by Brett Isernhagen
“Young man, I have to ask you. I’ve been trying to figure it out all day. What does that rainbow scarf mean?”
This is how the majority of the conversations I had at North Georgia’s Annual Conference started, as they pointed to the rainbow stole hanging around my neck. In a way, this question can sum up my whole experience over those three glorious, trying days in Athens as I was asked that question of others and prompted by the Spirit as I asked that question of myself.
This conference was in many ways a pilgrimage for me. For one, it was my first annual conference ever and without a working watch, an agenda, and voting privileges I often felt as a foreigner, unsure of where to be when and what to do once (if) I got there. Adding to this tension is the fact that until Bishop Watson read my name in the last half hour on Thursday I was still a member of the South Georgia Conference. Outside of a few friends from school, I knew no one. The only familiar face was my DS, and he was retiring. I knew none of the stories and characters that seemed to bind everyone together. I didn’t even know where 70% of the towns were that the people I did get to talk to came from. Most meaningful of all, however, was the pilgrimage I made as I walked through the halls and the town with a rainbow stole hanging from my neck.
I journeyed into a sacred space, far removed from my own experiences. Even though I had silently supported full inclusion of all people into the life, worship, and ministry of the United Methodist Church, the exact opinions and qualifications I harbored as recently as a little over a year ago would embarrass me and hurt many if I had ever made them publically. For instance, even when I learned about Reconciling Ministries Network I hesitated in joining, lest anyone had room to mistake me as a homosexual, as if it were something shameful to be thought of as. Having now come to full acceptance and rejoicing with all of God’s children I felt comfortable enough to wear it on my sleeve, or more precisely my neck. Even then, God was not finished. My pilgrimage was just beginning.
What I noticed first encouraged me: there were a really great number of people publicly proclaiming that all expressions of God’s creation were of true sacred worth. I was surprised by the incredible range of my new friends and allies: the stoles were worn by everyone from the youngest youth delegates to the some of the most senior ministers I saw. This was far from a young person’s struggle. This was a struggle for the whole Kingdom of God. So many people responded positively and were so encouraging when I answered their questions about the stole, what RMN was and what it did. It was so encouraging in fact that for a while I didn’t notice the other reaction, which was equally shocking. I soon realized that not all people were so enthused. Some refused to talk to me, to return even a simply “hello.” I could see it out of the corner of my eye. I could see it in their eyes. They would look first at my stole, then to the ground as if colorful fabric defined me as a person and as one who would soon minister in their midst. I cannot imagine the courage and the pain my LGTBQ sisters and brothers have to have when they are judged on one part of their identity, judged just for being honest with their created selves and the world around them. This was a movement not just for marriage, not just for ordination. It soon became clear to me that this was a movement about love, the love so many of us have no idea that our brothers and sisters are being denied by our church.
This pilgrimage only continued as I had time to meet and have fellowship with the others who came to the RMN events at the conference. I heard their stories, I saw the love around the room, the hope in God’s mighty acts of salvation that bound us together, and I saw a love. I saw a love that I then realized was so powerful because it was being filtered and rejected in so many places. This only grew in my attention as Thursday’s session saw debate on several important resolutions, one being a day for the church to address and remember as one body the suffering and violence experienced by our transgender friends, neighbors, and strangers alike. As the author, Giselle Lawn, shared her testimony of the conference accepting her and affirming her every step of the way as she lived out who she was created to be she was met by those speaking out of ignorance as well as anger. What broke my heart more were those who lamented having to discuss it any further at all, for fear that doing God’s work might make them stay an extra hour. Their time was more precious than those suffering so deeply among us.
Even before the debates started, I prayed that God would take away the pain and anger that was sure to be felt. As the votes came in against the resolution anger swelled within me and I found it so hard to mind our founder when he said not to say anything negative about someone, even if it is true. Equally heavy were the words of Christ as he instructed us to avoid cursing and insulting our fellow humans, likening it to murder. In my anger, and the anger of those with me I began to see solidarity soften the furrows brows. It was as if the impossibility of this work of God was reason enough to continue on, as if this evident imperfection were calling us all on to perfection and reminding us that if we plan to get there by ourselves we will never make it.
This new challenge to social holiness enlivened me, as I believe it did to my new friends and colleagues. This is what the stole meant. This is what Reconciling Ministries Network means to me. There are those in pain, suffering and oppressed because they are at peace with the fearfulness and wonder of their creation. There are those who do not know this pain exists, or why. There are those that just don’t know what to do, or that they can do anything. There are also those who see this pain as necessary, that expression is a chief sin. Even so, we are called together to presently live into the heavily reality of Christ’s present victory over sin, death, and destruction. Resolutions could pass tomorrow affecting the very Discipline itself, and the work of RMN would not be close to finished. That is what inspires me, and I thank God for the three days in Athens it took me to ask myself what the rainbow cloth around my neck really meant.
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Brett Isernhagen is from St. Marys, Georgia and his currently a second year M. Div student at Candler School of Theology at Emory University where he serves on the executive board of the Pan-Methodist Council. He is pastor of Campbellton UMC in Fairburn, GA.