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.

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