Dear Beth Stroud: Thank You

You won’t remember the moment your courage began to awaken mine, but I will never forget it. It was my first Annual Conference, and I was home from seminary at Duke Divinity to intern for the summer at Wayne UMC with Joe DiPaolo. As I left the large hotel ballroom where we gathered for plenaries and voting, you stood at the doorway with a group of young clergywomen peers. Yet, you were not there as a clergy delegate – you were there as something much braver. You were there as a lay delegate, because a couple years earlier, our Conference had brought you up on trial for being in a covenant relationship with a woman, and taken your credentials. Yet, there you were, standing in the full and obvious power of your calling, regardless of what the words on your nametag said.

I had grown up in a United Methodist congregation that did not allow women in the pulpit, where the senior pastor was admired for once having tried to bring a complaint against Bishop Susan Morrison. With little knowledge of our world or system, I was stumbling through my first steps into my call. I was entering ministry, despite having been told my whole life that to do so as a woman was rebellion against God.

I followed my mother out of the room, and stepped onto the escalator to descend to the next floor. You must have sensed me watching, because your head turned and you saw me. It felt like you could see right through me. I stood there frozen as the stairs of the escalator moved beneath me, slowly taking us out of one another’s line of sight.4027219124_5fe52b97c6_b

That little part of me that knew that I was a Queer pastor – even if I would not admit it to myself -was running around in circles inside of me. She did not know whether to run back up the escalator and hug you and thank you for your courage, or run away and hide. She felt like she’d been seen, and it was terrifying. She finally calmed down; she strapped herself in for the ride, and spent the next decade hiding from herself in order to serve the church she loved.   

The trauma of what you and your young clergy colleagues had been through still saturated the air that day. I did not understand, I could not understand, but I felt it. The weight of your witness was impossible to ignore. The intensity of their love and respect for you meant that the wound your trial left has never healed. It has never stopped being visible. There is a hole blown through this generation, because a piece is missing that should never have been taken away from them. A limb was severed, and they are still mourning. We are still mourning. 

I was not at home in Philadelphia when it happened, when our Conference put you on trial. In 2004, I was over 600 miles away in Greenville, South Carolina. I was a college student working four jobs, running new student orientation, and fighting not to answer my call. 

In those final months of 2004, however, I stopped fighting my call. The Spirit was doing something. I began to attend a United Methodist Church pastored by a woman. Growing up in one of the churches in our Conference that vocally opposed women preaching, I had only seen a woman in the pulpit once when our District Superintendent, Violet Fisher, came to speak. My resistance, my liberation, my obedience to God started with the simple but revolutionary act of waking up on Sunday mornings to hear Rev. Jo Anna McGehee proclaim the Gospel in the sanctuary of Monaghan United Methodist Church.

Within a year I would be a student enrolled at Duke Divinity School; and a few years after that, I would be ordained in Philadelphia.

That was only the beginning of what has been a very difficult journey to get to this point. Seven years have passed since that ordination. It feels as though I’ve lived a dozen lifetimes in the years between.

I’ve spent my whole career living in the shadow of what we did to you, but now I’ve stepped out of it.

Last year, I came out myself as Queer clergy. Tomorrow, I will walk into the meeting of our Annual Conference as the first openly Queer clergy since our Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference put you on trial, and wounded us in a place where we have never recovered.

I want you to understand what your courage has meant to me. Remarkably, it was not your dramatic and highly publicized courage at your trial that impacted me. It was your completely subtle, unrecognized act of courage when you walked back into Annual Conference that day in 2007 and showed us all how intact your calling still was. Your name badge may have said Laity rather than Clergy, but it was clear that God said otherwise. That blow that you dealt to exclusion created the first crack in the wall that was holding me back.

I needed to see you that day, in order to someday be able to see myself. 

Now it’s my turn to show up. Because someone needs to see me like I once needed to see you. Someone needs to see what it looks like when we love ourselves despite what they say.

Thank you for all you did to make that possible. Thank you for still showing up even when you did not have to, even after what we did to you, even when we did not deserve you. Thank you for being there to let me see what real courage looks like in person. The church law books may not have changed, but a different battle has been won – the battle for my own mind and my own heart and my own calling.

Thank you for showing us the way. 

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

– Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, by United Methodist author, Harper Lee

Stand With Us Now: An Appeal to My Generation

“Well, we’ll have retired by that time anyway,” they laughed. I remember the first time older clergymen joked with me about the predicted inevitable decline of our denomination, and the reality that it would not be their problem. It would be ours – my generation’s problem – and in that moment, in their joke, it would be mine. We were being handed a tattered kite, that had been held by many other hands, and told to make it fly. We gave it everything we had. 

They were using humor to cope with the reality that we have been facing since we began our paths as pastors. Yet, there is a truth behind every joke, and that truth is that they did know they would retire before the hardest days came, and they were relieved. I do not think they could have known the weight they were placing on our shoulders. They could not understand, because they did not have our experience of starting out in serving the church during a time when it was no longer the center of culture, amidst a generation that was often more likely to flee away from the church than towards it. 

A few months before I graduated from seminary and joined the ranks of my generation of clergy, “The Crisis of Younger Clergy,” by Dr. Lovett Weems and Dr. Ann Michel, was published. The book raised the alarm about the dramatic decrease of young clergy numbers, and increase of congregants’ ages. In a later interview, Weems called for a realignment of priorities, saying, “I am afraid that if we do not, when the death tsunami, as I call it, washes over the United Methodist Church between 2018 and 2050, it could very well wipe out the United Methodist witness in vast portions of some states.”

This is the pressure cooker into which the earliest members of my generation entered ministry. This is the pressure cooker that the generation above us – we love you Gen Xers – as well as young laity in leadership, were already navigating. 

We have carried this heavy burden for the past decade. We have committed time to cohort programs like the Lewis Fellows. We have worked at Lilly Funded programs like Duke Youth Academy and Youth Theological Initiative, to try to invest in younger members of our generation. We have done extra trainings, and given our own time and money to earning DMins. We have worked hand in hand with young laity to plant churches and to make new places for new people. We have built communities and networks to support innovation, like UMC Lead. We have watched as the General Conference poured millions of dollars into helping more of us answer our calls.

This pressure, and the attention that came with it, sometimes made our beloved Gen Xers feel passed over, and our cherished Baby Boomers forgotten. 

The pressure weighed on us. It cost some of us our health. It cost some of us our marriages. It cost all of us dearly. The weight of extra labor fell even heavier on young women and people of color, and heaviest on young leaders who were both.

Each year, on the day the young clergy statistics came out, I would scan them, always finding my Conference near the bottom, rotating places with a couple other Conferences for lowest percentage of clergy under 35. I clung to “The Crisis of Younger Clergy” because it was one of the few things that provided direction and understanding. I began charting trends, and mapping out the locations of young clergy in the Conference so that I could show people where there were colleagues they could reach out to for support. I wanted people to have hope and feel less alone and continue to be able to stand together.

When I was commissioned, I sat down with my new District Superintendent, the same man who had baptized me, and I told him, “These are my priorities: First, God. Second, my generation’s relationship with God. Third, the United Methodist Church. Fourth, this Conference. Fifth, this District. If any of the latter three conflict with my ability to be faithful to the first two, I will choose the first two.” I kept my word. 

What does this commitment look like now? I cannot easily ignore the effect that our violence towards LGBTQIA folxs like myself is taking on my generation on the margins of this church. Neither can I easily ignore the struggle of those deeply entwined within this church, with whom I have struggled in the trenches under all this pressure as “young leaders,” spread out over the four Jurisdictions and seven Conferences where I have worked and lived. 

At this moment, as the intersectional energy of UMForward goes back out across the nation, and so many are turning their attention towards Kansas City and what will happen at UMNext, I cannot help but think about the fact that it is possible that the majority of the room will more closely resemble those approaching retirement than those entering ministry. 

I have to ask myself, what is true? 

We have been told our whole careers that this problem was ours to solve.

We have been told that we have to stop the death of this denomination. 

Yet, now as it lies here on life support, and the family is deciding whether to pull the plug, only a minority of us will be allowed in the room. 

What do we make of that? Why were we so necessary before, when death seemed nigh, but less necessary when it is on the doorstep knocking. Might our presence in some way hinder the adequately financed exit that some of our colleagues have so long teased us they would be making before the end came. Might circumstances be different now that those pensions and retirement are not looking quite so secure. 

Those young & youngish people who enter the UMNext space do so with the weight of a generation held on the shoulders of only a few. We all know the labored, cautious walk of those made to feel like tokens, whether for their age, race or ethnicity, gender or orientation. Simultaneously they bear the burden of representing the many who are not in the room, while also knowing how easily they can be replaced – exactly because of how many are in waiting outside the room. 

Perhaps, in this moment, we can be kind to one another, my beloved generation. Perhaps we can remind those that enter as the few that we have your back. We are praying for you. So be bold. Speak up as if you have nothing to lose, because the time for caution has long since passed. The ladders some once wished to climb lead to nothing but questions and chaos. Go to the spaces you are called, but stand with us. Stand with us, here on this solid ground, your feet firmly planted, rooted, grounded. As you make choices and speak words, do nothing out of fear, beloveds. Do everything out of courage, for perfect love casts out all fear… and love is the work that has been given to us. 

All our lives, all our careers, we have been told that someday, we would be the only ones left standing. Do not let the anxiety of this moment make you forget that now. We will someday soon be the only ones left standing – so make your decisions in such a manner that you will not be standing alone. Stand with us now, so that we can still be here to stand with you in the near coming future – wherever that ground may be. Nothing is worth more than us – than the community – than the people.

You know that our generation will not stay with us if we build a church with no understanding of intersectionality, still laden with white supremacy and patriarchy, continuing to allow violence against LGBTQIA folxs like myself for the sake of “unity.” 

I have spent the past several years placing my life and body between weapons of destruction – both literal and figurative – and those they seek to harm. I ask you now, will you be just as uncompromising in your solidarity?  Will you refuse to allow structures to continue to be constructed that permit harm and spiritual violence against myself and other members of the LGBTQIA community? Will you continue to work to dismantle the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy that do violence to people of color, Black and Indigenous leaders, and women?

Stand with us now, dear friends, so that in the time to come we can still be here to stand with you.

 

You can play with me

“You can play with me,” a little voice said to me from the other side of the slide. It was my first day at a new school, and when recess came, I had fled to conceal myself under the big metal slide on the far edge of the playground. Turning my head, I looked up to see another girl, tiny like myself, with a hand of friendship reached out in sincerity. Slowly, I crawled out from under the slide and took her hand. For the next twelve years that we went to school together, I would never forget the way that Becky made me feel in that moment. Included. Worthy. Interesting. Loved.

Over the past week, I’ve found myself wanting to say the same thing that Becky said to me to some many hundreds of United Methodists: “You can play with me.” 

In the weeks since the Special Called Session of General Conference, I know that I have not been the only one hiding under the slide, feeling as if the whole world is chatting on the swings without me. We can’t really see or hear to know for sure whether that feeling is real or just our imagination. Perhaps everyone has found a corner of the playground to hide in themselves, or perhaps they are all twirling and talking together on the tire swing, spinning until they feel like they are going to throw up. Secrets are held close, and no amount of craning our necks will give us a clear view. 

Gatherings were announced for May, one open to the public, and one by invitation only; each offering a space to discuss how we would move forward, what would come next. The public gathering invited anyone who wanted to come to join the conversation. The selective gathering encouraged people to nominate others or nominate themselves if they wanted to be chosen. 

At first the reaction and condemnation of the selective talks was swift on social media, people said things like “we’ve tried this before” and “the time has passed for cis-het white men to be steering the ship.” As time passed, though, people became curious. They poked their heads out. Those that hadn’t had much interest in playing kickball found themselves wondering, “Will I be picked for the team?” Wondering whether they would be called special, chosen, leader, worthy, wise. Gradually, rigid resistance gave way to the expectant awaiting that fell over the crowd. 

In a moment when so many of us were feeling cast out, what a comfort it would be for somebody, anybody, to draw us into community, to help us feel less impotent. 

I was chatting on the phone with a friend on my way home from work when she went to check her email. “Maybe there will be one for me,” she said hopefully, like Charlie Bucket opening another chocolate bar, hoping to find that one last Golden Ticket to gain entry to Willy Wonka’s tour of delights. “Oh.” I heard the pain in her voice. The sound of one already excluded, being excluded still. It turned my heart inside out. 

All I could think in that moment, all that I’ve been able think in every moment since, were Becky’s words: “You can play with me.” 

I wanted to say it to her and I wanted to say it to you… and to be honest, it did not even start last week, I’ve wanted to say it every day since February 26th. 

I want to be on your team. The guys who have declared themselves team captains did not pick me either, friend. But that does not mean that we can’t play. I want to climb out from under my slide and pick dandelions with you. I want to join the crowd throwing the dodgeball up against the big stone wall. I want to take turns timing each other on the monkey bars, and spin in circles until we fall down laughing in the grass.

I want to play with you. I want you on my team.

I think you are so special, and worthy, and interesting, and wise. I think you are a leader who we cannot do this without. I am just such a big fan of yours, and I am sorry that I have not told you that enough. You amaze me every day when I see the brave and creative things you are doing passing through my newsfeed. 

Friend, I know that I can’t offer you a field to play on, or the newest toys, but I have a feeling that we can make do. That is when we have always had the most fun anyway. Running through the woods. Using our imaginations instead of our search engines. Creating toys out of sticks and rubber bands and dreams. That is when we have created the most beautiful things. When resources were low, but love was high. When power was lacking, but creativity was abundant. When we did not have the answers, but we had faith that God would give them. 

Friend, I do not know what comes next, and it has been so hard for me to pull myself out from under this slide. But now that I’m out here, standing in the warmth of the sun, I find my heart overflowing with the words that someone once said to me: You can play with me. You are not alone. You are fun, and wise, and incredible, and good. You are brave, and strong, and creative, and kind. You are simply fantastic, and I just can’t wait to see what holy mischief we can cook up together. 

Come on, let’s go adventuring, friend. You can play with me.

Body Taken Into Custody

“Why didn’t the women go to prepare the body right away?” my brilliant Jewish friend asked me yesterday as I tried to explain what Easter meant to me.

“Huh?” This wasn’t the way that I was trained to think about the three days in the tomb, but it seemed rather obvious to someone who had been educated to understand the Jewish way of doing things and how odd it would be to wait that long. Like leaving the image of God unloved.

I wondered how obvious that would have been to a Womanist theologian… to Mike Brown’s mother… to Sandra Bland’s mother. Of course, no one leaves the body of their loved one unprepared that long… in the street that long… in the morgue that long, unless it has been taken into custody. Unless it is guarded by men with swords or spears or guns. Unless the tomb is sealed with the Roman seal, or the murder scene surrounded by yellow police tape.

“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”

I had never understood Matthew 27:61 until Eri pointed out what was right in front of my eyes. The women didn’t come on the third day – they were there all along. They were there on the first day, sitting opposite the tomb, when Joseph of Arimathea put the body inside. They were merely prevented from honoring the body of Jesus the way they longed to do.

“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”

They did not choose to wait to take him in their arms, to bathe and prepare his body for burial. They were held back. The scene was surrounded by yellow tape, while soldiers stood guard to keep them away, and the male disciples hid in fear in the upper room.

Today, I’m thinking of those who can understand the pain of the Marys as they waited and watched. I’m thinking of those who understand what it is to walk the desert with your baby on your back, only to see her have her life taken by the State. I’m thinking of those who have had to stand back while the bodies of their loved ones are taken into custody as evidence, locked up behind the seal of the Empire.

Today, we wait, to see whether they will be able to hold this body in custody; whether they will succeed in using this Body as evidence of the power of the State… or whether it will become evidence of a power even Greater.

Update: More beautiful thoughts from Eri:

Additional thought on the Shabbat timing: even if a body cannot be buried because of Shabbat, it is not left alone. The body is accompanied by members of the community (seen as an honor for the witness and loving kindness toward the dead —- both protecting their body from further harm and comforting their soul in the hours after their death) until preparation and burial can occur. No matter the day, you can’t simply leave a being made in the imagine of Gd alone and unattended.

Love Is In The Lead

The mid-afternoon sun beat down painfully on the crowd of people surrounding Gretchen, as Dottie and I arrived simultaneously to provide back-up. They were the first 30 of what would become 120 of God’s children from Guatemala and Honduras and Brazil, dumped on the streets by vans from ICE and Border Patrol with no instructions or support this Palm Sunday. Chaos was the goal as mothers and fathers used their bodies to shield their little ones from the burning sun. Yet, as on so many occasions before, Gretchen Lopez was somehow there to intercept and redirect people from despair to hope, from confusion to affirmation, from danger to security.

“Bienvenidos a Tucson,” I hollered as Dottie and Jim and I walked up to join her, and Esperanza bounded towards the children. This “release to the streets” game that the administration plays was one we knew all too well. Earlier this year, El Paso had been hammered for weeks by the “release to the streets” strategy, and here in Tucson, Gretchen had already navigated it before. For days we had been getting warnings that ICE & Border Patrol would be delivering people to the streets, rather than the shelters, in what we know is the ongoing attempt to create the illusion of crisis and surge here on the border.

As The Inn and Casa Alitas were full, Gretchen and Dottie were calling around trying to get an answer from any church who might be willing to take them. It was Palm Sunday afternoon, and answers would not be quick to come by. The huge white wall of the building we were next to was acting like a mirror, intensifying the heat of the sun, and we needed to get them out of it.

Remembering that it was the Episcopalians night at the Campus Christian Center up the street, I told Gretchen that Rev’d Benjamin Garren would surely not mind some extra attendees this Palm Sunday. Dottie’s husband Jim and I began to shuttle people up the street from the parking lot of Office Max to the Campus Christian Center.

“Should I start to cook?” Ben asked as we entered. The answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes.”

Just as soon as we had gotten everyone settled, we got a call that they had released more to the streets. 60 this time. To the same big, white, scorching wall. The exhaustion and despair in 60 sets of eyes hit me like a punch in the gut as Gretchen and I pulled up. What would we do?

One of the Greyhound employees came around the corner with a cart full of water and began handing it out.

Soon another van pulled up from Border Patrol to unload more people. We begged them to take them to the church instead. But they opened the doors of the van and added another 10 people to the crowd. A volunteer from No More Deaths happened to be coming around the corner, and began to get the word out that we needed support.

There was no way we could get these people out of the sun fast enough, so Office Max gave us permission to move them to the shady grove of trees on the opposite side of their building. Gretchen communicated with other shelters in town, while Dottie dove back into calling churches to find some willing to take a big crowd on short notice.

The Mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, had sent Tucson Police Department officers to deliver teddy bears and to let us know that the city would be donating buses to take the people to wherever we could find room for them. Seeing the officers, it seems the last van from Border Patrol thought it wiser to unload around the corner, and soon another 20 people started walking up to us to bring the total to 120.

Back at the Campus Christian Center, Rev’d Bailey Pickens was getting the Presbyterians involved in supporting the first 30 who would now be staying there for what would become the Episcopalians’ all night feast and vigil to begin Holy Week.

After what seemed like ages, Dottie got the approvals from 3 churches, and Gretchen was able to begin sorting people into groups to head out. Nancy would be riding up with one city bus to take a large group to one church, while another bus would take a large group to another. Jamie and Colby and Jim would be shuttling the rest to the last.

While we waited for all the logistics to be worked out, and transportation to arrive, the volunteers from No More Deaths arrived and began to unload water and hand out snacks.

Finally, the streets were empty. There was no crisis, because our community knows how to take care of each other. You don’t have to be from Tucson to be one of us. All we did was take care of us today. All we did was act like family.

Getting back to the crowded CCC, I plopped into a chair, grateful to share the meal that the Episcopalians had prepared in the many hours that we had left them with little warning or information and a dramatically increased community.

Knowing it would be an all-nighter for me, the Wesley Student President came by to check on me and put a cup of water in front of me, before putting her fluency in Spanish to use explaining things to our guests.

“Gretchen is badass,” Bailey’s wife Kelli said to me as we watched her continue to make phone call after phone call to make sure that people got in touch with their families and to their destinations. The admiration in her voice let me know that I finally had someone who understood the level of surgeon-like skill that this woman has for the very difficult work she does. Because she is laity in a religious world that celebrates clergy, it is so easy for us to miss that humble, tireless force that skillfully interrupts injustices on a daily basis without ever expecting to be thanked, acknowledged or celebrated. It’s so easy for you to see me, so important for us to see her.

Today, it took dozens of people to work together under her leadership to intercept injustice, heartless cruelty, and the illusion of crisis. It took pastors, and bus drivers, and police officers, and No More Deaths volunteers, and church members, and Greyhound employees, and students to fight with everything they had and work together for love to win out today. And it did.

Tomorrow is another day, and we’ll face it when it gets here, but tonight, here in the Campus Christian Center, at the Inn, and at United Methodist Churches and other shelters all around Tucson, LOVE is in the lead. Love is in the lead.

 

To help replenish our supplies and support the work of The Inn, donations can be ordered from our Amazon Wishlist or monetary donations made here.

 

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When the hand that held you holds the stone

“I miss my dad,” I thought looking down at the creamed chipped beef on the plate in front of me in the Thunderbird Cafeteria outside of Canyon de Chelly. The last time I had seen my father, he was looking down over the railing into the entryway of the Dome in St. Louis where I stood locked out with many of the Queer clergy and allies after the Traditional Plan had passed at Special Session of General Conference. Did he see me? Was he looking for me? I don’t know. 

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Maybe it doesn’t matter. I was not the reason he was there. He was there to support my mother as she cast her vote for the Traditional Plan. 

A week later, sitting in the cafeteria of the old-fashioned motel in the town of Chinle in Navajo Nation, reminders of him were everywhere. They served all of his favorite foods – creamed chipped beef, corned beef hash, cream of wheat – all the foods that would have been popular when he road tripped through this region with his family in the 1950’s. Everywhere I turned, every vista and landmark, reminded me of him. As Wade and Hannah T. led us deeper into Navajo Nation, on this journey of “Decolonizing Theology,” I found myself coming to a deeper understanding of why a part of my father had never left this place.

That last time I had seen him, looking down at us with confusion as we sang, I had waved at him. I do not know if he saw me, but I wanted him to see me. I wanted him to find me. He had always found me before. Countless times, he had found me. 

I missed the weight of his hand on my back the hundreds of times that I had run to my room, plopped facedown on my bed, and emptied my eyes into my pillow case. It was predictable as clockwork that when the pillow under my face was as wet and worn out as my tiny shaking body, I would feel the weight of his hand on my back. Countless nights my little-girl heart pounded like a drum in my ears, every part of me straining, hoping for an apology that would never come. She never came. Instead, it was always him that came. It was always him that could not listen with indifference to my pain any more. He never said anything. There was not anything for him to say. The apology that was needed was not his to give. Quietly, he would slip into my room, sit down beside the limp body of the youngest of his four daughters, and place his hand on my back. Warm. Heavy. Comforting. Silent. It was not everything I needed, but it was enough to hold me together. 

Time after time, the former Drill Sargent transformed into a field medic, putting pressure on the wound to keep me from bleeding out. His hand on my back the only thing standing between me and irrevocable despair. His hand on my back silently fighting the lie that I was not and could not be loved. His hand thrust out at the final moment, pulling me back to safety again and again and again.

Like many Queer clergy, I am the intensely ethical child that my father raised me to be. My ethics are consistent, just different from his, emerging from a different identity and experience. Still, my convictions are passionate. My determination is tireless. My spirit is indefatigable. And somewhere along the journey towards solidarity, I left my home and  learned from those who have suffered more than I can imagine how not to cry. I learned how to swallow tears whole before they see the light of day. I learned to be a sponge, relentless in my absorbency of trauma, unwilling to allow the District Superintendent, or the Sheriff, or the white nationalist see a glimpse of my pain. 

I have not cried since General Conference; since I was locked out of the Dome; since I watched my dad turn and walk away. I do believe he was looking for me, but at the same time he was not in St. Louis to be there for me. He was there for her. There would be no hand on my back, no hand to catch me, so I better keep far away from the ledge. 

It had been somewhere around the time that John Lomperis’s photo went up in my parents’ kitchen that I knew this day would come. There he was staring back at me as I sat at my mother’s kitchen table. The place where we had drunk so many thousands of cups of tea; the place where my father had served me scrapple in the morning, and my mother pork chops in the evening. Now, across the small round table – my first altar – the smiling face of the Inquisition stared back at me, affixed with a magnet to my mother’s fridge.  

Home was no longer home. Tears were no longer safe. Love was no longer mine. 

In grief, I told my mother that someday our church would split, and that I would not be able to be in the same denomination with them anymore. Undeterred, she spent the next several years doing everything in her power to ensure that day would come to pass. 

Sitting in the spectator stands of General Conference, I watched all this unfold before my eyes. “Hi daddy,” I said to my father softly as I climbed past him up to the top row where the polity wonks were gathered. I longed to be with him, but he was not there for me. 

Over and over again, I heard the verse that had hounded my family throughout my childhood read out by the Traditionalists as an argument against the LGBTQIA community. 

“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19:3-6. It had been the reason that my father was not allowed to serve on the school board at my Christian school in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. My mother was his second wife. Throughout the twelve years that I was enrolled there, the shame lay heavy on my parents, heaviest on my father. Slowly grinding down. For his children, the shame was not heaped as heavily on us as it was upon the students who had two homes. At least my own parents were still married to one another. That put me one step up in my school’s hierarchy of shame. 

I remember one day when my brother and I decided to sit in on the adult Sunday School at our home church, Bethlehem United Methodist Church, when my parents were teaching. One couple in the Sunday school was unleashing vitriol, arguing that to divorce and remarry was an abomination. My brother and I turned red with embarrassment. This conservative couple was saying this to our parents’ face, in front of their apparently dishonorable and illegitimate offspring, not knowing – or not caring – that my mother was my father’s second wife. I will never forget how hot my face burned that day. 

Now, this same verse that had caused my parents so much pain when I was a child, was being used by their Traditionalist compatriots to heap shame upon me. And they were not speaking out against it, as my brother and I had in fact done in that Sunday school classroom for them. This weapon that had hacked at the roots of our family tree for forty years, they now watched without protest as it was lifted to sever one of their own limbs.

Those that shamed my parents called that correction “love,” just as my parents would now insist that what the Traditinalists are doing to me is “love.”

The exegesis of those who used a scripture about divorce to speak of the LGBTQIA community was confusingly inaccurate, and the irony close to unbearable. Rev. Anthony Tang got up and proposed an amendment that if we were going to use this verse, then we should also bar divorced and polygamous clergy from serving in the church. He was followed soon after, however, by my candidacy mentor, Rev. Dr. Joe DiPaolo, who got up to the mic with condescension and annoyance in his voice, to tell the gathered assembly not to be distracted by the amendment. In other words, not to fall for this attempt to reveal our hypocrisy and make us ethically and exegetically consistent. Instead, Joe encouraged them to stop wasting time and vote the amendment down so that they could push forward in focusing their exclusion solely on the LGBTQIA community. 

In the end, the same verse that had pushed my father’s head down in shame throughout my life, was used to deal a blow to me. It was used to argue against my morality, my humanity, my identity, my call. And it won. What a strange legacy to pass on…

…but I will not bow my head beneath this false weight. I refuse. I dissent. I defy. 

Thank you dad for holding me together decades ago, until I gained the strength to stand up to anyone… even you… even your beloved IRD… even your cruelly punitive WCA. 

I’ll be standing my ground right here, if you ever want to come and find me. I do not need a hand on my back, but I would take another friend in this struggle, if you could ever bring yourself to stand with me – and for me – on this side of the divide. 

Grief on the Margins of UMC General Conference

Amidst the concentric circles that sat within The Dome in St. Louis this week, it was the outer ring that leaves my heart hurting most as I walk away. We gathered for this Special Session of General Conference to discuss human sexuality and bring to a conclusion the battle that had raged in the church since the 1970’s. On the floor of The Dome, where football rivalries are usually waged, a different game played out. In the center, on that floor, the voting delegates, elected from around our global church, both clergy and laity, convened to cast their votes on our Queer family’s place in the church. Around them were the Bishops, and pages, and various support folks given access to the space. Above all that, in the stands, were the Observers, folks like me, who had come from far and near to witness what would take place.

Yet, even they were not the outer circle.

Outside of the stands, on the Concourse Level, were the non-unionized employees working the concessions stands of the Dome, serving us overpriced water and soda and popcorn. Positioned to their left and to their right in each opening were large television screens, broadcasting the images and sounds of everything happening inside on the microphone into their ears. The screens were there for the people in line to stay up to date on what was happening inside, and few of those people probably thought about the effect they were having on the people behind the counter, handing them their hotdog and taking their cash. 

As the Conference moved through the first couple days, something beautiful began to happen. Seeing those of us in rainbow stoles, our beautiful brothers and sisters behind the counters began to feel excitement and hope. Many of them began to wear rainbows themselves, at first just a little, and then fully bedecked. There was something of a sense of celebration to it. It was as if they were not only showing solidarity to us, but also celebrating an affirmation of themselves as supporters of LGBTQIA+ folxs who had found church people who agreed. 

Yet, as we got into discussions, there were those screens above their heads, the speakers blasting every word that was said into their hearing. They were not passive recipients of our presence, they were active participants in our church community this week… for those of us who had the eyes to see them, the ears to hear them, the hearts to love them. 

They, in kind, heard every ugly word we said from the microphone. They heard every bit of gaslighting. They heard every snide conversation held between Traditional Plan supporters waiting for their soda. They saw the results of every vote we passed to condemn our Queer family.

It did not take long for the rainbows to vanish, disappearing as quickly as the joyful smiles left their faces. 

My heart ached most of all for them. 

The amazing Rev. Sara Baron had a bag full of small yarn rainbows with notes that said “You are loved” that had been knit by a woman at her church and prayed over by the children of the congregation. She had given me a bunch of them to hand out to people who needed them, and as I walked by a concession stand, I handed them to one of our family behind the counter. “Wait, I want one!” the person next to her called out. They took them, and slipped them into their pocket, away from condemning eyes but still close to their hearts

The small bundles of colorful yarn matched the large yarn rainbow stole that I was wearing, and so word spread quickly among the workers that if you wanted one of the notes with rainbow yarn, to look for the lady in the big yarn stole. I found myself being hailed down as I walked through the halls, dropping pieces of rainbow yarn into people’s eager hands. The colorful drops of love, that matched the stole my Aunt Jackie knit, became like water running off the edge of the cup that overflows with mercy.

When the Traditional Plan passed, and I rushed down to the lobby to make sure that Queer family and allies were safe from police, we found ourselves locked out. Police barred us from re-entering to the closing worship service. I could not get to my belongings, and I could not get to my family behind our Concession Stands. I could not remind them they were loved. I could not tell them we would still fight. I could not tell them this changed nothing about how precious and beloved they were. I could not tell them that I will still put my collar on this Thursday and serve Holy Communion. 

Yet, though separated by police, and gates and distance, the air between us was clear. So, when we sang out at the top of our voices there in that lobby about the unconditional love of God, I know they heard us.

I know they heard us.

I know they heard.

I know. 

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

 

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)