Monday, March 31, 2008

Harvey O. - Atlanta

Harvey O. is a member of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta who made the following comments at the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church Listening Sessions for delegates to the General Conference:

One night when I was younger, I awoke to the sounds of breaking glass and screaming. I ran to the kitchen to find my mother and the guy that she was with at each other’s throats. It was a horrible scene. So, as “the man of the house” I decided that I needed to jump in and help protect my mother. In the process, I was thrown against the wall and was banged up pretty bad. Then at one point, the couch fell back on top of me and I was pinned to the ground under it. At that moment, I prayed to God to protect my family, hoping for a miracle.

Well, of course, that man left our lives and we were left to fend for ourselves. After selling most of our earthly possessions, my single mother of two boys, in a small rural town of West Texas, was forced to make it on her own. That is when our church stepped in. The people of our United Methodist Church took us under their wing and helped provide. They became for me a loving extension of my family. As I grew up, I saw Christ’s love played out in my own life from the people of this church. They didn’t seem to care if my mother had been married and divorced several times or if her sons were cheerleaders, they loved us because Christ loved us.

This is part of the reason I am here today. I am greatly concerned about the issues that face our denomination especially as it comes to full inclusion and membership for all people.

As I got older, I was able to attend a United Methodist university and even had the honor of serving as a youth director for four years at a local church. Throughout this time, the ideas of love, service, and acceptance where pervasive in and around the life of the United Methodist churches I was a part of. It was during this time, that our motto “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” came out and I knew that this was a phrase befitting the United Methodist Church.

I then moved from there to Austin, to North Carolina, back to Texas, and have now found myself here in Atlanta, GA. In each of these moves, I searched fervently for a church home that showed me love, service, and acceptance for me, just as I am. As I searched in Atlanta, I was blessed to attend a larger church in downtown Atlanta.

The first Sunday I was there I listened to people speak about their experiences in summer mission projects both youth and adults. Here again were people who not only believed in God but acted out Christ’s love just as my church family had done to me so many years ago. Then it came time for the sermon. The three ministers got up and did sermonetts. The first spoke about how to have loving committed heterosexual relationships and be in communion with God through Christ’s love. The second spoke passionately about how this same commitment could be found in a life of singleness. And, then the third spoke about same-sex relationships, how to have that same loving commitment and communion with God through Christ’s love.

As I sat there, I realized that this church not only preached the Gospel but lived the ideals of Christ I had searched for since leaving my home church; love, service, and acceptance regardless of who the person or persons might be. The United Methodist Church--a place that my grandparents who have been married for 53 years can be accepted, my single mother could be accepted, and me, a young gay man could also be accepted. All of us, loved by Christ and a part of His flock.

So, I come before you today asking you to truly look at the legislation that comes before you this year at General Conference. Policies that exclude people from the United Methodist Church and ultimately from the Body of Christ do not support “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” and should not be a part of our Discipline. Full inclusion of all people in all aspects of our church is vital to the mission of Christ. At the same time, pastoral authority and giving them the right to decide who is and who is not worth of becoming full members of the Body of Christ is not in any way what Christ has called us to be about.

After General Conference, it is my prayer that I will still be allowed to be a member of the church that helped in forming me into the man that stands before you today. A church that truly is committed to loving, serving and accepting all of God’s people; black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, the youth and the elderly; women and men---all of us.

Monday, March 24, 2008

From the Editor: Recent Visitors to Methodists United

In the short week that has been live, I have been pleased at the number of submissions and at the number of hits to the site. As I checked with the company that is providing analysis of hits to the site, I am pleased to see that persons in other parts of the country (and in one case, in another part of the world) are visiting the site. The above shows the areas from which the 214 hits from 123 unique visitors this first week have come.

Thanks for spreading the word. Keep it up and encourage your friends or family in other parts of the country/world to share their stories.

It may be a story of acceptance by a congregation or it may be a story where one is forced to live in the closet regarding sexuality in order to be able to worship or it may be a story where one has been not accepted into a congregation because of one's sexuality. All stories are important.

Your story is powerful and compelling and can help others understand why the United Methodist Church MUST be a church that welcomes all. Email it to

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter at Saint Mark

Joe M. - Atlanta

Joe M. is a graduate student at Georgia Tech and shares the following story:

I was brought up in the southern Baptist tradition. If I visited my grandparents, we would sometimes get to go to my grandma's Methodist church. I always liked her church more than mine; however, I would be in big trouble with my family if I ever admitted it. Her church seemed to care more. The United Methodist Church entered back into my life on the first Sunday as a freshman in college. I wandered over to the Wesley Foundation where the only on-campus Sunday morning worship service took place.

In 2004, I had the opportunity to attend the United Methodist Student Movement Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. The hot topic of the conference dealt with whether the Methodist Church should include Gays and Lesbians in the life of the church. Myself along with a handful of other students from my Wesley Foundation strongly opposed anything that said the Gays and Lesbians are welcome or accepted. We were sticking to our "Morals" and holding our ground because we didn't want the church to succumb to the "gay agenda" that was rampantly affecting our world. My team of conservative moral enforcers held tightly to the fact that homosexuality is a choice.

On the last day of the conference, my group was enraged over the reconciling actions of the ministers performing our closing service. They did this while wearing Rainbow Colored stoles!!! On the outside, I was furious that the church I loved was losing its moral structure by pushing for full inclusion of gays.

On the inside I was battling my own feelings of hate towards myself for having homosexual tendencies. After that conference, I spent nearly 3 years in ex-gay programs and counseling that sought to change me… It didn't work and I grew extremely depressed and unstable. Suicide became a real option to help me end my state of misery last February. I continued to believe that a life as a gay man would be worse of a disgrace on me and my family than the action of taking my own life.

It was then, thankfully, that I completely surrendered my life to Christ and trusted that he would bring something good out of my situation. After a season of letting go and trusting that God wanted the best for me, I started to have compassion for those around me who were also homosexual. I shared my heart with my Wesley Pastor telling him my dilemma. He then hugged me and said that God loved me just as I am.

The more I learn about the UMC, the more I am convinced that our church should not be one that discriminates. Our church should lead by example and stop the homophobic message that Gays and Lesbians are anything less than children of God. Despite the horror stories of so many of my fellow Gays and Lesbians, I still see many of our UMC church leaders moving forward in their own hate and fear. I've seen this hate on the 2008 UMC delegates faces while I shared my story. It's the same hate that I had towards Gays and Lesbians in 2004 while at the UMC student movement. Only by letting go of my own hate and discrimination was I able to move forward and be an impact on Christ's Kingdom today. I hope you will consider opening your hearts up to including all of God's children in our church.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Kim L. - Atlanta

Kim L. shared the following introduction to the Gospel of Luke written by Eugene Peterson and taken from his contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message. In commenting on the testimonies presented at the North Georgia United Methodist Listening sessions she said, "I was struck at how his words exactly fit what each of you were saying about the importance of inclusion in the church. If you are willing, it isn't too long and the message is clear and may well ring marvelously true in your ears as well!"

From Eugene Peterson's introduction to Luke:

Most of us, most of the time, feel left out--misfits. We don't belong. Others seem to be so confident, so sure of themselves, 'insiders' who know the ropes, old hands in a club from which we are excluded.

One of the ways we have of responding to this is to form our own club, or join one that will have us. Here is at least one place where we are 'in' and the others 'out.' The clubs range from informal to formal in gatherings that are variously political, social, cultural, and economic. But, the one thing they have in common is the principle of exclusion. Identity or worth is achieved by excluding all but the chosen. The terrible price we pay for keeping all those other people out so we can savor the sweetness of being insiders is a reduction of reality, a shrinkage of life.

Nowhere is this price more terrible than when it is paid in the cause of religion. But religion has a long history of doing just that, of reducing the huge mysteries of God to the respectability of club rules, of shrinking the vast human community to a 'membership.' But with God there are no outsiders.

Luke is a vigorous champion of the outsider. An outsider himself, the only Gentile in an all-Jewish cast of the New Testament writers, he shows how Jesus includes those who typically were treated as outsiders by the religious establishment of the day: women, common laborers (sheepherders), the radically different (Samaritans), the poor. He will not countenance religion as a club. As Luke tells the story, all of us who have found ourselves on the outside looking in on life, with no hope of gaining entrance (and who of us hasn't felt it?) now find the doors wide open, found and welcomed by God in Jesus."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Julie A. - Atlanta

Julie A is yet another United Methodist member who spoke at one of the North Georgia Listening Sessions. Her comments follow.

Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ. I speak to you today as an ally, yet one who experienced both rejection and acceptance from the first days of my life. Born into this church, but not in the traditional way – born to an unwed mother and given up. I found a temporary home in a Methodist Childrens Home and from there, a loving family that adopted me, and I continued to be raised in the Methodist and then United Methodist Church.

From this church I learned love of God and neighbor, to take the word of God to people unable to come to the church, that God gives us strength in our faith to say and do what others might not be strong enough to do; so, I chose it as my own in 1974. I was an ally for inclusion before I even knew such a phrase existed. I had a number of friends come out to me in high school and met others that were openly gay. I was at friends’ sides as they recovered from suicide attempts and grieved with another’s family and friends at his death. I fought with my last husband over his treatment of his twin sons when they came out to him. I encouraged a friend to come to church more often, when she only felt comfortable hiding in the crowds at Christmas and Easter. And I despaired with my daughter when she was raped. At 14. In the church. We of the church are not comfortable talking about sexuality at any level. In speaking to some of my gay and lesbian friends, I have found the treatment my daughter & I received in and by the church after her rape was much the same as theirs as GLBT persons: discomfort, whispered words of ugliness and hate, ministers who wouldn’t look you in the eye, being made to feel less than welcome, and bold statements of you should leave. All this from the church that I loved – I learned first hand rejection at its worst over something that didn’t involve choice: my friends did not choose to be LGBT anymore than my daughter chose to be raped. At that point, I decided to become more involved in working for inclusion in the UMC. I was not going to let my church reject anyone. Our discomfort should not be the basis to determine another’s worth.

Our church is clear that homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. This part of our Discipline lets us all know we are beloved, forgiven children of God and valued in His eyes. No one, straight or GLBT, can find fault with considering themselves of sacred worth.

Yet at the same time this book claims that what is of sacred worth in God’s sight is incompatible with the teaching of the church. This one sentence gives permission for the more close-minded of our members to state one is an abomination, discounts or ignores God’s word, has been lead astray, is a so-called Christian, a heretic, a reprobate, and a minion of Satan – all of these I have heard spoken by sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church. The speakers apparently believe that the incompatibility clause gives them the right to doubt and question another’s faith. We have become less than hospitable to the stranger and even more so to our own members. The incompatibility clause authorizes our current policies and practices of the denial of membership rights and prohibitions against funding, ordination and marriage for LGBT persons.

I’ve lived in 5 Jurisdictional Conferences and 8 Annual Conferences and been a member of 3 local churches. I have seen that we have great differences between them and even within them. A year ago I accepted an invitation from a person I’d never met to join them in worship at St. Mark. That invitation changed my life. I felt the presence of God as I stepped through the doors, felt the joy of the congregation as they worshipped, saw a church that I had thought only existed in my head and dreams. One where diversity is visible; where all are truly welcome; of faith in action. A church I transferred my membership to 5 months later. A church that is a shining example of what we can be as a UMC if we open our hearts and minds and doors to the possibilities of all God has created.

We as a church need to recognize we are all God’s children and created as intended. We are losing our credibility as Christians without change. 8 million voices strong allows for a lot of change. We can make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World if & when we start in our own pews. “Open hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” should be a reality in all churches, not just a select few. You, as our delegates, have the power to vote to remove the incompatibility clause throughout the Discipline, ensuring sexual orientation and gender identity are no longer barriers to membership, funding, ordination and marriage. May your hearts be warmed and opened to the reality of full inclusion for all God’s children. If it is so, your voices and votes may continue to be a minority but know that you will be in the prayers of unnamed thousands and have power in your votes to take a bold step towards a better future for our UMC and the entire church of Jesus Christ.

Thank you for allowing me this time to speak to you and blessings on the journey ahead of you to General Conference.

Jackie W. - Atlanta

Jackie W. is a Lay Leader at Saint Mark United Methodist Church and shared her story at a Listening Session for official delegates from the North Georgia Conference to the 2008 General Conference.

I was born in East Point, Georgia, along with 3 other siblings in a 5 room duplex with a full size basement. I also had a half brother from my mom’s first marriage. I remembered attending church until I was around 9 or 10 years old. I also remembered receiving my very first Bible. It had a white leather cover with my name inscribed in gold letters. I was so proud of that Bible. At age 9, my mom suffered a severe stroke paralyzing her and she was no longer able to work. As my mom was recovering, we lived with my grandparents in the Sylvan Hills area. We continue to attend church for about another year and then we moved to Forest Park where life began to change quite a bit for us as a family. My mom became a very heavy drinker and was on quite a bit of medication for her illness which enabled her from being the mother we needed at that time in our lives.

With my dad being out of town most of the week, my brother and sisters were pretty much left to fend for ourselves. During my years as a teenager, I stopped attending church all together until I began playing sports in high school and began attending a Baptist church on Sunday evenings with the basketball team. It was not a very pleasant experience for me. The picture I have of that preacher was someone who always appeared to be very angry and was always screaming and hollering, which wasn’t what I had grown up with. I often left church feeling very frightened and afraid, not loved and affirmed, which I had remembered in my early years at Capitol View Methodist Church. I began to find reasons to stop going to church with the team and finally quit church all together. I also played softball during the summers where I began dating my softball coach’s son. By this time in my life my sisters had both gotten married and my younger brother was still in elementary school. After dating for awhile, he asked me to marry him. By this time in my life I was already beginning to feel the pressures of having the responsibility of taking care of my younger brother because my mom was in no shape to and my dad was still spending quite a bit of time on the road. My mom was not very thrilled with the marriage idea and it wasn’t because she didn’t like the guy and it wasn’t till later in my life that I realized my mom was more attuned to my sexuality than I was.

I remembered a time when I wanted to go visit one of my girlfriend’s who I spent a lot of time with. My dad was out of town and my mom had been drinking most of the day. We began to argue about me going and as I was leaving out the door, she yelled to me and called me a lesbian queer. I really didn’t think much about the word lesbian because I had never heard it before, but I had heard the word queer and knew those were the people who were always getting picked on and made fun of at school. Again I really wasn’t too worried about the queer word because I knew that was not me, I had never got picked on at school because I was very popular. I decided to go ahead with the wedding against my mom’s wishes and 3 days before my wedding, she died. Everything in my life went down hill from there. The entire year of my marriage was filled with confusion and turmoil. I began to become more and more distant from my husband and with the help of my boss, who really became like a mother to me began to see the struggles I was having and stepped in to help me with my divorce. My husband was a very good man with very devoted and caring parents who both treated my like their very own daughter.

For the next 20 years, I tried countless times to fight these feelings of wanting to be with a woman. I dated several men which ended up even worse than it was when I was married. I just never could find myself compatible with someone of the opposite sex. At one point I even tried to commit suicide because of all the depression I was beginning to feel in my life.

I was very close to my half brother that lived in Tullahoma and I would visit several times throughout the year. He was the first one in my family I came out to and I will never forget what he said. He told me he already knew about my sexuality and had known for a long time and that would never change his love for me. In the summer of 95 my brother became ill and was diagnosed with cancer. By December of that same year he was dead at the age of 57. He spent the last 2 weeks of his life in a comma and his wife and I spent each day at the hospital from sun up till sun down. During those 2 weeks, I saw an outpour of love that I had never seen before. A day did not go by that someone from their church would stop in to pray with us, bring us food or just to say they were thinking and praying for my brother and the family. I was overwhelmed from all the outpour of love and care from people, some of which my sister in law barely knew. I remember seeing the strength and peace that would come to her after those visits and how much comfort was brought by all that caring and love for my brother by his church family. At that moment I remember saying to myself, this is what it is all about. It was the love I had witnessed and been a part of over those last 2 weeks and it was coming from total strangers who I had never met or even seen before except at the occasional holiday times when I would visit and attend church with my brother and his wife. On my way home from his funeral, I remember asking God to help me find that kind of true love. I wanted to be free of living a double life of pretending to be someone I didn’t even know. I apologized to God for the lies I had been living, which was the real sin, not my sexuality which had been given to me by God at birth. I asked God to help me find that person I was created to be.

Over the next year, I began visiting a friend’s family church and was almost ready to join when she told me about a church in midtown Atlanta that she would like to visit and asked me to come. That church was Saint Mark. It was in the spring of 96 around Easter and I will never forget how I felt after leaving that service. Yes, it was a new beginning for me. Mike Cordle was the pastor at that time and Mike in his usually manner was going up and down the pews to each row welcoming everyone and calling most people by name. I couldn’t help but notice how friendly everyone was and how genuine they were as they spoke and welcomed me to the church. I immediately began to experience the same feeling I had when people would come by the hospital to pray with us as my brother was slipping away. It was in that moment I began feeling God’s awesome power of love and acceptance I had prayed for and my soul had been searching for as well. Each week I began hearing affirmations of God’s unconditional love and how we are all precious in his site. I was once again beginning to feel whole and alive. St. Mark began to give me the strength and courage to live as the person God had created me to be and I began to accept the love and grace that had been there all the time regardless of what I had been told in the past.

After the first couple of years, Mike asked me if I would like to be a delegate for annual conference representing St. Mark. At this point I wasn’t really sure what it meant to be a delegate but I thought what better way to learn more about this connectional Church I was becoming a part of. I will never forget my first experience at conference as I sat and listened to stories of so much division and couldn’t help thinking was this the church that was so loving and accepting in Midtown Atlanta? Needless to say I left conference that first year feeling confused and rejected, but this time it was by my own Church. Something had to be wrong. For the next several years, I would leave annual conference feeling rejected and overwhelmed with anger and hurt. One time I remember it was a Thursday afternoon just as the delegation again voted down any small glimpse of hope for full inclusion, and I begin to become overwhelmed with emotion. As I stood, and tears of pain and angry streamed down my face, I watched other delegates file out and not one person even acknowledged me or even as much made eye contact. I could honestly say, I felt as if I was the neighbor lying on the side of the road waiting for my good Samaritan to come and rescue me, but it didn’t happen. As the tears continued to come and everyone was walking past, I kept hearing that voice saying over and over, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. I continue to struggle at times about leaving the church but then I hear the voices and see the faces at St. Mark that inspire me and the sermons that feed my soul that once again reinforce my love for this church and the United Methodist Church and the love I know I feel from God. It is in those moments, I am thankful this Church is diverse enough to include all of Gods children.

As I close, I give thanks to you and God for allowing me the opportunity to share my story and my concerns. I also ask you to prayerful consider voting for inclusion by removing all the exclusionary language which limits full participation of LGBT persons in the life of the Church. This includes:

• Advocating for full membership rights (Judicial Council 1032, ¶214)

• Removing the incompatibility clause (¶161G)

• Removing prohibitions on marriage and holy unions for LGBT families (¶161G, ¶161C, ¶341.6 ¶2702.1(b))

• Removing the prohibition on ordination of LGBT persons (¶304.3, ¶2702.1(b))

• Removing the funding restrictions for ministry to and with LGBT persons (¶806.9)

And finally I would like to end with a quote by Rev. Don Messer in an address to the United Methodist Council of Bishops in May 2002: The exclusion of homosexual persons from the life, leadership, and rites of the Church threatens the very nature of the Church itself. It not only cause irreparable harm to the children of God but also to the Body of Christ itself. Each time a person is rejected or ejected from the koinonia fellowship of United Methodism, a new wound is inflicted and the Body of Christ is broken once again.

Thank you again for your time and may God continue to guide you in the decisions you will face at General Conference.

Matthew M. - Atlanta

North Georgia Conference Listening Session Testimony of Matthew M., Lay Leader at Saint Mark UMC, Atlanta Emory District, March 9, 2008

My name is Matthew M. and I have been in a loving and supportive relationship with my partner Bill W. for almost 35 years. You can imagine that we have a lot of stories to tell in our 35 years together, but I want to share one of them with you.

When we first came to Atlanta in 1984 after living in New York City for 10 years, we decided to find a church home. We are an interracial couple and were members of a Baptist congregation in Harlem while we were in New York. So we decided to join a predominantly black Baptist congregation here in Atlanta. It soon became apparent that we were going to be the subjects of an antigay campaign at the church, so we left shortly after joining.

I decided to do a little exploring around our neighborhood in Cascade Heights to see what churches were available close to our house. I visited a number of churches up and down Cascade and finally settled on Cascade United Methodist which at that time was located at 875 Cascade, a couple of miles from our house. After visiting Cascade for awhile I asked Bill to join me, and he agreed that it seemed like a warm and loving congregation, so we met with the pastor, Rev. Walter Kimbrough.

I wanted to get a sense from Rev. Kimbrough about how the congregation would feel about a white guy joining, and he was very supportive and shared with us how he came to Cascade when it was transitioning from a white congregation to a predominantly black congregation. So he personally was happy that I wanted to join and encouraged me to do so.

Bill wanted to know how United Methodists regarded gay people since we did not want to put ourselves through the ordeal that we faced at the Baptist church. Rev. Kimbrough laid out what the Discipline has to say about the issue of homosexuals in the church stressing that gay persons are individuals of sacred worth no less than heterosexual persons. He said that the church is still wrestling with the issue (this was back in 1984) but that he saw progress in the time that he was a minister and that personally he was very supportive of our rights as gay persons who are children of God. He also said that as long as he was Senior Pastor of Cascade we would never have to fear being subjected to antigay sermons from the pulpit.

Well that’s all we needed to hear before we decided that this was the church for us! Shortly after we joined, we invited Rev. Kimbrough and his wife Marjorie to dinner. Rev. Kimbrough accepted (Marge did not make this dinner but did join us for a subsequent dinner). It was a wonderful evening of fellowship, and before he left we asked Rev. Kimbrough to bless our house since we had just moved in. Not only did he bless our house, but he asked God’s blessing on us as a couple. So we felt affirmed and blessed as a couple and continued to grow in our knowledge of God at Cascade serving on various ministries including Trustees, Hospitality, Homeless, Sunday School and by singing in a number of choirs.

After 16 years at Cascade where there was tremendous growth in membership, we decided, after much prayer, to find a smaller supportive congregation. A friend of ours who we met at Cascade, Rev. Bridget Young, who currently serves on the staff at Emory University, suggested St. Mark. We had friends who attended St. Mark and after visiting and meeting with the pastor at that time, Mike Cordle, we decided to make the transition. Of course we spoke with Rev. Kimbrough, and he gave us his blessing and a wonderful letter of introduction to St. Mark.

On the Sunday we joined (we were the first members of the Millennium in 2000); we were introduced to the congregation. When Rev. Cordle finished giving the congregation our background as a couple, the entire congregation stood and welcomed us with sustained applause. So we have been there ever since, Bill serving on the Administration Board and me as a Lay Leader, also as leaders of the Couples Sunday School Class and with the Homeless Ministry’s Breakfast Club. Our current pastor, Jimmy Moor, has become a spiritual bulwark for both of us as well as a dear friend.

I wanted to give you an idea why we have been so happy to be part of the United Methodist Church and why we personally feel that the United Methodist Church should be inclusive of gay persons. It seems to me that this is what God would have us to do and where we should naturally be moving as a denomination. Rev. Kimbrough told us back in 1984 that there would be many hurdles ahead, and I believe we have managed to overcome some of those challenges. But there still remains a major stigma against us as gay persons within the structure of the UMC.

I would encourage all of you to vote for full inclusion by restoring membership rights to gay persons, removing the incompatibility clause, repealing the prohibitions against funding, ordination and marriage of gay persons. I know that this cannot be done overnight, but I think it’s time for us to begin this process. Please be prayerful about your decision.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cheryl T. - Atlanta

Cheryl T. also presented her story at the North Georgia Listening Conference and she shares it with us here as well.

Why I am a Methodist

My father’s mother’s family became Methodists when my grandma was a little girl. It had been a long, hard winter, and back in the horse and buggy days, the two miles into town to attend the Baptist church just wasn’t possible. When the roads dried and cleared enough for the family to finally make it to church that spring, the deacon who was responsible for passing out the communion cups and bread decided to bypass the pew where my grandma’s family sat. It must have been humiliating – back in those days, not partaking of communion labeled one as a “sinner”. My grandma said that on the way home, she overheard her father say to her mother, “Well, Florence, it seems we’re not welcome at the Baptist church any more. I guess we’ll go to the Methodist church now.”

Because of the decision that deacon made so long ago, my father was raised in that small town community Methodist church. My mother forsook her Baptist heritage to join his when she married him, and so my brothers and I were raised as Methodists. We rarely missed a Sunday – I received a 9 month perfect attendance pin when I was a year old, and I had not missed a Sunday school class in twelve years (including vacations!) when I graduated from high school.

Doing what I’m supposed to do
My husband and I met on the college debate team. He was, and is, one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. He grew up in the Catholic tradition, also with parents who never missed a Sunday of church. Like so many of our generation, he has been disillusioned with religion in general and Catholicism in particular since becoming an adult. Though I respect him for his intelligence, I do not pressure him in his decision, but there have been times when I wished he would join my community of faith. After our first six years of marriage where we lived in another town, we moved back to my hometown. In a way, it was like I’d never left. I resumed the routines of small town life, and became active once again in church, as it was expected of me. I served in whatever capacity I was asked – Board of Trustees, church historian, Nominations and Personnel committee, Administrative Council Secretary, and on the Pastor/Parish committee.

The Great Divide
Our church was small, and struggled to pay apportionments each year. We were all aware that, in order to survive, we needed members. As our community grew, we had visitors nearly every Sunday. My mother would push me out of the pew during the last hymn so that I could run and greet them before they slipped out the door after the service without talking to anyone. I had my own reasons for doing this, too. I wanted to find some friends who lived close by – people that were maybe even like me, professional, well-read, concerned about the world outside their town.

I know that church isn’t the only place one should look for friends, but it was one of the few places I frequented regularly other than work. I kept hope that there would be people with whom I had something in common, and wouldn’t look strangely at me because I was the only married childless woman over 30 years of age.

During the early part of 2000, there was a lesbian couple who started coming to church. Again, we formed posses to make sure they were welcomed. When they joined the church, I thought it was wonderful that my fellow church members, many of whom I had respected since childhood, warmly welcomed them. I was so happy that we were finally getting some people who were of different lifestyles and backgrounds, and to me, diversity is a good thing.

Two years later, we decided to produce a pictorial directory. It’s a thankless task, rounding everyone up and scheduling appointments, but three retired ladies immediately volunteered, which seemed like a blessing.

Until…the lesbian members signed up to have their picture made together with their son. The directory ladies took exception to that, and without consultation with either the minister or the Book of Discipline, one of them called the couple to inform them that they would not be able to have their picture made as a “family”. In their thinking, if they were published in the directory as a couple, this could be construed as “promoting the homosexual lifestyle”.

The week prior to the picture appointments, the Administrative Council chair called a meeting after church. Once the meeting was called to order, the Administrative Council chair ceded the floor to the PPR chair, who then made his own motion that “no one would be allowed to have their picture made together who was not related by marriage or blood”.

In the discussion period before the vote, two of the directory ladies’ husbands (who were on the Council) came forth with what they purported to be personal knowledge of what Jesus would do in this instance. One man proclaimed that Jesus told him personally that while it was okay for there to be homosexual persons in the church, they should not be allowed to have their picture made together. While I can respect that someone might have a personal experience with Jesus, I recognized the same words from his wife the month prior, and I also know that this man’s alcoholism might have been the cause of his purported dream. Another husband agreed, apparently not realizing we knew he hadn’t spoken to his gay child in several years.

(It’s a small town – there are no secrets.)

As the youngest person in the room, I was a bit intimidated but finally raised my hand to speak. With a quavering voice, I asked how we as a congregation could say “We welcome you in Christian love”, and then turn around and say that these very same people would not be allowed all of the rights and privileges accorded to everyone else in the church.

The vote was called that “only people who were related by blood or marriage could have their picture taken together”.

To prevent confusion, those who voted had to stand up. Half of the people in the room stood in favor of the resolution, several abstained, and when the nay votes were called, there were two of us. Two. There would have been three, but my mother, also a council member, was in Florida that week.

That was the moment when I became an adult in my church. I realized I would never agree or think like some of these people, even though I had respected them just simply because they were an adult. My respect, and in some cases, admiration was gone.

Tears of Sorrow
I fled in tears before the meeting was even over. Over the next few months, I cried a lot, every time I thought about the actions displayed by my former Sunday School teachers, choir director, youth counselor and supposedly caring adults.

So they never really thought everyone was equal or welcome?

Two months later, I forced myself to go to church. When I did, I saw some of those very people, victorious and proud, coming over to hug me and tell me they missed me. Was it because I seemed “normal” to them?
I broke into tears again, and had to leave before the service was over. My mother kept telling me to just ignore them, but I couldn’t. They seemed so pleased to “won” and ridded the church of the “sinners”. I couldn’t find God in the center of all the hypocrisy, and so I left.

My husband, a wise man, said, “Church should NEVER make you unhappy.” He was right, but I was not only sad, I was angry, too - angry at myself for my belief that “Jesus loves me” applied everyone. Had I gotten it wrong?

What got me through those months were the conversations I had with my minister, my parents, and the one person who stood with me against the vote. He was, and is, a person I’d always admired and respected, and to know that HE agreed with me helped quell any doubt I’d had about whether I’d done the right thing.

Several months later, at the minister’s request, the District Superintendent came to preside over a church-wide meeting to address this issue. Most of the people who had voted for the motion were there, and they brought some demands – that homosexual persons be allowed to join the church, sing in the choir, play the piano or organ, and put money in the offering plate, but not be allowed to participate in any of the other ministries of the church. They also said that the minister should be terminated immediately, simply because he didn’t take their side in this issue.

After all the complaints had been voiced, the District Superintendent finally patiently but exasperatedly advised this group, “If you have a problem with gay people, you need to examine your own heart and figure out WHY you have a problem with gay people.”

With the realization that they were not going to get support from the United Methodist hierarchy, all of the instigators drifted away over the next few months, back into congregations that were more conservatively aligned with their own views. Other than a nasty letter-writing campaign started by one of those ex-members, nothing more has occurred, and my church of origin is growing again. Not surprisingly, many people started to come because they had heard that the Methodist church indeed practiced that “Open Door” policy, and they wanted to be a part of that.

Learning from this experience
For me, though, I never wanted to be in that kind of situation again. I was hurt so badly, and I had such a bad experience that it hurt to think about going back to church there. None of this was God’s fault of course, but I guess I sort of took it that way, asking God, “How could you let this happen? How could you let these ignorant people do such a thing? I’d see these people around town, and for a time, it was all I could do to be polite. I was not a good Christian, for I’d wish terrible things on them…maybe a case of leprosy or something nice and Biblical.

I knew it was time to move on. I missed going to church. I had heard about St. Mark from friends of friends, and so, one Sunday in September 2002, I made the hour-long drive to St. Mark, walked up the stone steps leading to those three red doors, and I was home at last.

I found God
From the first sermon, I knew this was my place. The feel, the warmth of this congregation was different, special. I experienced hugs during the greeting time. I saw people of all colors and ages, straight and gay, couples with children and couples with no children, worshipping together. And I heard the choir – oh, what a blessing they are. From the first Sunday, I was transported by the awesome music. I thought to myself, this is what worship should be – when you let everyone in the door and encourage them to give of their gifts.

Tears of Joy
I spent the next year crying during nearly every service, but this time, the tears were of happiness. I had never felt God speak to me before, but I knew that whenever these tears came, God was touching my heart, and saying, “See? I told you I’d take care of you. All will be well.” It still happens, and for that, I’ll always be grateful that I had the experiences I did to get me through the doors of St. Mark. I have never been confident in my faith, but I am now.

My mother was none too happy that I left my “church of origin”, but when she saw how happy I have become and how many friends I have made, and how much I have learned, she now understands why I needed to change. My father just wanted me to be happy, and I am.

Everyone is welcome
I know that everyone has to find their own way to God. This is my way – being with the incredible diversity of people within the walls of St. Mark. When I worship now, I never forget to thank God for all these people who bring their talents and their love and their longing for God. They set a path for me, they walk beside me, and they encourage me in my Christian life.

St. Mark is a place where I know that no one will ever be excluded, no matter their color, race, sexual orientation, whether they have children or not, whether they have a home or not, whether they are wealthy or poor. I have people from all walks of life and life experiences surrounding me and sharing their gifts – singing to me, teaching me, discussing theology with me, and setting an example for me by their service to others. They feed me spiritually. I have so many learning opportunities available to me now. We have at least twelve former ministers and seminary students in the congregation alone. I will never ever be able to learn and grow as much as I want to in my Christian life, but I’m sure going to try.

I found my calling
I consider it a privilege to be able to invite people to church and know that I am doing what God meant for me to do for now. I’m not a wallflower, and I try to use my “personality” to welcome folks and connect them into St. Mark. If someone gets up the courage to walk through those red doors, I am going to do my best to make sure they’re comfortable and welcomed, and loved, and then I am confident that God’s presence will manifest in their lives.

I found my church
I am so proud to be a United Methodist.
I truly believe in practicing “Open Hearts, Open Doors, and Open Minds”.
I would want it to always be that way.
Thank you for listening.

Linda W. - Atlanta

Linda W., a member of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta, has volunteered to speak to several of the North Georgia Conference delegates about her story and her concerns for the future of the United Methodist Church. She has shared her comments below.

Thank you for meeting with me today. I wanted to talk with you about my support and concerns for the United Methodist Church. I have been a member since 2001 and feel I have truly found a home there. My story of how I got there goes back about 15 years to when I came out as a Lesbian to my family. It was at Christmas while I was back in Louisiana visiting my family of origin. My partner of 13 years and I had spent all of our Christmases apart and decided we wanted to spend that important holiday together. So while I was home, back in Louisiana, I told my mother and brother and sister. My mother said she still loved me no matter what. My brother said he had already figured it out. My sister, however, did not have such a supportive reaction. The weather was cold and cloudy and we were in the car headed to the mall for some last minute shopping when I came out to her. I was driving and she was sitting in the passenger seat; her first response was, “I don’t want you to tell my boys.” (She had four sons.) I said, “I would never do that, it’s not my place.” That’s pretty much all that was said but she wrote me a letter later and said, I would “always be her sister” and she would “always love me and as long as we didn’t talk about my lifestyle, our relationship would be fine”. I wrote back and said if we couldn’t talk about my life then we couldn’t talk about her life so I guess we would have nothing to talk about. So we stopped talking to each other and didn’t see each other for a long time – about eight years.

Meanwhile, I found myself single after being coupled for 20 years. So I had no family, no partner and felt very alone in the world. I guess maybe a lot of people turn to God at times like this and that’s what I did. I was raised in the Baptist church and knew I wouldn’t be welcome there so I started looking around for a church. I had friends who went to Saint Mark so I gave it a try. I was amazed that I could be in a church that accepted me for who I am. I felt safe and comfortable and even welcomed. I like the traditional aspects of church but never thought I would find a mainstream church that I would fit into, that would actually use the words Gay and Lesbian with love from the church pulpit! It was a miracle! I started attending and became active in the church and attended the Couples Class (even though I was single – my friends were a couple and they just took me with them).

Then I got breast cancer and two years later, leukemia. I had no family that could provide any help and I was no longer in a relationship - so my support system consisted of my family of choice and my church family. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for them. The doctor came in my hospital room one day and explained the treatment protocol – after I got out of the hospital, I would have to go to the clinic every day and would get chemotherapy for several months. I would probably have multiple hospitalizations, I needed to have someone with me 24/7 for the first few months, I would have to close my practice for at least a year and I would get a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. I wouldn’t be allowed to drive, couldn’t work in the yard, be around people, or go out in public. I couldn’t have any fresh fruits or vegetables to eat and could have no fresh flowers or plants in the house. I’ll never forget that day. I looked at him and thought to myself, “You’ve lost your mind! How in the world was I going to manage this? I’m single, I live alone, I’m self-employed – this is impossible!”

But I knew about the Atlanta Lesbian Cancer Initiative and they helped organize a care team for me. One of my very dearest friends took the leadership role and met with ALCI and my close friends and church family to put my care team in place. At one point, I was seriously considering whether or not to go ahead with the transplant – in other words, to get treatment or to die from leukemia. Part of that decision was how in the world would I arrange transportation and care during all those months? But my care team took care of all of that. They made up a schedule and arranged for someone to take me to the clinic and pick me up every single day for about nine months. Think about the hassle of just dropping off your car to get it worked on one day and having to get a ride to work and back to the car place. Now multiply that by about 1000! And they scheduled people to be with me, to spend the night with me, to bring me food. That’s one thing our Sunday School class is really good at – providing food. I had so much food in the freezer, I couldn’t eat it all. And not just casseroles – I’m talking chicken cordon bleu! I could let go of worrying about the logistics of the treatment protocol (how would I get back and forth to the clinic, who would stay with me, how would I feed myself), I could just focus on healing and getting well. I could let go of that stress and concentrate on dealing with the physical and emotional side effects of chemotherapy and immuno-suppressant drugs. That’s the job that they took on and this was not a short-term project – this has lasted for two years now.

I still can’t believe it. I was and am so incredibly blessed. To me, there is no better demonstration of Christ’s love in action. My church family and friends took care of me in the place of my family of origin. This is a church that not only talks the talk but also walks the walk. This is the type of church that I want to be a part of – this is a church that includes all people and wraps their arms around everyone as Jesus Christ himself did.

Today, I think one of the biggest challenges the United Methodist Church faces is membership. Traditional religion and mainstream churches are losing members as people look for the relevance to their lives and react to the hypocrisy they hear from so-called Christians. I think the survival of the United Methodist Church depends on how we treat people and how we welcome them or reject them. And this includes ALL people – even the homeless person who wanders in off the streets on Sunday morning just to get warm. Christ invited ALL people to follow him, to be a part of his church. And we are all members of the body of Christ – to restrict membership or discriminate against anyone regarding their rights of membership is to cut off that part of the body of Christ. To be the true body of Christ, all members must be welcomed, affirmed and made a true part of the church through full inclusion and equal participation. Our slogan, Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors – is that for real or just a marketing technique? I was so proud to be a Methodist when that slogan came out – it epitomizes for me what it truly means to be a Christian. I just hope and pray we can live up to it. Because of that, I ask you to guard against granting “pastoral authority” which would give pastors the right to discriminate against anyone and to vote for full inclusion of LGBT people.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Phil H. - Atlanta

The following comments were presented by Phil H., a member of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta, to a listening session of North Georgia Conference delegates to the 2008 General Conference on Sunday, March 9 at Madison United Methodist Church.

Good afternoon! I am a lay member of Saint Mark United Methodist Church at the corner of Peachtree and Fifth Streets in Atlanta. Some of you may think of Saint Mark as that gay Methodist Church in Atlanta. But, it's not: it's a Methodist Church made up of people who represent the magnificent diversity that God has created; a church that follows Methodist law, pays its apportionments, worships, and serves and loves God. Saint Mark has stood at that corner for over 100 years and during its history has been at the forefront in securing social and religious justice for groups that had either been denied full involvement in the mainstream church or had been offered limited or alternative involvement. For example, Saint Mark began the first deaf ministry in Atlanta in the early part of the 20th century and has been involved in countless other examples through the years of social justice ministries, most notably evidenced during the tenure of Rev. Dow Kirkpatrick during the turbulent 50s and 60s and the fight for civil rights for African Americans, and from the 90s through today with the involvement of the Gay and Lesbian members and visitors to Saint Mark. Dow and Marjorie Kirkpatrick returned to Saint Mark after they retired while serving during that times as our Minister Emeritus, I was honored to get to know them personally and to learn first-hand of their and Saint Mark's involvement in the struggle for Civil Rights.

But today, I'm here to tell you of a different struggle-a personal story-a story that began a number of years ago with the birth of a son to excited and happy parents. Growing up in a loving and caring home, he attended church regularly, became a good student in school, was involved in sports, was popular, and a class leader, serving as vice-president of his senior class at a large Cobb County high school. He held a part-time job, interacted effectively with his peers, was selected to be a part of Cobb Youth Leadership, a program sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce for high school youth with great potential, dated several young women in high school, and seemed destined for success.

Upon graduation from high school, he received a Governor's Scholarship and was accepted into the Honors Program at the University of Georgia and did well academically there. It was at UGA, however, that he came to realize something about himself, something that was keeping him from being the total person that God had created him to be. As a UGA sophomore, he accepted the fact that he was gay and fully came out to himself and to his family and friends. His parents were surprised, but they loved him and realized that this wasn't some rash decision he had made. This was an acceptance of who he was, the person that God had made.

Luckily, because he was fortunate to have a loving and accepting family and friends, he didn't consider suicide or worry too much about his future. His parents, however, worried about that future because, unfortunately, they realized the world wasn't as accepting of Gays and Lesbians as was his family and friends. Indeed they watched as Gay and Lesbian issues became an even stronger divisive force in the country and in the church, a force led by conservative, seemingly self-serving Christians.

But this didn't deter him from working diligently to secure his place in the world. He continued to be successful at UGA and was selected to be a member of the prestigious Arch Society his senior year. Following graduation, he returned to Atlanta and worked for a year before receiving a full scholarship for a Master's Degree Program at the University of Vermont where he continued to be a leader. Upon graduation from UVM, he was employed at Georgia Tech and has been successful there. He is active in many part of campus life beyond his job; as an example, he participates in weekly Bible Study with the Wesley Foundation.

In Atlanta, he also found a new church, and luckily, it happened to be Saint Mark. It was a real church, a Methodist Church, not a gay church; however, it was a church that was loving and accepting of him. And, isn't it good for a parent to see their grown child continuing in their growing relationship with God?

I think I should let you know now, if you have not already figured it out, that I know this young man quite well, because he is my son.

A common denominator that all of us in this room who are parents have is that we share the hope and prayer that our children will grow up to be happy, healthy, and loving adults who have a good job, a strong relationship with someone special in their life, and a continuing and growing relationship with God in a loving and supportive church.

To that end, I urge you to support full inclusion of Gays and Lesbians into the life of the United Methodist Church; however, I realize that many of you are not yet at that point in your growth and understanding. I ask that you continue to pray to seek understanding and God's guidance in that regard.

But, bottom line today, I ask that you prayerfully consider one major issue that will come before you at General Conference. You will be presented several resolutions that will deal with Gay and Lesbian membership in the United Methodist Church. Some will specifically ask that you support Gay and Lesbian membership and I urge you to do so. At the same time, I ask that you vote against other resolutions that support the determination of membership to be at the discretion of the local minister. One, in particular, doesn't even mention the words, Gay or Lesbian, but artfully so because its writers are like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Their ultimate goal is to continue to etch away at God's loving and accepting grace and to replace it with the conservative, self-serving, and un-Christ-like prejudice that exists against Gays and Lesbians.

As we look at the development of the church and our society over the past 100 or so years, we know that the Bible has been used to justify most of man's prejudices: the second-class treatment of women; the support of slavery, and after slavery was abolished, the second-class treatment of our African-American brothers and sisters. But we've moved beyond those conservative man-made interpretations of self-serving belief and realized that all genders and races are children of God with equal rights and responsibilities and our country and our church has, as a result, been made stronger.

The same second-class treatment is being applied to Gays and Lesbians in our country and in our church today. And this is an issue that impacts us all.

You may not realize it, but you have Gay and Lesbian members in your own church, probably in your own family, and most certainly within your circle of friends. Most of them are scared to let you know who they are. But with full acceptance, they will have the opportunity to be the fulfilled persons God meant them to be.

I can't imagine that the United Methodist Church I know and love would deny membership to Gays and Lesbians because that is the way God made them. But we know it's already happened in our United Methodist Church and has been upheld by a judicial council. Internalize the horror! Is this what Christ would do?

I mentioned to you at the beginning of my comments about knowing Dow Kirkpatrick, a minister well-respected among United Methodists and others for his work in foreign missions and for his proactive involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Dow once told me, as he told others, that the struggle for full acceptance of Gays and Lesbians is the civil rights struggle our world and our church faces today. And it is a struggle that he and Marjorie fully supported as strongly and proudly as they did the fight for the rights of African Americans.

I've also gotten to know, love, and appreciate Bishop Bevel Jones, another former Saint Mark minister, who occasionally visits and worships with us at Saint Mark. He calls the ministry at Saint Mark a holy ministry. But, we're simply doing what John Wesley said we should do as Methodists and Christians: do no harm, do all the good you can, and stay in love with God.

I urge you to not support any resolution that will deny membership in the United Methodist Church and the promise of God's love and grace to any one of God's children who seeks that love and grace, whether that person be red or yellow, black or white, male or female, Gay or straight. Do no harm!

Be sure that my son and your children and grandchildren, and the children and grandchildren of your friends and family can experience the fullness of God's love. Do all the good you can!

And I ask that you prayerfully consider full inclusion. The only thing that keeps anyone away from God is man. Stay in love with God!