As a young queer and trans person seeking ordination in The United Methodist Church, I am incredibly blessed to have a wealth of role models to look to as I imagine the type of minister I hope to become. This may seem a strange thing to say in a denomination that has written discrimination against me and my queer family into its practices and policies. But this same discrimination also works to “separate the sheep from the goats,” so to speak.
As the denomination continues to wreak spiritual havoc on the lives of LGBTQ persons, those who choose to see Christ in us, treat us accordingly, and advocate with us for Love and Justice despite the consequences, are especially visible.
My deepest hope for the church doesn’t come in the form of legislative change, growing congregations, or financial stability. More than anything, it comes in the form of individual lay and clergy members who are absolutely sold on this whole following Jesus thing. They’re the type of people who don’t presume to have all the answers, who hunger for not mere inclusion but the Kindom itself, and who, out of their own free will, model vulnerability, courage, and radical faith in a God who promises their “labor is not in vain.” Despite everything else that goes on in The UMC, these people remind me what I’m called to, the type of ministry Jesus invited each of us to be a part of, and the purpose of this whole church endeavor in the first place.
One of many examples is Rev. Gil Caldwell. Ordained in a racially segregated Methodist Church in the 50s, his own commitment to the Gospel included the work of renewing the very church that discriminated against him. Forty-eight years ago, he and his colleagues stood at General Conference to protest as members of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal. That same General Conference would lead to the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church uniting to create The United Methodist Church (The UMC).
This shift put an end to the racially segregated central jurisdiction, but it was just one step in Rev. Caldwell’s life-long pursuit of church renewal.
Nearly half a century later, his ministry continues in his ongoing advocacy for racial equality, an end to sexism, and most recently, a strong and passionate call for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into the life of the church. His protest at the 1968 General Conference was just one of many, including his participation in the protests at GC 2000, where 191 advocates were arrested. Rev. Caldwell believes that the church will not be renewed “as long as it singles out any group of people as being ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ by nature of their very being – including their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
He is committed first and foremost, not to institutional preservation nor his isolated success or acceptance, but to the church actually being Church for the sake of the world.
When the denomination was rid of its explicit racial policies, Rev. Caldwell did not end his ministry of church renewal. The United Methodist Church was not suddenly the epitome of God’s Kindom. There was and is and always will be more of God’s work to be done within our own walls.
Regardless of the legislative results at this upcoming General Conference, even if by some strange miracle we achieved full inclusion of LGBTQ people, there would still be a need for church renewal.
Because Jesus is always calling our attention to the margins. The embrace of God is always wider than we imagine. And we the church, just like the rest of the world, will always be dependent on grace to recognize the ways we choose to harm rather than heal.
In my own experiences of discrimination in the church that I love and feel called to serve, I have been incredibly fortunate to build relationships with the likes of folks like Rev. Caldwell and so many others who have faithfully pursued justice in the face of their own oppression. Some have left the denomination to pursue ministry elsewhere, others feel called to remain – but all have reminded me of what is true no matter what. That God sustains us for the work we are called to wherever it takes place. That we are never alone on the journey. That there is always more love, more justice, more compassion to pursue, and likewise, that my own liberation is bound up in my neighbors’ and vice versa.
I can’t look to our institutional leadership for a reminder of what type of minister I hope to become, but I can look to the margins.
And in the margins of The United Methodist Church, I see some of the most faithful Christ followers I know. They inspire me. Their ministries give me hope. Their passionate pursuit of justice feeds my own.
I don’t mean to sound trite or dismissive of the great harm we have and continue to endure as LGBTQ people in The UMC. But I do mean to share the way that I refuse to cower under its threats or believe that hate and apathy in my church has anything do with the God of justice, love, and compassion.
The story of those in religious power who cling to stability, structure, and “success” at the expense of the marginalized is as old as time.
And thankfully, so is God’s promise that we have all that we need to be those who bring about the Kindom on earth – and one day, perhaps, even in our church. I see the truth of this promise in the lives of those like Rev. Gil Caldwell and so many other faithful clergy and lay advocates who are not here for mere institutional preservation – but for the Gospel’s sake. I see it every time someone decides it’s time to prioritize the needs of the marginalized, follow the lead of the Spirit, and take a risk for the sake of a suffering neighbor.
And there is nothing, nothing, nothing the institution can do that has the power to take that kind of hope away.
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