In the time it normally takes to forget half of what is experienced at most conferences, I remain buoyed by the power of the “Gathering At The River” that began two weeks ago as I write this. I cannot recommend more highly that one plan to attend the next such assembly which qualifies for clergy CEU. Organization and hospitality for the event were five-star, A+, top shelf. Superlatives to all involved!
I am in my 47th year of ministry, currently serving as senior pastor of Johnson Memorial UMC, Huntington, WV. Huntington is in southern West Virginia at the western point of our state where three jurisdictions (NE, SE, NC) converge at a point on the Ohio River. We affiliated with RMN in July after a two year discernment period. We are West Virginia’s second RM congregation. I have long been an ally of people who identify as LGBTQ, reinforced now personally with a grandson who is gay. At “GATR,” LGBTQ people and their families were in a most safe place along with friends and allies. Emotion ran the gamut.
We sensed clearly the pain caused by the hurt and harm, threats and fears inflicted not only by society in general but most grievously by the church we and they love.
We sensed the joy and openness that comes with being surrounded by friends and allies, most notably in worship. We sensed the frustration, energy, anger, and hope that were present. Worship was inspiring, led by Marcia McFee and Mark Miller. Preaching was outstanding. Bible study with Grace Imathiu was moving. Peter Storey was with my congregation the weekend before GATR and preached Sunday morning. At GATR, he said,
“I am convinced that the evils of apartheid in South Africa would have ended 10 years sooner but for the cowardice in the (Methodist) pulpits” in an analogy with the present status in The United Methodist Church regarding our LGBTQ siblings.
Looking at the 700+ folks assembled, he said, “I am looking at the future of The United Methodist Church.” He added, “The Holy Spirit will have its way. It will use God’s church to change the world, or it will use the world to change the church.”
Bishop Minerva Carcaño, echoing Storey, said “The Holy Spirit will do its work in spite of us.” In perhaps her strongest statement, she said, “If the Council of Bishops does not lead, the Holy Spirit will raise up others to lead. If those with credentials do not speak, the Holy Spirit will raise others to speak.” I am concerned about this. Our Council of Bishops is bungling this issue, which as others have said, God has already settled. If they do not step out to lead, strongly and lovingly, they will be left watching from the sidelines as others, with the power of the Holy Spirit of God, end the harmful oppression and discrimination contained in church law.
Dear Bishops: I repeat my earlier appeals. PLEASE declare clearly and firmly what is right. Declare that our Book of Discipline is wrong and refuse to enforce these unjust and sinful bits of church law. Ask the Judicial Council to sustain you and to set the harmful and discriminatory language aside. Carcaño, when asked what the church was going to do assuming the Supreme Court of the US approved same gender marriage, quipped: “We’ll have to catch up.” Bishop Melvin Talbert, a hero in the cause of righteousness in The UMC, said, “Discrimination is discrimination wherever it is. Being a bishop does not exempt me from making that statement.” “God does not intend for us to be in chains, but to be free,” Talbert said. “The paragraphs that are derogatory toward our LGBTQ siblings in The Discipline are chains that must be broken.” He added, “The General Conference is the ‘last word’; but for me, the last word is what I have to say when I face God.”
In our baptismal vows, the second promise answers the question, “Do you accept the freedom God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Talbert noted that the Church is asked to renew its vow at a baptism and charged the church to be faithful to that promise. “The way our church treats LGBTQ people is oppression, and we are called by our baptism to reject it.” Boom!
In her sermon, Sara Thompson Tweedy said, “Bigotry is as bigotry does.” In a direct swing at UM bishops, she said, “With friends like that, who needs Westboro Baptist Church.” This was followed by a holy moment. Almost immediately after Rev. Tweedy’s sermon, Bishop Jim Dorff of the SW Texas Conference was present to offer greetings. I do not know the whole story, but he is not regarded as a friend of LGBTQ folk. Timing could not have been planned, but perhaps the hand of God was in this. While he was speaking, about 25 people knelt at the prayer rail as a silent, prayerful witness, including Tweedy. He said to her, “I needed to hear what you had to say this morning. Thank you.”
There were a few shouts of protest at his presence, but most were graceful and prayerful beyond imagination. One woman held a poster right next to him as he spoke. The poster read, “Bishop Dorff – not a friend of LGBTQ people.” There was a palpable feeling in the sanctuary of the harm and deep hurt that the church I love has caused our gay and trans friends and a most graceful few moments during which spontaneous songs emerged – “We Shall Overcome”, “Surely, the Presence of the Lord Is In This Place”, and others.
There could be no more holy place for me to be that morning than in the sanctuary of Travis Park UMC, downtown San Antonio.
I will soon be 67, and from surveying the 700+ folk who were gathered, I was near the average age. The good news: younger people are already aligned with this movement and now more and more boomers and folk older than I are sympathetic. This offers great hope for the church I love. The bad news: younger people who are already at home with this issue are staying away or leaving in droves and it may soon become too late to reclaim them if they have either moved to an accepting tradition or just plain dropped out. More good news: more and more people who are family members and allies, along with our LGBTQ friends, are taking much more visible stances.
The next time such a gathering is held, I’ll be sure that some continuing education funds or accountable reimbursement funds or personal budget dollars are available. Won’t you do this, too? And bring with you not only friends and allies but also those who might be questioning where they stand – surely their hearts will be strangely warmed.
Featured photo courtesy of Judi Price