- by Becky Mantooth -
At 8:15 PM I impatiently waited for my slow Internet connection to load the article posted by the Birmingham News. United Methodists open conference; gay rights activitsts pray for inclusion. We made the news. We were finally making noise and spreading the best kind of evangelism: that God’s love is vast, immeasurable, boundless and free to all.
For me the movement started with a conversation. “I want you to meet my friend Joe,” Megan said walking out of the sanctuary. “He’s been visiting our church and he’s gay.”
Perhaps that statement isn’t radical to you, especially if you live somewhere other than the heart of Dixie. Sure our church has been home to many gay congregants. What church hasn’t? Even one former staff member identified as gay. He was quiet and private, so most people weren’t aware. But to my knowledge, we had never openly discussed the issue of homosexuality and the church. We just did the polite Southern thing and ignored the white elephant in the room.
You might think Megan rude for opening a conversation with such a bold declaration of someone’s sexuality, but Megan wanted Joe to meet people who would accept him, invite him to bible study, and eat with him at the Wednesday evening supper. Joe was gay, he had a loving partner, and he shouldn’t have to hide from it. After meeting Joe, I learned quickly that he didn’t intend to hide from it. That’s one trait I love about my friend: he’s proud of how God created him.
Months later, Joe started a discussion group focusing on sexuality and the church. I didn’t have much practice talking openly about these issues and at first stumbled with my words, afraid I might offend my new gay friends with silly questions or politically incorrect comments. I was soon put at ease. No question was silly or insulting. We had gathered to learn, to share, and to be open. Joe had created an inviting and safe space.
For months we studied together. Joe led us in book and movie studies; he brought in guest speakers to share their personal stories of rejection and reconciliation. “When I came out to my parents, they kicked me out of the house,” one young man told us. “I was 19, a freshman in college and my mom kicked me out.” Homophobia ripped this young man’s family apart. It damaged him and severed a natural bond between him and his parents and his siblings. Homophobia was the sin. Not this man’s sexuality.
You might think being alienated by fundamentalist parents would turn this man’s heart away from God. “One of my friends insisted I come to her house. Her parents would take me in,” he said. And through the unconditional love of a Christian friend, a Christian family and their accepting church, he found a love and peace that passes all understanding. This young man and his story made me want to quit talking about inclusion and begin to do something tangible about it. I wanted my church to bubble over with that kind of love.
After months of study, our rag-tag group of straight and gay persons, singled and married wrote a Reconciling mission statement and submitted it to Reconciling Ministry Network. The day we received our charter, I quickly posted a celebration on our church’s Facebook. It immediately made some in our church uncomfortable. Calls were made to the pastor. Our group meetings were never mentioned during Sunday morning announcements. Our pastor loved us; I have no doubt about that. She wanted harmony in the church and didn’t want anyone to get hurt. But it wasn’t enough for us; we wanted more, we couldn’t be silent. We were resolute in creating spaces for hearts to be changed and continued our work.
When Reconciling Ministries sent two process coach trainers to Birmingham for an intensive two-day workshop, we made a promise to ourselves and those we wanted to help: we would be a presence at this year’s annual conference.
At 1:00 on June 2, our little band of activists set up our booth. We had arranged pictures carefully on boards and aligned them with scriptures celebrating love and acceptance. On display was the photo of an elderly lesbian couple at their court-house wedding, tears of joy and foreheads touching. They were placed front and center. Our dear friends Joe and Bobby, a close up of their wedding bands, and photographs of many of their friends decorated the rest.
A young man approached our booth, obviously struggling and questioning either his or someone else’s sexuality. Joe talked with him, sharing openly and gifting the young man with a book to study. Later, another young person, a college freshman, approached. He’d been sitting at the booth next to us all morning and apparently waiting for a good moment to speak. “When I was in middle school, my sister told my parents she was a lesbian. They shipped her off away from us. I never see her. They don’t get it. We talk about love in church, but they act like they hate her. I was in middle school. I didn’t know what to think.” I talked with him about reconciliation and armed him with a book and encouragement to read it and give it to his parents.
At 3:45 a 150 voices strong, both laity and clergy, we recited a prayer for inclusion. Standing by my friend Joe, I felt more alive in the spirit than I had in a long time. We were fulfilling a calling, spoken thousands of years ago in a far away land: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Lord, hear our prayer: “You have a place for us all in your kingdom…a kingdom that is not modeled after the divisive communities in which we find ourselves in the world, but one that has a place for all who open their lives to you and follow where you lead them. May the church and our congregations reflect your Kingdom.”
Packing up our displays around 7:00 PM, I noticed we were the last group to take down our table. We’d longed for this opportunity to share our message, and we didn’t want the day to end. We didn’t start a revolution, turn over tables in a temple, or face imprisonment for acts of nonviolent protest. But in our tiny corner of the world, 50 years after Civil Rights activists marched in this city for racial equality, we continued to chip away at the walls that divide and to offer a balm to heal a few wounds. At least six churches showed interest in creating Reconciling Groups, two young men were given tools to help in their personal struggles, 150 people showed solidarity in our desire for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the UMC.
At home, hurrying past the facts in the newspaper article, I reached the comments of the bishop. She is a new bishop to the North Alabama Conference, and the first female to preside in Birmingham, a city infamous for the unfair treatment of those outside the good ole boy system. Her words didn’t shock me, but I naively hoped that a female in a traditionally male dominated role would speak with a more progressive voice. “[The prayer gathering] should not be construed as speaking for the United Methodist Church of North Alabama," Bishop Wallace-Padgett wrote. "As a Bishop of the United Methodist Church, I am committed to upholding the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. The District Superintendents of North Alabama join me in this commitment."
And I know now, more than ever, we must continue to, yes, change the Book of Discipline, but more importantly, continue to change the hearts and minds of our congregations and clergy. One day real LGBTQ inclusion will be realized.
. . .