Unprecedented visibility

June 10-13, 2009 New York Annual Conference

With Bishop Richard Wilke headlining for us, our 2009 annual conference witness gave us unprecedented visibility in the New York Annual Conference (NYAC).

The hub of our presence was the MIND table set up throughout annual conference in the arena where the plenary sessions and worship services were held. It was staffed by volunteers at all key times and was constantly buzzing with people coming to get resources, check the schedule of events or find out more about MIND. Our theme of welcome was highlighted through posters that said “welcome” in over 40 languages and copies of welcoming statements from NYAC reconciling congregations. The colorful, creative display mirrored our energetic, joyful and unapologetic presence, which stood out for all who attended the annual conference.

The conference business included the passage of two petitions addressing LGBT concerns. One called for the conference to work for marriage equality in New York State, and the other to support those who cannot in good conscience subscribe to the anti-gay proscriptions of the Book of Discipline. Their passage adds to the already substantial and longstanding official reconciling record and witness of our conference. Also on the agenda was Amendment 1 to the UMC Constitution, which MIND organized and campaigned for as part of its participation in the Reconciling Ministries Network  (RMN) Called to Witness “All Means All” campaign. The amendment, which would have changed the constitution to say “All persons upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection,” passed by more than a two-thirds majority, but failed to reach the aggregate two-thirds majority of annual conference votes nationally that it would have needed to take effect.

Regular conference business was suspended for a special dialogue session on the third day. This time, established by a petition passed at the 2008 annual conference at the initiative of MIND, MFSA and the conservative Wesley Fellowship, set aside 90 minutes for presentations, small group discussion and an open-mike period. We chose to make our opening presentation a collage of stories that lifted up the lived experiences of welcome and particularly unwelcome of LGBT Methodists, their parents and pastors. By all accounts, the MIND presentation was powerful and moving.

The highlight of MND’s witness, though, was Bishop Richard Wilke’s presence and advocacy on our behalf. A mainstream figure in the UMC, Wilke is well known, universally respected and much admired for his co-authorship of the popular Disciple Bible Study. His presence at MIND’s invitation was powerful and his message of full inclusion undeniable. He was our guest speaker at MIND’s annual lunch; Rev. Gil Caldwell introduced him and among those in attendance was NYAC Bishop Jeremiah Park.

After MIND had invited Wilke to be our speaker, Bishop Park reached out to Wilke as well to invite him to preach the sermon at the culminating ordination service on the conference’s last day. After years of imploring our conference leadership to include some kind of official acknowledgement of the exclusiveness of the ordination ceremony, for our bishop to invite MIND’s guest speaker to take center stage at that event was a significant development. Introduced in that service by MIND’s own Rev. Richard Parker, Wilke twice in his sermon lifted up the need to welcome gays and lesbians – probably the first time those words were ever spoken from the pulpit at a NYAC ordination service.

As in past years, MIND also coordinated two acts of witness that focused on visibility for the cause of LGBT justice in the church. The first was our “t-shirt day,” when hundreds of people wore the trademark purple MIND t-shirts (“closed doors, broken hearts, we mind”). The second was the armband witness, offered for the fifth year in a row. The armbands are blue to symbolize tears: tears of joy as we celebrate with those being ordained, and tears of sorrow as we mourn with those also called by God but rejected by the church. Once again it was a powerful, moving and above all hopeful sight to see so many blue armbands on the white clergy robes as they processed into the arena at the beginning of the service.