An opportunity for dialogue

New York Annual Conference – June 12, 2009

Jayson Dobney:

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers of the New York Annual Conference.

My name is Jayson Dobney. I am gay man, and I want to go to church.

I am here today with others to share our experiences of what it is like to try to go to church in the United Methodist Church as gay people, parents of gay people and pastors of gay people.

Nehemiah Luckett:

My name is Nehemiah Luckett. I was born on Sunday, May 2, 1982 in Jackson, Mississippi. Rumor has it that I was in church the following Sunday and rain, sleet, or snow, most Sundays for the next 18 years. Options are limited when your father is the pastor and your mother the Sunday school teacher. At an early age, church was filled with good memories of people laughing and crying together. It seemed to me that this was where life happened.  
 
At age 13 I began accompanying the choir and I assumed the duties of the music director. It was around the same time that I came out to my friends in high school, who were supportive and accepted me as I am.  

Unfortunately, this was not the same atmosphere at church. With gay rights issues in the news, my father spoke about maintaining traditional family values and stopping gay people from adopting children or corrupting our society and I sat on the piano bench - seething. I wanted to jump and scream! But, my only form of protest was to quietly leave during what I experienced as hate speech and wonder to myself - 'Must I leave my father and my church or live a life of lies? What did I do to deserve this?'  

As I grew to accept my sexuality, I could no longer hide as the church demanded. I was done with that part of my life and for years that meant being done with church.  
 
It wasn't until a professor at Sarah Lawrence College asked me to sing in her church choir that I even gave church a second thought. I walked into a sanctuary that was very different from the ones I grew up with in Mississippi, yet still familiar. The service was exactly as I expected until the pastor got up to speak. He spoke about becoming a "welcoming congregation" and what this would mean for the church. I was floored. Here was someone telling me that I could be myself and still be a part of the church. It felt like not only finding a home - but, finding myself.

Helen Andrew:

My name is Helen Andrew. I thank God for the diversity of creation, and I thank God that there are churches that celebrate that marvelously diverse creation with open doors and open hearts that welcome gays and lesbians. My daughter Elizabeth is a lesbian. She has been warmly embraced by the reconciling congregation she attends in Minnesota and by the church here in New York where she was baptized and grew up.

As a parent, my heart breaks when I hear stories like Nehemiah’s and I think about the agony he suffered as a child. I rejoice that he has found a safe church home as an adult, and I know that Elizabeth is lucky as well. But it should no take luck to find a safe place to worship! The truth is that Elizabeth’s experience is the exception, not the rule, and that is not acceptable.

Jayson Dobney:

This story is from Ron Bennett, a gay man and member of St. Paul and St. Andrew:

“I work with the youth in our church and was at a conference-sponsored ‘confirmation kickoff weekend’ at Camp Epworth two years ago.  During lights out, one of the older boys said to another: “Why are you talking like that? You sound gay. Are you a fag now?”  The adult in the room didn’t say anything to the boy who made the statement, or to the boys who laughed. I don’t know if the boy being spoken to is gay, or if any other boy in that cabin is gay, but if they are, what they learned that weekend is that church is not a safe place for them.  And just as disgraceful, the boy who said it learned that church is an OK place for bullying and homophobia.

I stayed away from church for many years, believing in God but convinced that organized religion was bad as evidenced in part by its condemnation of homosexuality without taking any responsibility for the verbal and physical violence against gays that it provokes. The welcome I’ve received at SPSA has given me a different experience, but it is still a far too seldom exception. Frankly, I’m fed up with the UMC, fed up with trying to convince fellow Christians that I have the right to walk through that supposedly ‘open’ door to worship.”

Manny Santiago:

My name is Manny Santiago. From a very young age I felt the call to the ministry. Growing up in a Baptist family in rural Puerto Rico, my first experience with diversity in the church came when my local congregation called a female pastor. I was amazed at how “open” the church was, and felt like this was my place for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, it turned out that the “openness” of the church stopped there. When I came out as a gay man, I found that I had to leave my own country if I was to follow God’s call.

I was fortunate enough to belong to a denomination, the American Baptist Churches, that affirms diversity of theological opinions. I was ordained in 2007 with the blessing of my local congregation, having gone through the ordination process openly, as a Hispanic, young, gay man in a committed relationship. Now I am serving a United Methodist congregation, but if I wanted to transfer my credentials to the UMC I could not.

I can feel the pain of hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Methodists who are also called to the ministry and cannot be ordained because their own church does not accept who they are. I hear their stories and realize that the motto “open hearts, open minds, open doors” is but an advertising slogan and not the true essence of their beloved denomination. I also feel the pain of clergy who cannot celebrate, openly, the life transitions of their parishioners when they want to get married because of the threat of being defrocked. But most of all, I can feel the pain of the Savior who died and rose for all and is calling everybody to a world transformed by love, but encounters “closed doors, closed hearts, and minds that do not care.”

Dorothee Benz:

My name is Dorothee Benz. I met my partner Carol in church; this handsome woman singing in the choir, whom I spent eight months trying to figure out what to say to during coffee hour. It’s the church that brought us together. We fell in love in the church; indeed, sometimes it seemed like half our courtship was spent at church meetings. Our relationship was welcomed and celebrated by everyone at Park Slope Methodist. In coming together as a couple, we strengthened each other in faith, and both our faith journeys and our journey as partners were nurtured by our congregation. Of all God’s gifts in my life, none has been more precious and wonderful than Carol, and none has been more obviously a gift from God. Yet for all that, Carol and I cannot get married in our own church.

I cannot begin to describe to you what that feels like: to be welcomed by God only to be rejected by the church.

Judy Stevens:

My name is Judy Stevens and I have been a United Methodist minister for 18 years. The current UMC policies in relation to lesbians and gay men hurt my soul. They hurt my soul  because I have seen and heard the pain of gay people who were members of the churches I served.  They hurt my soul because I have had faithful LGBT congregants in every appointment who gave as much of their time, talent, tithe and witness as any heterosexual in the charge – sometimes more – yet every single one of them has been denied justice and welcome by the UMC.

And they hurt my soul because they forbid me from fulfilling my responsibilities as a pastor. They compromise my discipleship to Jesus Christ. It is the local church that is the most important site of spiritual leadership, the local church where the living body of Christ is nurtured – and the local church where I cannot fulfill the calling of my ordained office. I cannot lead gay and lesbian Methodists who have the gifts and graces for ministry to explore candidacy for ministry. I cannot officiate their lifetime commitments to each other, blessing and celebrating their bonds with the community they give so much to.

My integrity as a pastor is compromised. I struggle every day to square the Discipline I promised to uphold with the Gospel I was called preach and the people I was called to minister to.

Fred Brewington:

My name is Fred Brewington. It was my honor to serve on our delegation at General Conference last year. I was blessed to chair the Church and Society 2 Committee.  After the failure of the General Conference to move towards inclusiveness for all of God's children, I felt a great sense of loss within the fellowship we call the United Methodist Church. This sense of loss, shared by many others, led to a massive witness the next day. But this witness, while effective, was overshadowed by the testimony of a single sister who told a story that spoke volumes to the real injury our spoken and unspoken prejudices cause.  She said that after the group witness she went to the restroom and as she entered, she was subjected to two women that made it their business to rush out of the bathroom and openly state that they were leaving because they did not want to be touched or even come into contact with this sister, as if she were diseased. Her story struck me deeply. The pain that act caused this women will never leave me. It is just this type of pain that we must all consider will follow when we treat our sisters and brothers differently and fail to do all we can to open our hearts, open our minds and open our doors to all those who seek the love of Christ.  I love you – you love me – we're all a part of God's Family.  I won't harm you with the words from my mouth!    

Emily Jones

My name is Emily Jones. I will be attending seminary this fall. This story is from Rachel Small, a former Methodist seminarian:

“I am a product of the best the United Methodist Church has to offer.  As a child, I was nurtured in Sunday School.  As a youth, I was invited into leadership roles and found my footing as someone called to serve God.  As a college student, a Methodist campus ministry allowed me to preach my first sermon. After college, I was called into service as a United Methodist Young Adult Missionary.

It was as a Methodist missionary that a new struggle of discernment began.  We were trained to be thoroughly honest, to speak truth at all costs, to follow the prophetic tradition.  So then, when I began to realize a new truth about myself, the truth that I was deeply attracted to women instead of men, what was I to do?  The very church that had taught me to exercise the utmost integrity now threatened to keep me from my calling if I admitted my truth.

Thus began an intense journey of discernment – one that involved deep depression, medication, and therapy, and many hours of prayer and conversation.  All these things were conducted in the closet, of course, because my heart pounded every day with the fear that I would be discovered and kept from doing what I was sure God was calling me to do.

Eventually, after I enrolled at a United Methodist seminary, I realized a new truth.  I could still be a minister.  I could still follow my calling.  I just had to do it without the blessing of the United Methodist Church.  I am now almost ordained in the United Church of Christ, and have been serving successfully as a minister for several years.  The only thing different is that the UMC no longer puts fear in my heart every day. It can no longer claim me.  Only God can claim me now.”

Dorothee Benz:

Sisters and brothers in Christ, these are our stories. Some of you may have thought that you don’t know any gay people. Now you do. Some of you may have thought that the Book of Discipline is just words on a page. Now you know that those words wound and maim. But that same Discipline also contains beautiful words of affirmation, inclusiveness and justice. And just as the broken bread, the broken body, the broken world is not the last word but rather the cup of Life is the last word, so all of us have a chance to make healing and welcome for all God’s children the last word, the next chapter, in the life of the New York Annual Conference.