The neon orange sticky note on my wall reads Remember Us. It’s stuck close to my desk so that while I’m working I’ll remember the brokenhearted, beaten, and dead LGBTQI+ folks who have been excluded from the life of the church. I usually picture young people; like the boy in the news recently who killed himself when kids at school bullied him about being gay. I pulled the note off the wall and stuck it in my notebook before heading to our church’s Town Hall meeting about the Way Forward the other night, thinking I’d need to remember those people there. And maybe even talk about them, if I had the chance.
A handful of us have been meeting for months about the topic; studying how to move a church toward inclusion of LGBTQI+ people using the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) toolkit as a foundation. We focused on effective communication, grace, and peace keeping. The meetings felt vaguely surreptitious because our pastor wanted to delay talking to the congregation about the topic for as long as possible. The Town Hall would therefore be the congregation’s first opportunity to hear details of what’s happening in the United Methodist Church (UMC), and our first chance to get a sense for how the body would respond.
Our pastor seems affirming, while never actually having said so. When she came to lead the church a year ago, she hired her gay sister as music director, and has encouraged my wife and I as we’ve led Bible studies. Many months ago we asked about her plans for communicating what will be happening at the UMC's Special General Conference which will vote on gay marriage and ordination, suggesting that we could hold a Bible study on LGBTQI+ inclusion to help with preparation. She was verbally open to the idea, but as months passed, she repeatedly pushed the timeline back. First she suggested offering it in the spring, then maybe summer, then fall. The last shift was to wait and see if people wanted that kind of study as a result of Town Hall conversation.
There is a carefulness in our pastor, which manifests as calculated measures for keeping peace. And so she decided to keep mum about the Way Forward until the Bishops released the translated plan documents. That way, she said, the issue of LGBTQI+ inclusion could be presented as coming from on high rather than from within. (Heaven forbid.)
So we haven’t done the Bible study, and she hasn’t mentioned the need to include and affirm LGBTQI+ people in her sermons. My wife and I have bitten our tongues, led our small group meetings with patience and optimism, and waited.
On the night of the Town Hall, we took our usual seats in the sanctuary; a place right up front where people could see us. We take our role as the first openly gay couple in the congregation seriously, and try to be exemplars of love and care while in that visible position. Another lesbian couple, fairly new to the church, joined us in the pew. A gay couple sat behind us, and a few known allies sat with them. It was unusual to have us all clustered in one place. We formed a little gay ghetto, subconsciously huddling together when normally we’d be scattered around the sanctuary.
The evening unfolded the way I imagine it happening in many middle-of-the-road churches around the country which hope to simply lay out the details, keep the peace, and move on to business as usual as quickly as possible. Our pastor offered a history of the Way Forward commission and an overview of the three plans. Questions were raised throughout the process. At the end, she asked for suggestions on how we could prepare in case a decision would eventually need to be made by our body.
As the evening progressed, one older man’s anger was palpable when he suggested/demanded that we examine the theology behind the three plans so we could make decisions based on what scripture has to say. He’s a revered elder in the congregation. Perhaps he found our ghetto threatening with its four lesbian grannies and the gay couple who’d already become besties with the more senior ladies of the church. Maybe if we attended the same service he does, he would have perceived us as less of a force. Less like an earthquake with the potential of shifting his understanding of the church and his position within it.
When I stood to clarify a point, he shut me down like it was 1936 and I was his wife who’d had the audacity to disagree with him in public. My goal was to correct a misunderstanding so we could move on. But, he didn’t like it and his anger grew.
I was female. I’ve only been attending the church for a year. And I was from the ghetto.
How dare I speak?
As I thought about it later, I realized what an outrage it was not to hold time and space for those of us who are marginalized by UMC polity to speak at this event. Isn’t it pastorally and morally wise to give those who are harmed by injustice a chance to speak during events when the system of oppression is being discussed?
We weren’t given that opportunity, and while we were there, we tried to continue what we’d been doing for months; playing good little wave-avoiders, sitting quietly, and hoping that justice would ultimately prevail. Meanwhile, my effort to simply clarify an issue related to content within the plans was met with anger.
Around this time my wife and one of our friends heard people cluck-clucking about us being abominations. The fact that they didn’t get up and leave right then and there is a testimony to their strength.
Our pastor reassured the group gathered that night that she wouldn’t be talking about LGBTQI+ inclusion during Sunday sermons. She announced this as if it was meritorious. She concluded by proclaiming that the issue would not become a big conflict in the church, and that we’d keep doing the mission of feeding the hungry through the food pantry, preaching the gospel, and growing our youth programs; things she’s proud of and presumably believes the congregation is proud of as well.
But LGBTQI+ inclusion and affirmation is the Christian social justice issue of our era, just as racial inclusion and women’s ordination were the issues of eras before us. Nine gay people have joined the congregation since our pastor came to the church. Seven have become members so far. The Holy Spirit is doing something and LGBTQI+ inclusion is part of the Sprit’s call on the pastor and the church.
Why aren’t we—the queer kids in our little ghetto—a stated part of that mission?
The lesbian couple who sat next to us that evening have become our friends, and it’s been a joy to see how deeply faith is interwoven into their lives together. They’ve been searching for a church for years, and felt like ours might be a fit for them. They’ve held off on getting married because they so badly want it to take place in the context of a church family. At the Town Hall, one of them asked our pastor if she could marry them in the church. The pastor said she could not. My friend then asked if she could do it somewhere else; say in a public park. Again, our pastor said no, clarifying that if she did, she could be brought up on charges.
I understand the position she is in. But there was no compassion offered. No simple statement of “I’m so sorry that is the case. I’m sure it must be painful.” There was nothing.
This was the tenor of the whole meeting. All the discussions focused on the plans, keeping unity, and the tangibles of how the UMC might end up splitting. None of it, not a single word, focused on the reality of the LGBTQI+ people who avoid church because they feel unwelcome, or the ones who kill themselves because they’ve been so tormented by others, or those who are kicked out of their parents’ home when they divulge their sexual orientation. There was no sorrow expressed that the UMC potentially holds a future where LGBTQI+ people who feel called to ministry must move to another state where there is possibility of ordination. There was no concern raised about how it feels to enter a sanctuary with your beloved only to feel disapproving eyes and hear the word abomination uttered. There were no words of compassion offered to a woman who adores her partner and yearns to have the depth of their love acknowledged and celebrated before God with God’s people.
It was as if the reality of our lives just don’t matter.
While debriefing in the days that have followed, my wife said she’d never felt unsafe and hated before. Especially never in church. She’d never felt stared at and judged as if it were 1936 and she was a black woman drinking from the wrong fountain.
When I tucked the sticky note from my office wall into my notebook that night, I didn’t realize it referred to the people sitting in our church. To our lesbian friends. To the gay guys behind us. To all of us clustered in our little ghetto in the front corner of the church.
I hadn’t realized, or felt before then, that Remember Us referred to me.