Walking the walk
In the past year, Methodists in New Directions (MIND) has raised its profile and visibility within the New York Annual Conference (NYAC), striking a chord and striking a nerve in our insistence that we as a conference are called to live the loving, radical, inclusive Gospel. We worked to raise the voices of laity and clergy throughout the conference, and also to engage the conference’s leadership in dialogue about how to faithfully answer God’s call to welcome all in the face of the United Methodist Church’s rules forbidding us to extend that welcome to God’s lesbian and gay children.
Whom would Jesus marry?
Last fall we began with a focus on marriage. In November, we organized “Whom Would Jesus Marry? The Biblical Case for Gay Marriage,” a forum with Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, Ann Kansfield and MIND’s own Rev. Dr. Robert Whitfield. Over 100 people attended and we kicked off our campaign to gather signers for an open letter to the UMC on marriage equality. “God honors all covenantal relationships – why not the church?” the letter said, and it called on all members of the church, from bishops to lay people, to refuse to discriminate against each other. We had 200 signers by Thanksgiving, over 500 when we presented the letter to our General Conference delegation in March and 570 when we displayed all the names at annual conference in June. We also sent it to the conference newspaper, the Vision, which published the text, the signers and an invitation for others to sign in April, and to the cabinet in May.
We talk the talk…
In the winter MIND undertook a project to research and document NYAC’s reconciling history. This endeavor grew out of discussions in which we reflected on the discongruity between the conference’s official record of reconciling positions and the complete absence of any reference to this embrace of inclusive ministry from conference leaders or in the official program at the annual conference meeting. In trying to figure out how to bridge this gap, we decided it would be useful to start with an exact accounting of what NYAC had in fact “resolved” already. The results, compiled in a pamphlet called “A 30-Year Witness: NYAC’s Stand for God’s LGBT Children,” surprised even us. Across the board – on the issues of ordination, marriage, membership, civil rights, underlying doctrine and theology – literally dozens of NYAC resolutions at annual conference and petitions to General Conference have affirmed over and over the conference’s stance that the church should be open to LGBT people in all ways. NYAC has stood in firm, explicit and consistent opposition to the United Methodist Book of Discipline’s exclusionary doctrine and policies for three decades.
And yet, the promise of “affirming the full participation of lesbians and gay men in the life of this annual conference” (as the resolution declaring NYAC to be a reconciling conference in 1987 put it) remains unfulfilled. What our research project revealed most clearly is that we must find ways to bring the words off the pages of our resolutions and into more of our congregations, into the daily work of the conference, into the lives of God’s LGBT children. Or to paraphrase an old slogan, passing resolutions is not enough. From this came MIND’s theme for the 2008 annual conference: We talk the talk, let’s walk the walk.
From the outset of annual conference, our presence and our theme was everywhere, unmistakable and unavoidable. It began during the opening gathering. As people began streaming into the arena, 10 of us walked around wearing sandwich boards. The front of each board contained a single item excerpt from the history we had compiled—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. We each carried MIND’s “10 Things You Can Do” flyer and handed them to people who stopped to talk to us.
We reprised the sandwich board witness at the beginning of the third day, which was also MIND’s t-shirt day. As in past years, we asked people to wear our distinctive “closed doors, broken hearts, we mind” t-shirts that day to continue to bring visibility to the unfinished work of realizing God’s welcome.
Honoring both joy and sorrow
Our visibility at annual conference continued on the last day 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 “A 30-Year Witness” to all clergy members the week before conference. About half the clergy wore the armbands, and seven of the 13 ordinands wore them.
MIND guest Rev. Gil Caldwell highlights commonality
One hundred fifty people came to the MIND lunch at annual conference to hear Rev. 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. 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 were 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 conservative Wesley Fellowship were also at the lunch, in response to an invitation we had extended at their luncheon the day before. The Wesley Fellowship had reached out to MIND and MFSA to invite us to their lunch, and the three organizations jointly supported a resolution calling for a 90-minute dialogue session at the 2009 annual conference to struggle with how to live together with our different views on homosexuality.
Conference leadership digs in its heels
MIND was in dialogue with our conference leadership as well throughout the spring and summer. Challenged by our historical research highlighting the gap between NYAC’s written affirmation of inclusive ministry and its lived silence, we in turn have challenged the bishop, the district superintendents, our General Conference delegation and annual conference planners to publicly embrace the conference’s stated positions and to find ways to move from the call for inclusive ministry to the practice of it. This work included a letter exchange with conference planners in which we asked that they include some content at the annual conference meeting that explicitly reflected NYAC’s official reconciling positions; the request was denied. Most notably, we met with the full cabinet (the bishop and six district superintendents) at the end of June. The meeting was remarkable for the open-ended time they gave us, but equally remarkable for their refusal to acknowledge that official silence is an insufficient response to the prejudice that plagues our denomination. We have continued our dialogue with the bishop and superintendents since the meeting.
… and the work goes on
This summer MIND hosted the “first annual – first ever – MIND picnic,” which we publicized as having “no meeting, no agenda, just fellowship, fun, Frisbee and let’s not forget food.” The Frisbee was rained out, but thanks to Helen and Len Andrew’s gracious hospitality, the picnic went on as planned inside their home; the food was delicious, and the fellowship deeply rewarding for all who came.
MIND’s work in the coming year will focus on the theme “the welcoming church.” It grows directly out of the call to “walk the walk” and the recognition that LGBT people cannot feel welcome in our churches in the face of the UMC’s discrimination unless we make that welcome explicit. We are focusing on local congregational work and designing resources to extend to individual churches. We are in a period of strengthening and expanding our clergy network, and deeping our new efforts to support the unfinished work of racial justice and to build racial diversity in our own organization.