Speaking Truth to Power:
We Rise Up
Transfiguration Sunday • March 3, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 58:1-12
(adapted from the NRSV translation)
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village
Hello, beloved! Oh, my goodness, I am so glad to be home. For those of you who don’t know, I returned on Wednesday night from the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. The outcome of the conference was awful – it was an act of evil, injustice, and oppression. I will talk more about that in a minute, but first, I want to say, This is my home, you are my family, and I missed you!
I am very grateful for the messages of love and support I received from so many of you while I was at away. They helped me survive. I also received messages from around the world and across the country. I got a very supporting email from a Methodist pastor in Germany who had visited the Church of the Village. I also got a note from Andy Corkill in Australia, who used to be the chair of our Trustees. And just this morning, Bishop Alfred Johnson called to express his grief and also his solidarity with our community. I am so grateful for the support and encouragement.
Even more so, it has been very healing for me to personally connect with Church of the Village folks over the past few days since I got back. I meet with Martha Chapman and Sarah Alphin as we planned the prayer service for Thursday night. Then, it was very good to be together with about 25 people who came for that profoundly moving service. Yesterday, I called Sarah Capers to make sure she was recovering well from her eye surgery and we had our usual serious, but delightful conversation, infused with moments of laughter. And last night I talked with Minister Anita about a pastoral care concern she needed to raise with me. She can’t be here today because her daughter is going through a difficult pregnancy, so Anita is flying to Florida today to do what she always does – to help, to show her immense love, to give of herself for someone else. You see, those are example of why I love my family – this family – so much. This is our church. This is our story!
We have a lot of great human beings in the Church of the Village – everyone a beautiful, beloved child of God and a sibling. We also have a few leaders in our family who, each in their own way, valiantly upheld the love and justice of God at the General Conference. I specifically recognize and honor Jorge Lockward, Katie Reimer, Rev. Dr. Althea Spencer Miller, and Harriett Olson, the General Secretary of United Methodist Women.
Now, before I move to the what happened and what comes next, I want to talk about those among us and around the world who are hurting. Great harm and even trauma has been done – especially to people who are hearing not only from the General Conference, but also from their local churches or the churches they grew up in that they are not welcome, not worthy, not loved by God. What the UMC did was horrific and harmful, especially to LGBTQI persons. I have seen many posts online that say things like, “I haven’t left my house since the vote on Tuesday,” or “I can’t stop crying,” or, “My church is celebrating what the General Conference did and I can never go back there.” I want to say right now to all of our members, supporters, guests, and even strangers – you are beloved by God and by the Church of the Village. You are not alone. If you are feeling harmed, if you are hurting, if you are struggling with what has occurred, we are here for you. I am available or I can put you in touch with one of our Ministers of Care to talk and pray and cry with you. We here for you not just on Sunday, but any time. If you need comfort, help with getting over despair or hopelessness or feeling alone or alienated – members of non-members – please reach out.
And from many people in places that feel much less safe for LGBTQI people. So I ask that we be in prayer for them. Many expressing already they have no intention of staying in this denomination – places that are not safe spaces. Many people are declaring through social media that they will have nothing more to do with the United Methodist Church. They are leaving for more inclusive denominations like the Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, or even Unitarian Universalists. I don’t blame them! I want nothing more to do with the UMC, but we are not quite there yet, because I think we need to see what the NY Annual Conference does and what other Conferences do and I believe we can still have an influence. But I am convinced we cannot go forward with the church structures of our past, which has been shown to be ineffective, unjust, and even corrupt.
Let me share a bit with you about my own experience of being at General Conference. The first day was devoted to prayer and to reports on mission work around the globe. A lot of praying was done from the front, but not a single mention was made the whole morning about prayers for LGBTQI siblings. It seemed surreal to praying so much without ever acknowledging the people this conference was supposed to be “about.” So several delegates protested to some bishops and in the afternoon got some significant recognition and time devoted to this.
Then, there was the excruciating and depressing moment on Sunday when “priority” voting was done and the highest priorities for the majority of delegates were pensions, the Traditional Plan, and local church disaffiliation or exit plans. In other words, money, property, power, and harsh retribution. We said, the struggle was not over, but we knew right way this was a very bad sign.
Many factors contributed to the Traditional Plan being passed, but it is fundamentally the result of 50 years of right-wing campaign to destroy the mainline protestant denominations focus on social and economic justice. I confess I am feeling angry and disappointment after having worked so hard for so long with so many wonderful, beautiful people to remake the UMC as a fully inclusive, affirming denomination. I have seen colleagues and friends burn out and leave UMC.
Of course, there was some despair and a lot of pain after this vote, but there was also hope and determination. Every time something bad happened during the Conference, our movement was prepared with or spontaneously came up with an affirming, supportive, loving, and fiercely justice-oriented action.
Let me tell you about the Conversation Couch. It was a brilliant idea that came out of our progressive movement. The thought was to set up a space – a big, curved blow up couch, large enough for four persons to sit comfortably – where delegates could go to talk with a queer person – not an “issue” or an abstraction, but a living breathing human being. They were invited to ask questions and listen deeply to the experience of that person. And the couch was very busy for the first couple of days with delegates coming mostly in humility and curiosity to listen and learn. But after the direction of the voting became clear, the couch turned into a place where queer folk and allies came who were hurting, crying, angry, and afraid. They came to pour our their feelings and find support. So we always had a few clergy and others around to provide listen, commiserate, and pray.
The time at General Conference was intense. At times, it was emotionally and physically draining. Other times it felt exhilarating and exciting. Beyond the conference sessions, there were organizing meetings, profound worship experiences, and powerful protests. It was inspiring to be part of such a large group of dedicated people who fought to the end. On the last day after the final vote, Jorge and a dozen other delegates sat in the center and then moved to the stages and sat down among the bishops, just below the cross. Katie and others tried to break through the doors and enter delegates area.
Katie seemed to be in the center of the action the whole four days, designing and leading worship, writing protest litanies, and organizing. I am so grateful to have among us Althea, who was brilliant in her leadership of the movement publically and behind the scenes. We did not do things perfectly or without sometimes hurting one another, but the ability of our progressive leadership to function as well as we did, under tense and very challenging conditions, was the fruit of years of struggle and learning and relationship building. All of that made a huge difference in the moment when we needed everyone to stand up and be counted and to be as effective and prophetic as possible.
So where do we go from here? What’s next? I will offer my own perspective, but want to make clear that I am not representing the position of the Church of the Village. I am expressing my own feelings.
There are signs of movement toward both resistance and toward creating something new out of the demise of the UMC. The College of Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction have already stated that they will not comply with the new rules of the “Traditional Plan.” There is a lot of talk about the Judicial Council ruling large parts of the plan unconstitutional. Others are turning their attention to strategies for the regular General Conference in 2020.
I personally do not want to focus on trying to stay in the UMC or battle to reverse the decision of the General Conference. That battle is over. It’s done. The majority has already sealed the fate of the UMC. The percentage of votes in favor of fundamentalism and against inclusivity is only going to increase. As for me, I am done with the UMC. The majority has abandoned what Methodism stands for and now we are the ones keeping that tradition, while augmenting it with radical inclusivity and anti-racism. Yet, this is not an end for us, but a new beginning. As we begin anew, I do not want to see a re-creation of the UMC as we have known it – a denomination which has been dominated by white supremacy and neo-colonialism. This new thing that God is leading us toward will have to be significantly led by black and brown people and by LGBTQI people if it is to be of value and align with God’s desire for us. The Gospel – the Good News – of Jesus Christ is about liberation from all sorts of domination, oppression, exploitation, and marginalization. I know there are a lot of Methodists across the country who lean the same way.
We don’t know what is going to happen in the NY Annual Conference – our region of the UMC. My hope is that the leadership of the NYAC will continue the policies of full inclusion of LGBTQI persons and that the vast majority of our churches will continue to move in this direction. However, there are already threats that most of the Korean congregations will secede if that happens. Others are predicting that progressive congregations will leave if these policies are not continued.
I can say one thing very confidently: The Church of the Village will continue to be the progressive, radically inclusive and anti-racist community we have been, while we work with others to build something new out of the destruction of the UMC. We will stand fiercely for the values we have stood for all along. There will be others who want to building something on a different basis. The Church of the Village will need to be a strong advocate for love and justice as we seek to influence the outcome. You need to know that, in spite of our relatively small size, we are seen as a leading church among progressive Methodists.
There may be Methodist leaders who want to build a new denomination formed around the values of the One Church Plan – to create the biggest tent possible. I think that’s a mistake. I don’t want to be part of anything new that does not unequivocally declare, “We will not discriminate. We will welcome, celebrate, and love everyone for just who they are.” Whatever we build together with others, we need to infuse it with a lot of fierce determination, love, compassion, justice, and hope.
Here we are! In spite of the immoral action the majority of the General Conference delegates voted for, in spite of the destruction of the UMC – here we are – queer and straight, cis gender and transgender, black and brown and white – still praying together, having communion together, still loving one another, still fighting for justice, and moving with the Spirit of God toward the new thing God is doing among us. Friends, we will rise. We ARE rising up already – gathering, convening, finding our way, listening for the guidance of God’s Spirit. It’s fabulous!
For all of you watching from around the world we say this to you:
Blessed are you when tradition persecutes you!
For the angels of God are here to strengthen you,
to protect you, to comfort you. And to help you rise!
Do not despair! God is with us!
We are the stone that the builders rejected.
We are the cornerstone of God’s new thing.
We will continue in the struggle for justice, along with a vast array of God's people here and around the world. For in the struggle, en la lucha there is life, there is hope, there is even joy – there is love.
Call and Response Benediction:
Friends, God is calling us and waiting for our answer.
I invite you now to respond:
We feel the Spirit!
The Spirit is moving!
The Spirit is on fire!
The Spirit is with us!
God’s Spirit will NOT be contained.
God Spirit will not be quenched by the immoral actions of the General Conference!
The Spirit is creating a new thing!
And we will move WITH the Spirit!
We will dream new dreams!
We will see new visions!
Visions of hope! Visions of inclusion! Visions of love!
This is our life! This is our church! This is our story!
Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.