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We’ve Got Your Back

Last weekend I attended the four-day Faith, Hope, Love Convocation, the 9th such event put on by Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). The event was held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville (yup, in the Bible Belt). I am only getting back to my computer now because my trip included visit with family (and taking an 8 year old niece to Cedar Point).

RMN is made up of members of the United Methodist Church who believe the denomination’s stance on gays is wrong and who are working to both changes those rules and to make the church more welcoming to those groups of people not already in the church. It is a grass-roots organization in which individual churches (and, in some cases, individual Sunday School classes) choose to claim to be reconciling. This is technically illegal according to denomination rules, but there are no penalties that can be imposed. I went (my first time) because my pastor showed interest in starting the process and neither he nor I knew how to go about it.

More…The 475 attendees (and RMN membership in general) were from 4 general groups. First was the parents (or grandparents) of gays who are incensed at the way their children are being treated by their church (think a polite version of a mama bear whose cubs are threatened). Second was the college and seminary students. These people were a bit surprised at the size of the first contingent because old people are shown in numerous surveys to be less gay tolerant than the young. Third was the pastors working to make their own churches more welcoming and want the denomination to follow suit. The fourth group was gays that the church hasn’t managed to drive out yet.

My first event was a day-long workshop on how to get the Reconciling process started at a local church, tips on getting a Reconciling Statement approved, and what to do after that.

The rest of the convocation had several major parts.

There were daily worship services put on for gays by gays. The Scripture, readings, hymns, prayers, and sermons were all about being the inclusive church, caring for each others needs, that Jesus calls us to be, in sharp contrast to the screeching of the Right. I frequently felt overwhelmed by that message, especially when sung loudly by 475 voices. This is best said in a Call to Communion that begins, “This is not my house. This is God’s house. I cannot tell God who is welcome and who is not.”

Along with the service was a Bible study on the same Scripture that was used in the service. These studies were lectures by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament Studies at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. This is quite a surprising choice of career for her since she describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish Feminist.” Here she is a Jew in the Bible Belt training future Christian pastors. She was wonderful! Not only did she speak with literary and historical rigor (debunking all the easy, and nasty, “junk” that pastors frequently attach to biblical passages), but she also spoke with humor, frequently eliciting belly-laughs from the audience. Her last lecture was on Mark 12:28-34 in which Jesus declares the greatest commandments are “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (slightly condensed) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” She went into depth as to what that meant to the First Century Jews and what it should mean to the church today. At the end of this lecture she said that she would be visiting various Catholic and Protestant groups and she would be telling them about us. She said we “get it” more thoroughly than any other group she has encountered.

There were several forums. The first was on hope, a discussion by several heads of agencies working to change the denomination (Methodist Federation for Social Action, Wesley Foundation (campus ministry) Steering Committee, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women). They talked about signs of hope they’ve seen as well as some frustrations. A delightful story came from the panelist working in Nashville (where many denomination boards are located). She went to have her nails done early one Friday evening. Already in the shop was a stalwart Southern matron being worked on while here equally stalwart husband waited. In came a gay couple, in drag, wanting their nails done before a night of partying. The gentleman almost needed to have his heart restarted. The queens commented about taking their grandson to Sunday School and soon everyone was pulling out grandchildren photos and sharing them.

Other forums were by David Myers, the Hope College professor who wrote the book What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage; Rebecca Voelkel of Welcoming Resources, an interdenominational organization of which RMN is a part; and Confessions of a Former Gay Basher by Miguel De La Torre (who, alas, used way too many big words); and a training forum to guide us in arguing our cause through the use of personal stories (which is harder than one would think).

One evening was devoted to a presentation of the play Mrs. Man of God. It is the story of the gay partner of a pastor in a denomination (alas, too many of those) that bans gay pastors who aren’t celibate. The gay couple are living an open secret in which nothing is said, but since the partner spends so much time volunteering at the church it seems everyone knows. But then someone reports them to denomination authorities. In the Q&A session afterwards the actors said their time with us was the ultimate “preaching to the choir” moment as several people in the audience had already lived that story. Around the hall were hundreds of pastoral stoles honoring gay pastors of many denominations, those who would be fired if anyone knew, those who had been fired or left the ministry, and those who rejoiced because they were in denominations or congregations who accepted them as gay.

Another evening was titled an Awards Ceremony, though that was only part of what happened. There were awards handed out. The first went to the most involved parents of gays. The second was called the “Cup of Justice” award with nominees who take “bold action to invoke justice where injustice, oppression, and exclusion exist.” It went to Becca Cramer, one of the leaders of MoSAIC, the Methodist Students for an All Inclusive Church. The last was the “Voice in the Wilderness Award” given for “taking risks, despite isolation in a wilderness, to proclaim the rightness of inclusion for all.” It went to St. Marks United Methodist Church of New Orleans, located in the French Quarter and also serving the Ninth Ward. In addition to a strong emphasis of serving the poor they are also the only Reconciling Congregation in Louisiana. There were also two speakers. Joey Heath, who had been on this year’s Soulforce Equality Ride, share his story of living in south Georgia, going through an informal ex-gay process with his youth pastor (which, of course, failed), and being denied membership because he is gay. This is not the famous case that prompted the UMC Judicial Council to say a pastor has that right. The other speaker, name alas forgotten, had worked as a pastor in Massachusetts until she married her partner. Music was provided by Nashville Harmony, the city’s only gay and lesbian chorus. I was pleased they did not sing showtunes, but presented songs of hope and perseverance for gays.

Because of that Judicial Council ruling I mentioned many people now feel that the United Methodist Church is tied with the Southern Baptists as the meanest towards gays. Ouch! Next April in Fort Worth the UMC General Conference will meet to decide how to revise the Book of Discipline, the denomination rulebook. There are, of course, legislative resolutions to eliminate or soften the anti-gay rules in the book. There are also resolutions to toughen the rules and to also go after transgender people who, up to this time, have escaped official limitations. The need to do so arose when a female pastor was reappointed to the same congregation (with their strong approval) but now as male Drew Phoenix. We were asked to volunteer time in Fort Worth during the Conference to help RMN and allied agencies do such things as track legislation and lobby delegates. We also saw our new campaign logo, a tree with exuberantly colored leaves with the slogan “One Family Tree.”

I was practically adopted by the 13 attending members of Bering United Methodist Church of Houston, Texas. About 25 years ago, this downtown church was dying and the bishop appointed a pastor who could handle the closing. Instead, he took the tiny congregation through the reconciling program. The church is now thriving and is about 80% gay. Through their promises of prayer and promises of help from others (including from the lay people who took an Ann Arbor church through the process) I used a Miracle Moment to tell the conference that “You’ve got my back.” I can dare to start the process at my own church.

More about RMN is at http://www.RMNetwork…

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Paul K

Paul K