“Silence is Golden.” Yes, it is. It has a wonderful place in my spiritual formation. I enjoy silent retreats immensely. I listen to God’s still, small voice that can only be heard when we are silent. If all I have done in that silence is grow internally, that is a blessing, but in my growing I have known for a while that the time would come that I would have to speak a very hard truth. As I type with a lump in my throat, I am fully aware that the words that I have held back for so long are ready to be born onto the page.
First, I ask for forgiveness from anyone who is hurt by what I am going to say. I also ask forgiveness from God for anything that I say that is not uplifting for the building of God’s family on earth. My hope is to build understanding and compassion in a family that is ripping apart over an issue. Lastly, I humbly ask God to use me as an instrument, to bring God’s love, light and grace into the darkness of our human understanding of that love.
Ok, here we go.
I must tell you a little about my growing up for this story to be fully understood. I went to a small private Christian school in elementary. There were 18 of us and I am blessed to say that I still keep up with many of them on Facebook. The one member of our class that I was closest too was Bart, I loved him so much. We talked all the time and were the chubby kids together. He went to another High School but we stayed in touch. He made my prom dress and my sister’s matron of honor dress for my wedding (which he of course attended). Bart was gay. I knew this even before I had the words for it. Bart moved to Texas and was very successful in his career I knew this because we saw his mom twice a year when my husband went to the doctor where she worked. The last time I saw Bart was in 2007, he had moved home to live with his mom who was having do retire due to health issues. We hugged and I left knowing that we’d be seeing each other, because we always had! Well, having three children and hard economic times, times slipped away without me realizing that I hadn’t seen or heard from him in years. Then I found out this year that he died in 2008 and the weight of the silence hit me. I still don’t know how or why he died so young, his father passed away at a young age as well so it may have been family genetics, but my mind wonders if it was AIDS and then I jump to guilt and shame that I was not there for him, that there was some comfort I could have given, some prayer I could have prayed. The truth is, I will never know because Bart did not invite me into that part of his life. I can only pray he had the knowledge that he was a beloved child of God because he was the kindest person I ever knew. Bart was not the only member of the LGBT family whom I went to school with. There are so many wonderful, kind people who were in that environment that told them they were an abomination. So many people whom I still love and laugh with but have seen hurt so badly by the one place they should have always felt loved. There are many more whom I don’t know what has happened to them and I pray for their physical and spiritual safety.
Now, to tell the story I need to tell. It is about my call to ministry, and how I had to leave the place and people that I love.
I attended Kindergarten at the United Methodist Church in my neighborhood as a child and had nothing but happy memories of my time there. I was married in that church, taught Sunday School, kept the Nursery and attended there until we had our first child. He was a holy terror when he was little, wouldn’t stay in the nursery, wouldn’t be quiet. It because easier and easier to stay home. After a while we got out of the habit of going to church at all. We moved and transferred our membership to another church closer to us where we still didn’t attend, but the kids were involved in baseball. When I was asked to teach Sunday School for one year I felt that I owed it to them given the sports my kids were playing. So I did. My family still didn’t attend, I went, taught, and left. During this time, we moved back to my childhood home. My son made a friend who invited him to church, he went and loved it. After a few weeks of attending he asked his father and I to come with him. He was shocked when everyone there knew us. I told him he had been baptized in that church. We began going on a regular basis, got involved, then I even took a part time job as the secretary. I am not sure it came as a surprise to the pastor when I let him know that I wanted his job. He smiled, got me all the paperwork I needed and it seemed like only minutes and I was enrolled in Seminary and appointed to my first little church. I left that wonderful, low drama church and went into the world with an idealism about how the church worked and the idea that we are all on the “God Team” loving everyone, being present in lives, marrying, burying and baptizing folk. There is a huge part of me that wonders if my family would have been better off if we had just stayed put. I pray often that I didn’t mess my kids up taking them away from that place.
Alright, you have heard the highlights of the beginning, now I will jump towards the end.
Ethics class 2005…that was the beginning of the end. I know that God and I had had the talk many times up to that point about my feelings on the Methodist Church’s stance in the Book of Discipline which was not aligned with my personal belief about my LGBT brothers and sisters, but many had told me to just hold my tongue until after ordination and then work for change…so I was trying really hard to do that. For me, any church that didn’t love the folks I knew as family had to change. (Now remember, I thought we were all on the same God Team working hard to broaden our circle to include everyone in the GOOD NEWS of love and acceptance and unmerited grace) I felt a true prophetic voice to let all those who had hidden in the Church of Christ school that I had attended know that there were Christians who wanted to tell them that God was NOT who they had been told but loved them (as Mr. Rogers…a member of an affirming congregation in Pittsburg) would say “just the way they are.” Well, it was in Ethics class that we were assigned topics to present, and with God’s hard firmly on mine, I pulled HOMOSEXUALITY out of the hat of options. The one topic I needed to stay away from I was now going to have to present in a room full of my peers…many of which had big mouths. My friend who is a gay Christian came and gave what he called his Gay101 speech and I talked to the class about how it is statistically impossible that they do not have one person at least in their congregation who is struggling with their sexuality. I asked them how they were going to make a safe place for them to come forward, find out that they are welcomed, and enfold them into the loving work of the church fully and completely. I quickly discovered that not all UM folk feel the same why I do about full inclusion when a guy starting interrupting repeatedly for the professor to shut me down for being unbiblical and the same guy LEFT the Seminary because they were TOO liberal. That was when my reputation was born. That is when my eyes were opened and I began to see the division in the church that I loved and served. That is when I was introduced to a movement that had begun just down the street from my Seminary…the Good News Confessing Movement. Oddly enough, this very church had been the one who had planted my loving home church 40 years earlier. Oh, how times had changed.
I began to understand the division in the church, the battle lined that had been drawn and the simple fact that there weren’t many on my side of the battle (at least not openly) I didn’t even know I was in. It was apparent that I needed to play catch-up. I discovered the Reconciling Movement and was quickly advised by elders in full connection not to have anything to do with them, they were too “radical”. Things began to get worse from there, even though I was mostly unaware. In the second church I was serving the topic of homosexuality came up in Bible Study and I was honest, I let them know that in my study I could find no evidence that a modern, loving relationship between members of the same sex was a sin. This landed a letter in my file about my views about the topic being “abhorrent” to the congregation and I was immediately removed but my DS made them pay me until the end of the year (July) at which time I would be reassigned…guess who was NEVER reassigned.
Smack dab in the middle of this time, was my interview with the Conference Board of Ministry and my graduation from Seminary. As you can by this time imagine, the BOM didn’t go well. The thing I remember most was the Theology Group. I walked into the room and the first question right out of the gate was spoken with arms folded and I will never forget it, “So, a gay couple comes to your church and wants to teach Sunday School, what do you tell them?” I do not believe my answer made me many friends in that room. At the end of the retreat I was told that I was being sent back to my District Board of Ministry. The District Board of Ministry held me back for four years after that, I was never allowed to go back before the Conference Board. Now I am sure that if they were to speak as to why I was not allowed to go back they would give very different reasons, but I believe it was my inability and lack of desire to stay silent on this, and other topics which concerned me about the church I loved so deeply.
It took me almost 6 hours to make the 2.5 hour drive home from the Conference Board of Ministry retreat. I felt that I had failed everyone who had ever believed in me, I had failed God. If I am honest, I truly thought about which bridge on the way home was high enough to kill me if I just went over the edge, no one would have to know. Once I did get home, I sat in bed and cried for 3 days. Not one clergy or lay person tried to check on me. I was done, I was ready to leave, I believe I had left because I could see no hope that the church that I thought I was a part of was the church in which I was trying desperately to become clergy. I turned to the internet for hope. Not typically the place you look for hope, but it was all I had in the silence of my bed. I found Jay Bakker. I listened to every sermon he had posted. I went to Twitter where I could anonymously say some things that were on my heart. God opened doors and people walked through them who impacted me in ways to show me that I was not alone, I had not been deceived by Satan that this “sin” was ok. I became active with others who felt cut off, silenced.
My husband and a band of well meaning, loving people convinced me to try and learn and change to continue to work on ordination. So I did. I went to every meeting, talked with anyone and everyone who would advise me. I wrote papers, answered questions, listened to people tell me all of my short comings over and over and over again. I tried to change, I tried to “behave”, to hold my tongue, to be silent. Yet all the time, God was there, putting people in my life that shared stories of hurt, rejection, pain, self-hatred and depression. I also heard stories of giving up on the church, turning away from God. I call this time in my story the Psalm 69 years. I was drowning in muck and mire and I didn’t think I would ever get out.
In 2009 through a divine chain of events, Jay Bakker and I became friends and later family. I was not serving a church any longer but ministry never stopped. I hosted an event about Same Sex Marriage in Memphis Tennessee. I did not do this as a Methodist, I did this as someone who wanted to have a conversation. The event was covered by Out and About Magazine in Nashville http://www.outandaboutnashville.com/story/memphis-town-hall-meeting-address-same-sex within days I received a letter from my District Superintendent and Bishop containing a copy of the article and a copy of the church’s stance on Homosexuality and basically a cease and desist order about how as a candidate for ministry I could not do an event like this. I to this day do not know how they found that article.
The final break with my ordination in the Memphis Annual Conference came in 2011 when I was discontinued as a local pastor and I was told by the chair of the District Committee on Ministry that they didn’t need my kind of people in ministry. I will fully accept responsibility for a few things that happened after the event in 2009 when I knew that it was hopeless. I tried to make paths of change for others because I knew it was too late for me.
God created for me a net of wonderful, loving people to catch me when my world fell apart, and I am pleased to say that most days God and I are ok. But there are times that I think about John Wesley’s love of the Church of England and his being locked out of every pulpit yet still not wanting a schism and I understand him. My heart is still United Methodist, but I consider myself a Wandering Wesleyan because I HAD to leave for the sake of my sole and my family who have endued so much pain from this situation.
Every time I hear news of the Good News Confession Movement my heart sinks lower. To have to physically pass the place where the conversations are being silenced is heart breaking. To watch so many of the pastoral staff leave over the years, the power chocking out the spirit of the place breaks my heart. My friend who was a Sunday School teacher beloved by the geek and gay kids in the congregation was asked to leave. To walk with her and her family as they tried to pick up those pieces was hard. It was this latest statement by Maxie Dunham that has forced me to break my silence. To be told that those who can’t keep the Disciple (the way the Good News Confessing Movement interprets it) should just go on and leave is an act of Spiritual Bullying. If you travel down I 40 to the Appling Road exit you will see Belleview Baptist Church, a church which was pastored for years by Adrian Rodgers, the man who changed the face of the Southern Baptist convention forever giving more power to the already powerful and pushing those who needed the church to be the church to the margins. I believe that if those of us who have stayed silent do not speak up that Christ United Methodist will become for the whole of the United Methodist Church what Belleview is for the Southern Baptist Conference, a symbol of an institution the excludes those who Jesus died to include. I am not speaking to each member of the church, many are wonderful people but the institution is not those people, but it is fed by the gold of their silence.
I am exhausted. I am not sure how to conclude this entry, I am not sure there is an ending. I will just end by saying, this is my truth, this is my story. It is told to the glory of God in the trust that the Holy Spirit will help those who can hear to understand and in the humble knowledge that I cannot tell the whole story in 3,000 words. Hopefully this will start conversations, I will be here, talk to me, yell at me, but at the end of the day please remember that I am a beloved child of God and so are you, and if you don’t agree with me on anything else, take my hand and agree with me on that.