My Walk with Jesus and his LGBTQ Followers
I’ll be offering a few reflections in advance of General Conference 2019. In some, like this one, I will share memories of my own journey alongside LGBTQ siblings in the Church. In others, I’ll work to answer questions that I am hearing in my role as your bishop. I hope each will offer you some insight into my thinking as we walk this road together over the coming months.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:10-6
Let me take you back to 1971, when I was a 17-year-old high school senior at Bellevue High School (go Wolverines!). It was two years after the Stonewall Uprising which protested a police raid at a gay bar in Greenwich Village and marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement in America. But I didn’t know anything about that. It was a year before the General Conference of The United Methodist Church would adopt language stating that it considers the “practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.” I would attend that conference as a young adult observer. But that’s a story for another time.
I was just an awkwardly tall, unusually curious, teenager. A member of Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF), I served on the district youth council. We planned retreats and fun events and studied the issues of the day. As I got to know youth from many backgrounds, life experiences, races and cultures, my horizons expanded quickly, and my faith was tested and stretched in a thousand ways. I never felt far from God during these years. I never felt I was being pulled away from faith. I always turned to my personal faith, and the community of faith to help me understand what I was experiencing, and to respond as a follower of Jesus.
One day I was on the phone – you know (or maybe you don’t), the one-and-only-heavy-black-dial-phone that sat in the living room, where anyone in the family could hear your side of the conversation and speculate about the other side. I was talking to a 16-year-old boy from a neighboring church on youth council business. We were both sexually inexperienced, but through youth ministry, we had become aware of the emerging struggle of lesbian, gay and transgender people to be understood and accepted. Somewhere in the conversation, Michael said, “I think I might be gay. And I don’t know if there is a place for me in the Church.”
Michael didn’t find his gay identity outside the Church. He didn’t come to the church as an invader or a reformer, trying to change the Church. He grew up in the Church. He was baptized in the Church. He was formed and shaped by the Church. And as he began to understand himself as a sexual person, before he had been in a sexual relationship, it was within the church that he searched to find his place in God’s good creation. I didn’t know how to respond, but I knew that in the Church we embrace one another, and we stay in relationship, and we walk together. So, I found Michael some gay Christians to help him find his way. And I knew from that moment on, that I would work in the Church to understand and to welcome, and to learn from brothers and sisters who did not fit the sexual norms I had grown up with, but who loved God, wanted to serve God, exhibited life-giving loving relationships in their lives and were members of the household of the Church.
I hear people claim that the movement for full inclusion of LGBTQ people is a secular movement, driven by outsiders who want to control the Church. I don’t know many secular people who care very much about what the Church thinks or teaches. But I know lots of LGBTQ Christians like Michael, whose sexual identity unfolded right alongside their Christian identity, as they grew into adulthood as members of the Church. Because I know this, when I go to a General Conference, and I see people with anguished faces, mouths taped shut with rainbow duct tape in protest of the Church’s persecution, I see Michael, and other dear sisters and brothers in the family of Christ, weeping and yearning to be heard, understood, embraced, treasured, included.
Michael taught me that the Church’s struggle to understand God’s will regarding human sexuality is not a struggle of US vs THEM. It is a struggle of US with US. It is a family struggle. Baptized children of God talking to other baptized children of God, with Jesus as mediator.