context, as we all know, is code for LGBTQ persons. That’s ludicrous, because the Book of Discipline, in the Social Principles section entitled “The Nurturing Community” has a subsection devoted to “Human Sexuality.” We read: “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.” Do you see anything in those two sentences that singles out LGBTQ persons or excludes heterosexuals? I don’t. Yet the first Colloquy, by the title alone, tried to make it about LGBTQ persons and our effect on the Church, when human sexuality includes every human.

After two days of listening to papers presented and conversations around and about us, I was shaking with anger and frustration, feeling no more worthy than a pebble in a shoe – a major irritant, but one that could simply be removed and all would be well with the Church. Unexpectedly, I had the opportunity to make brief remarks regarding my observations in the wrap-up session.

I clearly told the assembled group that “this is my Church, too. You’ve spent days talking about me/us without including me/us. And you are putting the blame for our current stalemate and impending split on me/us. We are the Church. This is my Church, too!”

It was the Holy Spirit guiding my voice and thoughts in those few minutes, where to this day I cannot remember all that I said, but I do remember that I expanded on what one of the presenters said: “At the table, on their own terms: LGBTQ persons and people from Africa.” We are not at the table. Look around this room – do you see us or any number of people from continental Africa? You don’t. We are the church, too. You talk about us but we are not part of the conversation. You need to include us. We are the church.

In a moment of rare and highly unexpected grace, Assistant General Secretary, Global Education, Amos Nascimento called for a prayer of repentance. Now that’s grace! That’s a person seeing me and acknowledging me as Julie. That’s .a person following the example of Jesus. 

I’ll also forever be grateful to friends Leigh Goodrich and Jeremy Smith sitting close by and reaching out while I was overwhelmed by the power of the moment, and to Love Prevails sending me a beautiful thank you note addressed to Julie, Witness of God.

Moments like these don’t come along often, and for many people, not at all. Our LGBTQ siblings often leave the Church in silence, slinking away as if they’ve done something wrong for being themselves. Friends don’t do this to friends and the institutional church shouldn’t either! Call them by their name! Stand up and be yourself, make the Church see who you are. This is our church, too. 

Just like a pregnancy, we have about 9 months to grow into ourselves before the special General Conference in February. Make sure your delegates know who you are. By name. By family. As faithful United Methodists. As beloved children of God. Use the title (and meaning) of the best song I’ve heard in years, from The Greatest Showman, “This is Me!”

Julie A. Arms Meeks

Julie A. Arms Meeks and Vanessa Meeks met at and are members of St. Mark UMC, a Reconciling congregation in Atlanta. They were married in a beautiful landmark hotel but not at St. Mark. God and love will always find a way.
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