“Let’s walk the walk”

June 11-14, 2008 New York Annual Conference

From the very opening of annual conference, the reconciling presence organized by Methodists in New Directions (MIND) was unmistakable and unavoidable. We arrived on Wednesday morning and set up the MIND table: flyers for our different events, resources, t-shirts, books, buttons. And behind the table, the MIND banner and big blow-up versions of our open letter to the church calling for marriage equality in English, Spanish and Korean, along with the names of all 570 signers.

It was a beautiful and impressive sight.

For four days there were reminders everywhere of MIND’s theme and call to action for this annual conference: “We talk the talk. Let’s walk the walk.”

For 30 years the New York Annual Conference has affirmed in its resolutions and official record the belief that the church should be open to LGBT people in all ways, and it has stood in firm, explicit and consistent opposition to the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline’s exclusionary doctrine and policies. Earlier this year, MIND researched and documented the extent of this reconciling history and produced a brochure, “A 30-year Witness: NYAC’s Stand for God’s LGBT Children,” summarizing it.

Yet despite this longstanding commitment to inclusive ministry, the promise of “affirming the full participation of lesbians and gay men” in the conference, as we put it in 1987 when we voted to call ourselves a reconciling conference, remains unfulfilled. Queer people cannot be ordained, cannot get married, and at the discretion of a minister, can even be barred from membership in the church—in the New York Annual Conference as everywhere throughout the UMC. Moreover, the leadership of our conference has failed to embrace its adopted positions and refused to publicly affirm that the prejudice and institutional discrimination of the UMC is ungodly, unjust and sinful.

As a conference, we must find stronger ways to bring the words of inclusion off the pages of our resolutions and into our churches, into our official conference meetings and ministries, into the lives of God’s LGBT children. MIND’s commitment to this effort led to the adoption of our theme for annual conference and our constant refrain throughout, let’s walk the walk. Big or small, there must be steps that everyone can take to live the inclusive Gospel. It’s like the old button used to say, “wearing buttons in not enough”; in our case, passing resolutions is not enough.

We brought this theme onto the annual conference floor during the opening gathering on Wednesday night. As people began streaming into the arena for the opening session, 10 of us walked around wearing sandwich boards. The front of each board contained a single item excerpt from our history, under the title “NYAC’s Stand for God’s LGBT Children”—each board with a different item—and the backs of all the boards had the theme in big letters, “WE TALK THE TALK. LET’S WALK THE WALK.” We moved throughout the lobby and tabling area for an hour, and then all 10 of us walked together, single file, down onto the plenary floor and snaked our way up and down the aisles where the delegates sat, once, twice, three times until the session was called to order.

It was a quiet, powerful presence that virtually everyone who attended the opening session saw. We were there to let the whole conference know that this is who we are – that as a conference, NYAC has taken a stand for LGBT people – and to challenge each of us to live more fully into that, to “walk the walk.” We each carried MIND’s “10 Things You Can Do” flyer and handed them to people who stopped to talk to us.

This witness reverberated throughout the worship service that followed. A “Litany in Remembrance, Acknowledgement and Thanksgiving for the Central Jurisdiction” was read, remembering the 29 years of segregation initiated by the racist creation of the Central Jurisdiction in 1939, giving thanks for the “many Methodists of all colors…who long envisioned a true multi-racial community, and sacrificially witnessed and labored for full equality,” and confessing our sin in marginalizing and laying “on the sacrificial altar of perceived unity and progress” our African-American sisters and brothers. Following as it did our witness it was impossible to hear these words without thinking about how they also applied to the church’s current exclusion of LGBT people. And then in her sermon, guest preacher Jane Middleton, bishop of the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference, lifted up the need for the church to welcome LGBT people and explicitly referenced our conference’s history of reconciling stands.

On the second day, Thursday, MIND members focused on one-on-one ministry at the table and elsewhere, on the work of the legislative sections, and participation in conference lunches and dinners.

A highlight of the day for many of us was the Wesley Fellowship luncheon. The Wesley Fellowship is a conservative group within our conference and they had extended an invitation to MIND and MFSA to join them in a dialogue about homosexuality across our differences. We ate together and then discussed a series of questions suggested by the facilitator, starting with “why are you here today?” It was a chance to ask questions and explain beliefs in a personal setting, and people spoke, and listened, with respect and genuine open-heartedness. At the end of the lunch, we invited the Wesley Fellowship to join us at the MIND luncheon the following day.

There was a resolution, passed that day in legislative section and adopted the next day by the plenary body, calling for a 90-minute block of time at the 2009 annual conference for the entire body to engage in a similar dialogue away from the “business” of the conference. MIND, MFSA and Wesley Fellowship members together crafted the dialogue resolution, and meetings involving all parties to figure out how best to use that time have already begun.

Many MIND members attended the MFSA dinner on Thursday evening, the centerpiece of which was an extraordinary and wonderful speech by Rev. Taka Ishii on the urgent necessity of the church – starting with its progressives like MFSA and MIND members – to address the issue of white privilege. Taka quoted at length from a Martin Luther King passage that is a favorite in MIND and speaks to the cause of both racial justice and equality for LGBT people:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Friday, the third day, was a full day for MIND activists, starting with a witness before the conference was called to order and continuing all day with our t-shirts and ongoing one-on-one ministry at the MIND table. The highlight by far, though, was Rev. Gil Caldwell’s address at the MIND luncheon.

We began the day with an encore of the “walk the walk” sandwich boards. Again, 10 of us walked up and down the aisles of the plenary floor for the 20 minutes before business started. Again, people stopped to read what our boards said, and sometimes just after they read one, they realized there was another one, and then another!

NYAC delegates to the 2008 General Conference gave a report that afternoon, and while most chose to remain silent about the Dallas decision to affirm the UMC’s exclusion of LGBT people, Jorge Lockward testified powerfully about this shameful act of bigotry.

One hundred fifty people came to the MIND lunch to hear Gil Caldwell speak on the topic “The United Methodist Church: It’s déjà vu all over again!” He talked about how his advocacy for the rights of gay people is rooted in his lifelong commitment to racial justice, how his integrity required him to extend that fight for equality to all people. He commented on how Scripture has not changed yet where once the Bible was used to justify slavery, then segregation, and used to justify the subordination of women and the refusal to ordain them, now the very same texts are recognized to support none of those prejudices—yet Scripture is still used to rationalize bigotry against LGBT people. Gil also reflected on how white allies were important in the 1960s freedom struggle and how straight allies are needed now. He used the title of the play Your Arms Too Short to Box with God as a metaphor to describe what the church tried to do when it supported slavery, when it created the segregated Central Jurisdiction, when it denied ordination to women. The church boxed with God on these issues – and it lost. It will lose again in its efforts to keep queer people out. It was a wonderful, inspiring speech.

The lunch was notable for other reasons as well. There were more people of color at the lunch than at past MIND gatherings and the gathering of reconciling people of color afterwards that MIND had initiated and Gil Caldwell convened was attended by several dozen. These are the first fruits of MIND’s nascent efforts to bring issues of racial justice more centrally and intentionally into its work. A substantial number of people from the Wesley Fellowship were also at the lunch, in response to the invitation we had extended at their luncheon the day before.

MIND’s purple t-shirts were visible all over the conference on Friday, our official “t-shirt day.” The shirts say “Closed doors, broken hearts, we mind” and their presence everywhere underscored, again, the continuing reality of the UMC’s exclusion—and the need for all of us to make that reality visible until the day when the church finally welcomes in LGBT members.

Our visibility continued on the last day of the annual conference, Saturday, with our armband witness at the ordination service. We handed out 1,000 armbands to both the clergy and the laity. The armbands were blue to symbolize tears: tears of joy as we celebrated with those who are being ordained, and tears of sorrow as we mourned with those who are also called by God but rejected by the church. This was the fourth year of our armband witness, but the first year that we mailed an armband with a letter and a copy of the history we had compiled to all clergy members the week before conference. About half the clergy wore the armbands, and seven of the 13 ordinands wore them.

As we sat in the bleachers at the service singing “They’ll Know We are Christians by our Love”—which was the official theme of the annual conference—it was hard not to think about how some of us are barred from the stage we were watching; how the world knows us by our actions, by that act of exclusion. “By our love” really does mean by our actions, and if we want people to know us by our love then we have to live the loving, radical, inclusive Gospel. We have to walk the walk.