- by J. Elizabeth Clark -
I walked out of the door of my current church in September after a lifetime spent as a United Methodist, living most of my life in the warm community of the church. I am the daughter of an amazing United Methodist minister currently serving in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. My grandfather was also a minister and later an administrator of Bethany Village in the Central Pennsylvania Conference. Like many others, I followed General Conference with great disappointment and anger this year. The UMC, writ large, has ceased to offer me hope that we are working towards a better, more just world.
My life is a practically perfect UMC resume: Sunday School, MYF, Conference Youth Council, Northeast Jurisdictional Youth Council, Campus Ministry President, Youth Group Leader, Sunday School Teacher, Voting Youth then Young Adult then Congregational Representative to Wyoming and New York Annual Conferences. I went to a United Methodist college. I worked at a United Methodist summer camp. I’ve served on and chaired more local, district, and conference committees than I can count. I’ve sung in traditional and contemporary choirs. I helped to create a labyrinth for meditation and spiritual exploration. I learned to shingle a roof, pour concrete and gut a house on UMC mission trips. I have been a liturgist, have preached at countless services, and have been a good and true servant to the church. I have believed in the church’s promise that together we can make the world a better place.
Through it all, I have been a vocal and forceful advocate for LGBTQ rights and full inclusion in the UMC.
I gave my very first speech at a Wyoming Annual Conference meeting when I was in the seventh grade. We were debating becoming a reconciling conference and I was strongly in favor. I wrote my speech before conference and spent hours practicing. That speech is one of my proudest moments of standing up for what I believe. Later, in graduate school, I was proud to attend one of that conference’s reconciling churches, Centenary-Chenango Street UMC and to chair the conference’s Reconciling Ministries Task Force. Through it all, I was taught to believe that change would come, that things would get better, that I was working for good.
When I first moved to New York City, I didn’t end up in a reconciling congregation. I attended a large, urban United Methodist Church that was certainly nice enough, but politically indifferent to LGBTQ issues. General Conference this year served as a deal-breaker for me. I have spent my whole life watching people walk out of the church because of LGBTQ issues, but I never imagined I would be one of them. However, I could no longer attend a congregation that wasn’t explicitly working for social change and to provide hope. I believe their silence was harmful. The congregation’s silence did not offer me a vision for hope and change for the future. I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and increasingly alone.
So I’ve been church shopping this fall. I started with web research. I only visit churches that have a clearly stated, clearly visible, clearly integrated welcoming statement on their web page. Three of my top criteria for a new church include: clear LGBTQ presence and support, including a Sunday School curriculum for children and adults that speaks to inclusion; progressive theology; and social justice ministries a very visible, clear priority. I’m researching eight churches in all: two UCC, two Unitarian, two UMC, one Quaker, and the Metropolitan Community Church.
This past Sunday, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I found myself at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. As part of the service’s welcome, a young man who identified himself as gay talked about his suspicion of organized religion after growing up Roman Catholic in Texas. He brimmed with joy at the welcome and inclusion he felt at All Souls. The name kind of says it all, doesn’t it? All Souls. I was moved to tears by his welcome and felt my heart brimming with joy and true hope knowing that I would receive that welcome not just from that particular congregation, but at any Unitarian Church I visit anywhere in the country.
I thought I’d always be United Methodist. Its founding principles of social justice and service have shaped who I am and how I live. But increasingly, I find myself asking the question: how long do I hope that the church I love will live up to the Wesleyan promise:
Do all the good you can- By all the means you can- In all the ways you can-In all the places you can-At all the times you can-To all the people you can-As long as ever you can.
There are some amazing reconciling congregations in the New York Annual Conference pastored by some of the greatest UMC pastors I know (next to my dad!). So do I stay a Methodist and keep fighting the good fight? Or do I move to a denomination that has already decided it will do good by fighting for equality through spiritual investigation and social action? I honestly don’t know, and it’s breaking my heart.
. . .
J. Elizabeth Clark, a lifelong United Methodist, is Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College--CUNY in New York City. She has been active in reconciling ministries in the former Wyoming Annual Conference and in the New York Annual Conference. She has always been called to Wesley's charge to social justice, with particular passion for LGBTQ issues, racial equality, women's health and reproductive justice, HIV/AIDS, and homelessness and poverty. In the wake of General Conference 2012, she is currently researching new congregations, both UMC and other denominations, that have a strong commitment to the LGBTQ community.