Written for First United Methodist Church, Oneonta, NY as they approach their 25th anniversary of their decision to become a Reconciling congregation.
It was a spectacularly broken time in my life. I had just stopped drinking. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of nine years and my godson’s sister had just died at age 5 from a rare pediatric cancer. I was reading in the Big Book so much about God and I told my therapist I wanted more God. I came to First United Methodist Church, Oneonta, NY in October 2009 at the suggestion of my therapist.
Very Manhattan Jewish therapist, she said, “Try a church.”
There seemed to be an implied “duh” in her words. Returning to a church was ironic because so much of my drinking was in attempt to quell the dissonance of my spiritual longing with a sense of rejection within the church as a gay person. I remembered FUMC’s rainbow flags at the corner of Church and Chestnut. I had not been a part of a church in 17 years—since I abandoned faith to sort out my sexuality.
When I showed up at FUMC on a Sunday morning for the late service, I felt welcomed. I saw joy in people’s faces. I saw gay people in leadership. It was October
and you were just beginning to pass clipboards for service commitments for Christmas. Pastor Teressa talked about a Blue Christmas service of healing for people grieving during the auspicious but dark time of the year. I knew that was what I would be doing that Christmas: Grieving. So I put my name on the clipboard. I figured if I volunteered to set up some chairs and light some candles, I’d actually show up, and that would be good for me.
I was surprised when a few weeks later I was invited to a planning meeting for the service. And when I say planning, I mean the process of constructing the liturgy: picking the music, what would be done in the service, prayers to be said, and sacred acts to be completed. To my surprise, I was asked to participate in these decisions. I was prepared, as I said to light candles, set up chairs. Instead, for the service, I was asked to anoint with oil and pray with those seeking healing. Right up front.
Ministering as it were. Me: the sick and the needy.
My daily prayer in early sobriety was the St. Francis Prayer.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
What I felt within me was all the stuff on the left. What God allowed to flow through me was the stuff on the right. At least that’s the way I felt it. And you kept asking me to contribute to the life of the church. That’s how I knew I was truly invited. Truly belonged among you. I was asked to read scripture; then to teach Sunday school. It was such a joy. Who knew there was so much good stuff in 1st and 2nd Samuel? Funny how much you learn when teaching.
Then you asked me to participate in the mission trip to Jamaica. For me, the call to service among you was the call of God to belong. To be accepted. And I was changed by the work, by the engagement with God.
You know, in so many churches, gay people can show up. And they are welcomed, while they wait for the other shoe to drop. The shoe that says: You’re welcome and we hope you straighten out. I actually was expecting that from you at some point. It was really hard to get the expectation of rejection out of my head.
Then I started to really notice the hearts and lives of other gay people in leadership and service in the church and the words and actions of the church as whole—everyone acting and being treated just as any other child of God.
At this time of your celebration of the anniversary of becoming a Reconciling congregation, let me tell you, God changed my life through you. Actually God saved my life through you. I needed you to speak God’s words of acceptance to me. I needed you to be God’s arms embracing me. And you did it. You prepared to do it long before I knew I might need that kind of love. Thank you for bravely taking a stand to love, offer grace and embrace all God’s children as fully worthy. Thank you for being in little Oneonta. Not in some far off big city. Thank you representing Jesus and his message as you do. Though I’m now in Denver, CO I still keep up with you.
I think you will forever be my warmest, most comfortable church home. I am grateful to God for you.
. . .
SAVE THE DATE—May 18, 2014: First UMC will be celebrating 25 years as a Reconciling Congregation by bringing Rev. Karen Oliveto, pastor at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, to our pulpit on May 18. In her pastoral assignments she has expanded congregations and has been instrumental in the effort to open the doors of the United Methodist Church to all persons including those identifying as LBGTQ and their families. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion & Society from Drew University and recently served as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Pacific School of Religion where she continues as adjunct professor of United Methodist Studies.