The Night Vandals: a story about gay people, the Methodist Church, and disaffiliation.
If you go to the Sunday school rooms above the Fellowship Hall in my home church, Lester Memorial UMC, all the rooms have locks on the doors. Why would a church need to lock Sunday school rooms? Good question.
When I was a kid, my family was at church every time it was open. On Wednesday nights, we were there from the time of church supper through the end of choir practice. I would eat, go to the children’s activities with my friends, and then almost all my friends would leave. However, I had to wait on my parents for another hour while they were in choir practice. During choir practice, young kids went to the nursery, but Ben Bentley, John Carl, and I roamed the church looking for one of two balls that we knew were in one of the classrooms.
The Sunday School rooms were filled with toys because the daycare used them during the week. In search of a ball, we would pull all the toys off the shelves until we found one. When we found a ball, we would leave and go to the fellowship hall where there was room to throw. From my parents’ perspective, they left us in the Fellowship Hall and then they picked us up in the Fellowship Hall. They had no clue about the absolute state of destruction we left the Sunday School/daycare rooms in.
The daycare people were baffled. On Wednesdays, they were leaving the rooms completely neat and clean, but when they arrived on Thursday morning the rooms looked like they had been robbed. The daycare people talked to the church people to complain about the condition of the rooms. The church people, who I imagine were very confused at the accusation that they trashed a Sunday School room, assured them that they were leaving them clean. For a few weeks, it kept happening. Daycare workers left a clean room on Wednesday morning, and they arrived to a post-earthquake scene on Thursday. I can only assume they thought it was vandalism. For a short time, Ben, Johnny, and I were the night vandals and no one suspected us.
My parents eventually caught on, and, privately, I got in big trouble. This trouble included a stern talking to about cleaning up my messes. With the resolution of a first-born child, I was determined to clean up what I messed up. For a few more weeks, we would destroy the rooms in search of the balls, and then “clean up” the mess we made. The problem was that we were old enough to intend to clean up, but young enough that our execution of cleaning up was, to put it generously, substandard. We cleaned up the same way a bulldozer pushes a pile of debris from one spot to another. I intended what they wanted, but I just could not do it.
One Wednesday, we tried to open the Sunday School doors, but they were all locked. The church or daycare bought locks and put them on the Sunday School doors. We initially wondered what was going on, but it did not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that those locks were there specifically for us.
Tomorrow, Lester Memorial UMC is voting on whether to put metaphorical locks on the church doors for gay people. Lester is, in all likelihood, about to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. What is disaffiliation? Throughout the United States and the world, certain UMC churches want to break away –ie, disaffiliate–from the United Methodist Church to either be independent or join other denominations. The problem for those churches is that the United Methodist Church owns individual church’s property and holds it in trust. Under the rules, churches that break away could leave the UMC, but not take the church building and property because it is owned by the UMC. This may sound weird, but there are good reasons for it that I will not get into now.
Recently, the UMC created a process by which UMC churches could disaffiliate and not be subject to the trust clause – meaning they can no longer be UMC, but keep their property under certain conditions. Section 2553 of the UMC Book of Discipline (the UMC rulebook) allows UMC churches to exit with property for “reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality. As part of the disaffiliation process, the North Alabama Conference of the UMC requires that churches like Lester Memorial undergo a multi-month process where the church engages in prayer, study, reflection, and discernment regarding questions related to homosexuality—ie, the “discernment process.” For the past few months, Lester Memorial has been in this discernment process.
Throughout this discernment process, people have tried to say that disaffiliation is about a host of issues and problems within the UMC. However, it is not. The whole truth is that every issue mentioned, or at least the overwhelming majority of issues, relate to homosexuality. The only valid basis to disaffiliate under Section 2553 is about homosexuality.
Throughout the years gay people have grown up in, contributed to, and have richly blessed Lester Memorial and other UMC churches around the world. As they grew up and realized they were gay, one day they walked into church and realized that there were locks on the church doors specifically for them. “Hate the sin, not the sinner.” “You can be gay, but you can’t be a practicing homosexual.” “I’m sorry, but it’s about being true to God’s word.” These clichés and friendly dismissals shut down discussion among those who do not have to live being gay. It allows them to put the issue in a neat and tidy box. On the other hand, these clichés are devastating to gay people who want to follow Jesus.
Make no mistake, gay people are fearfully and wonderfully made by God and in God’s own image. Gay people do not choose to be gay. It is not a bent. It is not a leaning or predisposition. It is something fundamental to someone’s identity. Everyone can think of a kid they know that was a little different, and is gay now. Think about it, when did you “decide” your sexuality? You didn’t.
People try and say that gay people are choosing to be gay because of our current culture. Bull. Throughout recent history you could be arrested and thrown in prison for being gay. You could have people take the law in their own hands and kill you. You still could. When I was in high school gay people who were brave enough to be out of the closet were bullied. Today, if you come out of the closet in Alabama you still risk losing your family, your friends, and being mercilessly bullied. You certainly will have people talk about you. No sane person endures that abuse for a choice.
For too many gay people in church, they hear from church members that their “lifestyle” is fundamentally incompatible with Christian teaching. They are left to suffer alone with the notion that God created them, but now God condemns them. This is insanity. Does God create people to hurt them? Does a loving father torture his children? Is this who we believe God is? Is this who we believe Jesus is? Does the Holy Spirit lead you to cling to legalism no matter who it hurts?
I hope your answer to those questions is “No, this is not who we believe God is.” If that is the case, how are we supposed to look our gay brothers and sisters in the eye if we disaffiliate? One day you might have a gay child or grandchild. If they asked you, “why is the church breaking away from the UMC over homosexuality?” What would you tell them?
Many well-intentioned Lester members would say that disaffiliation is about being faithful to scripture. Gay people (and others) hear this, but they also see how people act. They know that the people they grew up with, work with, and worship with are just as flawed and sinful as them. The Church never singled them out. In modern times, the church never considered breaking up over any other issue. Some sins people stand firm on; some get a wink and a nod. People see this. So, no matter how nicely it is said, breaking away from the UMC to “stay true to scripture” singles out, isolates, and hurts one small minority of people even though all of us struggle with sin.
Others say that it is not wrong to be gay, but it is wrong to be a “practicing homosexual.” To them, scripture is clear that homosexuality is wrong. Therefore, according to them, we cannot have “practicing homosexuals” as leaders in the church. First, straight pastors and church leaders are just as flawed and sinful as anyone else but no one is discussing them. Second, what does “practicing homosexual” mean? More importantly, who gets to define it? Is it gay people’s thoughts? Is it falling in love with someone? Is it limited to the things people do in the privacy of their bedroom? What if they love another person of the same gender, but abstain from bedroom activities? I could keep going, but nitpicking at definitions misses the most important question.
The important question is “what would Jesus do in this situation?” This is what discernment should have been all about. I ask you if you have taken time to discern what Jesus would do here? If you think you have faithfully thought about it, can you answer these questions honestly?
• Were the “Scriptures” written in Hebrew and Greek or were they written in English?
• Do you know the Greek word that certain Biblical translations now translate as “homosexuality?” It’s “arsenokoitai.”
• Did you know that we do not know the exact definition of arsenokoitai?
• Did you know that “arsenokoitai” was not translated to mean “homosexuality” until the 1940s?
• Did you now that previous Biblical translations (like the original Guttenberg Bible) translated arsenokoitai as being about pedophilia/pedastry?
• Other Biblical translations interpreted arsenokoitai as prostitution or male prostitution as was prevalent in ancient times in the areas where Paul wrote.
• What do you think is more likely? That Paul was condemning two adults in a committed loving relationship, or that Paul was addressing prostitution or pedastry—common things in the world he lived in.
• How much of your opinion on the issue is based on what the majority of people around you think?
• If we are going to condemn a specific minority of people over scriptural interpretation, shouldn’t we be 1000% sure we are correct?
If you did not know any of the information in the questions above, can you really say you have discerned God’s will on the issues? Can you in good faith vote to leave the UMC over homosexuality? Will you be able to look your gay friends, brothers, sisters, children, and grandchildren in the eye and tell them you did everything you could to determine what Jesus would do, and that you think he would condemn them?
To be clear, if you say that “the Bible says it so I believe it,” what you are really saying is “my interpretation of the Bible is this” because reading the Bible necessarily requires interpretation. We have to understand passages in the context of when they were written. How else could we reconcile something as simple as God telling us to honor our father and mother with Jesus who said for anyone to come to him they must hate their father and mother? As Methodists, we ordain women despite scripture that directly and unequivocally says women should be silent in the Church. However, we can read the Bible and see other places where women serving is affirmed—this is Biblical interpretation. Women leaders have greatly enriched and blessed the lives of millions. Excluding them from church leadership does not comport with reason, experience, and common sense. No one could tell me that Cindy Schaffhausen Hastings, Beverly Bains Anderson, or Kathleen Seckendorf King had to be silent.
So I ask you, why do the interpretative work to allow women to lead despite verses that prohibit it, but not do the same interpretive work to allow gay people to serve in those same positions? Does that make sense? We see how God uses women, and, we should see how God uses gay people.
You might think, well the Bible affirms certain women in other places in scripture, but it does not affirm homosexuality. Fair enough, if you are looking for a place where Jesus specifically says that being gay is okay you will not find it. However, you also will not find Jesus condemning gay people. You will not find him speaking a single word about it. It’s important to point out that you also will not hear a gay person at Lester speak on this. They left. It’s fair to ask why they left.
I was lucky to go through Lester’s youth programs. In an era where other churches hired bros with gelled hair who reduced the gospel to avoiding premarital relations, I had Max Blalock, Mary Bendall, and Matt Smith. There were parent volunteers on each side of the left, right, divided. We discussed real issues, and I heard perspectives on every side of the aisle. Through those people, all of whom I still love today, I learned that Jesus is the lens through which we interpret all scripture. Jesus died for our sins, but he also showed us how to live.
In Luke 7, Jesus said you will know people by their fruit. Jesus went further by saying “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” If we look we will see that gay Christians can undoubtedly produce good fruit. If you know any gay Christians, you know that they too can produce every fruit of the spirit. If being gay is so inherently sinful, could they produce such good fruit?
This friendly condemnation that gay people experience does real harm to real people. At least one study of LGBTQ youth ages 18-24 found that parents’ religious beliefs about homosexuality DOUBLED their risk of suicide. Doubled.
Contrast an interpretation of the gospel that doubles someone’s risk of suicide with one that produces fruits of the spirit? Which gospel would Jesus endorse? Which gospel would you want applied to you? Which one would you want your child to hear?
I cannot believe that the Jesus, who looked at the religious leaders of the day and willfully broke the law, twice, by healing people on the Sabbath, would stand on Paul’s words and ignore people who are hurting.
To my gay friends and family who I grew up with, ate with, and served with at Lester: I love you. I am so sorry that your home church is doing this. It hurts me deeply, and I cannot imagine how much it hurts you. Not everyone agrees with it. You do not owe anyone here an explanation about who you are. I, and others, see how God is using you in your lives and how you are re-creating the Kingdom of God in the world every day. You are made in God’s image and Jesus loves you just the way you are. No vote can change that.
The vote is tomorrow, Nov. 6, at 2pm. I do not know if we will stay or go. Either way my prayer is that no matter what happens, when my gay friends and family feel safe enough to return to church, I pray they find a church where the locks have been removed.