circa 1995

In 1995, the summer I left for college, I stood in the
pulpit at Tennessee Annual Conference to speak in support of a piece of
legislation I’d proposed. As a young person interested in studying the claims
of my denomination, I was tired of finding affirmations of all of God’s people
on one page, and the systemic withholding of privileges to LGBT folks on the
next page. I viewed it as hypocrisy, plain and simple. I’d proposed that the
conference perform a study of sorts, documenting each mention of human
sexuality in the Book of Discipline,
regardless of what I knew would be some apparent contradictions. That’s it. It
was essentially costless legislation. The conference secretary or a volunteer
could have pounded it out in a day. I stood there in that gigantic sanctuary
and watched the question get called and the vote taken. I watched the sea of
the white-haired faces of men in suits raise their hands….

 

************

I have a confession to make, dear reader: I was that guy. When you were going to youth
group just to have a good time hanging out with your friends and to slam down
slices of delivery pizza like it was your job, I was the one wondering why our
devotionals didn’t go deep enough. I was one of those lifetime United Methodist
laypersons. And I was only a teenager. My Sunday school attendance pin
collection would destroy yours. Trust me.

My father started taking my brother and me to church in
Nashville when I was very young, probably 5 or 6 years old. By the time I was a
young teenager, I had managed to become the youth representative on every
single committee in Methodism. Committees are one of the few things Methodists
seem to like even more than potlucks and event t-shirts.

Like any organization, the more deeply involved you become
and the higher you connect, the more faults you begin to see. In the early 90’s
the Tennessee Conference was run by older, straight, white men, much like the
rest of the denomination in America to this day. Add a healthy dose of Southern
conservative Bible literalism, and you’ve got yourself a pretty dangerous place
for diversity of sociology or theology.

And yet, I can point to that place and that time as the
roots of a free intellectual and theological questioning process. My parents,
both teachers, taught me to care for those around me, and to never accept a
dusty handed-down belief without wiping it off a bit first. The neighborhood in
whic I grew up was surprisingly diverse in many ways that lots of suburban kids
didn’t get to experience. My adult mentors in the Nashville District were
incredibly supportive, honest people whom I could trust. And by the time I was
a senior, I had met several gay men and their straight allies doing life
together at a state university in Tennessee.

Let me say that again: Though I probably couldn’t name it at
the time, my first experience of true adult Christian community was visiting a
Wesley Foundation attended by gay men and the supportive straight community
around them. One of the places they felt safe to be themselves was in a United
Methodist organization.

************

Back to the ‘95 conference. The legislation was voted down,
without even a need to count votes. There was maybe a third or a quarter of
those assembled to vote in favor, all the rest hardly even thought before they
voted no. There was no debate.

I was crushed. I felt like I was using my voice, the one
that even our bishop listened to, even though I was so young, to speak for my
friends who loved their church, their community, and themselves. And I had
failed them.

Two years later, I had left the church completely.

As of a few years ago, thanks in no small part to my
incredible wife, I found my way back to the church, and eventually back to the
UMC.

Somewhere in our denomination right now, there is a young
person like I was, hoping that our denomination will catch up to where the
Spirit is heading. S/he has tons of friends who aren’t like him/her and sees
Jesus in them every day. S/he was born around the time that I felt like my
church was failing my friends. What church will we be for that young person?
What inheritance will s/he receive from us?

But, those hands who voted yes! That third of the body who
thought the idea of self-examination was a positive thing! There have always
been prophets who can point over the river and describe the other side, even
though others do not wish to look.

I hope to our dear God that we claim that mantle. We can’t
just blog about it. We can’t just share articles about it. We can’t just talk
to people who agree with us. We have to be the Church, the entire Church…the
church that was just starting to listen 18 years ago.

Let’s talk. Let’s listen. If you can’t hear the Spirit, shut
your mouth and raise your hand.

Kenneth J. Pruitt

Kenneth J. Pruitt is a teacher by trade, and the director
of the volunteer program at a nonprofit. He is proud of St. Louis, his adopted
home. Sometimes he blogs. Sometimes he tweets. His wife is far more attractive and intelligent
than he. He loves what you’ve done with your hair.)

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