- by Rev. Gil Caldwell -
I was 20 years old in 1954 when on May 17th of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling declaring racially segregated public schools invalid. That year I was finishing my junior year in college and beginning to look forward to responding to my call to ministry by going to Seminary in 1955. (My first application for admission to Seminary was sent to Duke Divinity School in my home state of North Carolina, and as I have written before, I was refused admission because of my race).
At the time of the May 17, 1954 ruling, I had already become the news-focused person that I still am today as I move toward my 80th birthday in October. Remember theologian Karl Barth said, "The Christian lives his/her life with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." The news following the public school decision informed us that many Churches in the south began the process of establishing racially segregated schools in order to avoid racial integration. I remember wondering, how long could the Methodist Church retain and maintain its racially segregated Central Jurisdiction when the Supreme Court had declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional? (The answer; 14 years until our merger in 1968).
I read and heard in 1954, responses from some Christians who justified resistance to the racial desegregation decision by saying and writing things like this; "The Church is called not to follow the agenda of the world, but rather the agenda of Christ"..."Christians are called to be counter cultural or over against culture, instead of adjusting to culture."..."The Bible is against the mixing of the races. Race-mixing will in time produce race-mixed children, and they will not be able to adjust to society." (Does this explain some of the resistance to President Obama? In his case it is not his inability to adjust to society, it is the inability of some in the society to accept a bi-racial president who identifies as African American).
I am beginning to read/hear responses to the Supreme Court same sex marriage decision re; church and culture that are not unlike those made about integrated schools in 1954. Why is that some persons recycle arguments that in time were proven to be be incorrect, imperfect and demeaning, vis-a-vis women and blacks, but now use them to demean LGBTQ persons and same sex couples?
Bishop Warner Brown of the California-Nevada United Methodist Conference is quoted as saying this; "I must encourage pastors to reach out to their ecumenical partners so that pastors and churches that are permitted under their polity to offer marriage to same sex couples, be invited to assist in providing pastoral care."
Bishop Brown's statement as an expression of sensitivity and concern for ministry to same sex couples is important. But, at the same time it highlights the contradictory, paradoxical corner into which we United Methodists have painted ourselves. Our anti-gay language language and legislation in the Book of Discipline about same sex unions and marriages makes us "partners" with Southern Baptists, Catholics, and Mormons with whom we share a similar response to same sex unions/marriages. But, in an effort to provide the ministry of marriage and unions to same sex couples, we must "partner" with UCC's, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans.
Rev. Jim Lawson, our United Methodist colleague and brother who is a Civil Rights Movement icon, performed the marriage of James Earl Ray, who was the convicted and sentenced killer of Martin Luther King. That marriage took place in jail.
I suggest no equivalence between the jailed James Earl Ray and same sex couples who want United Methodist clergy to perform their marriages or unions. But, if I as a grandfather of an 8 year old little girl, in one of my many conversations with her about the church and the world, wanted to explain why a United Methodist preacher could perform the marriage of James Earl Ray in jail, but not a same sex couple, what would I say?
Kermit the frog (My grand daughter has him sitting in a chair at their dining room table) once said; "It's not easy being green." Today, more than ever before, some of us are saying; "It's not easy being a United Methodist."
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The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a retired United Methodist Minister who lives in Asbury Park, N.J. He was active in the Massachusetts unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and participated in the civil-rights movement throughout the nation. In 2000, he, with others, organized the RMN Extension ministry United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church (UMOC), an organization committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in every aspect of church and society. His recent book, Something Within: Works by Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is available from Church Within A Church.