Friday, May 4, 2012

And Jesus wept...

I don’t like crying. I hate it. Other than sex, it is one of those things that no one and I mean no one looks good actually doing (forget that Hollywood stuff). So when I found myself standing in the Plenary Hall of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, weeping uncontrollably, I knew that it was not going to be a good day.

I don’t cry easily. Even when facing my mother’s slow descent into dementia or my sister’s breast cancer or the struggles of being a Black woman in academia, I rarely found myself in tears. But today, as I watched my church rip itself and its members into shreds over the issue of homosexuality, I could do nothing but weep. I wept for the words of my brothers from Africa who equated being gay with bestiality. I wept for Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter’s loving act of seeking compromise between the diverse opinions of the Church. I wept as I saw many moderates, some who are truly seeking to be inclusive but struggling with old frameworks be pulled the mantras of ‘it's a sin” of the right and the human desire to acknowledge the beauty of difference. I wept for my cousin, my friends, my ‘queens’ and my students as I would struggle to explain how I can continue to be a member of a denomination that cannot even agree to put in their book of Discipline, that they disagree on this issue.

It wasn’t as if we didn’t know this was coming. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know that this would be a painful day. But just like Christmas or Childbirth, you won’t really what to expect until you are in the moment.  Hamilton’s attempt at pre-emptive compromise was the Church’s out to save itself from looking like a bunch of out of step homophobic bigots. Let me be clear, I know how deeply the views are held on both sides of this issue. Yet as the world, would seek to interpret our actions, regardless of who we really are, the world would end up seeing our organization and us as hopeless bigots (and disorganized ones at that). Gone were the slick presentations and scripted arguments of yesterday. No today was Adam and Mike out there on their own unable to direct their troops (if they had any willing to be directed). It became a rhetorical free for all.

The organizational scholar in me was intrigued by the rhetoric.  Those opposed to inclusion allowed the delegates of the Central Conference to carry their water. Knowing that they had to go back to Churches and Conferences that were divided on this issue, many who chose to vote against changing our disciplinary language HID behind the passionate language of the East African delegates, which would place progressives in the difficult position of fighting those they had just lobbied for support for in opposing the restructuring. So passionate was one delegate from Congo, that his translator actually refused to interpret him and said, ‘as his translator I must stay true to his words but…” In the end the delegate, equated being gay with lying with beasts.  Other conservative voices pointed out that rather than being wishy washy, we just needed to say where we stood, because all the growing churches like Saddleback and Willowcreek, had taken public stands against gays and done just fine and actually grown—so we should do the same (It is clear those arguing for this type of model have no idea what they are talking about and that such Church’s are possible when they have only one person choosing their Church’s orthodoxy rather than 987 people from all over the daggone world).

In the end, it was too much for the LGBT community. Despite my thinly veiled advice offered in my last blog—in which I hoped they would think about tactics that would not alienate their audience—when the vote was 39%-60% against embracing more inclusive language, they shouted and disrupted the closing prayer. When the Conference tried to return to business after a break, they sang and stayed in the middle of the conference, forcing the presiding officer to threaten to throw all of us out and only allow delegates in. Refusing to move even after an early adjournment, the protestors left the Bishops in a painful position. Some strong allies of the LGBT community were hung out to dry trying to keep the other COB from actually trying to close of the General Conference. Others begged for the protestors to not have us re-live Cleveland in which arrests were made.

As negotiations happened others wandered the hall looking dazed, many with tear stained eyes. Some left the building to try to compose themselves. Some were angry feeling that the tactics went too far and damaged any opportunity to continue to close the vote gap, which was getting tighter every 4 years. Some were even angrier that by shouting during the prayer, that the individual agendas of the protestors were place in a higher place than a prayer for peace. The twitter feed blew up with very hateful things being said by both sides including those who urged that we break fellowship with the Central Conference (which again I find funny since, the Central Conference was everybody’s friend when their vote was needed for the MFSA/IOT/ Plan B and ultimately the Plan UMC restructuring plan).

For those who have never been to Africa, it is impossible to truly understand the impact AIDs/HIV has had on the countries in East Africa particularly. In Uganda, where I do ministry with one of my former students, an entire generation has been lost to AIDS, there are few between the ages of 25 – 45, leaving children to be raised by grandmothers. I say this only because no matter how wrong they are, rather than understanding the link between unprotected sex of ANY KIND, it has been easier for them to blame this scourge on Gays. Moreover, understand that the majority of new church starts in East Africa have been by very conservative denominations. Having attended a Presbyterian Church in Uganda during my time there, I wasn’t sure if I was in a Presbyterian Church or a good old Southern Baptist Church in Roswell, Georgia. For the Africans, however wrong they are (and I know they are) this is not a cultural issue, it is a survival issue. But be clear, in themselves they could not kill this legislation but linked with other strong conservatives, this voting block will be deadly to any human sexuality legislation for years to come.

Organizationally, this places us where every other mainline Protestant denomination is: on the verge of a split. Perhaps it is Africa’s revenge that it is the fasting growing mission/Church field in the world and is forcing every denomination including the Anglicans and the Catholics to deal with their power. Honestly, Hamilton’s legislation might have prevented a schism but today almost guarantees that one is in our future. My dear Uncle a former DS reminded me that the UMC often follows the mood of America. If I keep this in mind as I reflect on today, the politics of the edges is indeed threatening the middle. The voices of the extremes, which accept no compromise, are pulling on Moderates to choose one way or another. And Moderates, afraid to choose are doing nothing. Want to know how that works out for you? Ask the former Southern Baptists who refused to stand when faced with the same issues in 1979, 1980, and 1981. They are the Former Baptists and they didn’t even get to keep the name.

Our language is ill equipped to express every human emotion. It is too limited at times to truly express the wide diversity of human existence. We limit it to two options because we are often afraid of the in between, the untested middle, the both/and. Consequently, we cannot discuss the most profound realities because our language fails our hearts and in the end, we end up hurting others and ourselves because of our linguistic limitations. Perhaps that is why at one point all the scripture can say is: Jesus wept.  After Thursday’s debate and the way his children tore each other up, somebody really needs to pass Jesus some Kleenex.  I would but I can’t stop crying either.


  1. This is beautifully written and addresses some of the complexities of this issue. My hope was truly that the language that allowed for this to be an issue upon which we could disagree would be accepted. But there was no compromise. And that broke my heart- the lack of trying to understand. What I wanted was an opportunity for people to speak who could be fair and balanced and not just emotional- because sometimes the emotional response on the floor brought out some very ugly truths.

  2. Thank you. My Congolese colleague reminds me that not all churches in Africa are conservative. I hear from delegates about the corrupted politicking going on, driven by U.S. citizens with an agenda. What disturbs me is the corruption of the church that makes this ugliness possibile - while agreeing with you that the vote is wrong.

    L Withrow

  3. Grace and Peace to you. Kenda Dean posted a link to this on her facebook wall. This is one of the most moving and powerful things I have read in a very long time. I include my response that I left on her wall............................... Kenda thank you so much for sharing this. As a Uniting Church minister in Australia we have seen and been part of the same discussions over a significant period of time and walked a similar path and been part of God's people ripping apart the body of Christ in similar, but maybe not such theatrical ways. However the ripping apart of the body of Christ is lived out the end result is the same. I will share this not to highlight the pain and brokenness but to call others to hold the UMC in their prayers. In Grace, Peace and Hope of the reconciling love and action of Christ in the World........................... Peace be with you and the UMC. Like for those in the conference language is not fully able to express my empathy for this situation. Blessings Jeff Savage.

  4. Wonderfully balanced blog. Thank you. I am a moderate in that I am not comfortable with the practice of Chritianity of either extreme. I found myself wishing that the demonstrators had read your blog on communication. I am of conservative leanings in my moderation--my "life tape" tells me homosexuality is a sin--my Christianity tells me we are all God's children in need of redemption. However, I find myself paralyzed in regards to this issue. A blog on implementing change talked about if a person is too far out of their comfort zone they are incapable of making a decision--that describes me--I feel caught in the middle with nowhere to go.

    Of late, I have been monitoring The Wesleyan Church. It is a growing denomination. They openly state homosexuality is a "sin" and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. They do not appear overly conservative or reactionary in terms of race or gender. Their General Secretary is female. They are passionate about making disciples for Christ.

  5. Thank you for these heart-felt words.

    I genuinely wish I could believe that homosexual practice was ok in God's eyes, in accordance with Scripture. But I can't. I have friends and family who are gay and I love them, so it would be easier if I could see it as others do. I just don't think I have that right. For me, this is surrendering to God's Word, not placing myself above it. As a result, I am "close-minded, and "unloving." I have "failed to love." And, somehow, as part of the UMC I am guilty of "bullying" homosexuals.

    The gentleman from Africa was completely (disgustingly) wrong in equating homosexual practice with bestiality, but the equating of this with past issues (slavery, women in ministry) is the same move, just in the opposite direction.

    I'm also not sure how the word "Discipline" has any meaning when instead of saying what we believe as a body, we just state that we don't agree. A similar paragraph could be placed throughout the Discipline on a host of issues: "We don't agree on the following. To each his own. Do what you want."

    It is a gut-wrenchingly painful topic. I'm with the majority in favoring the wording as it is. Others won't rest until its changed. And if the wording IS changed, I don't believe the UMC would survive. As painful and undesirable as it is, an amicable split may in the end "do the least harm." God, help us.