Many of my UMC brothers and sisters are grieving regarding the decisions made in St. Louis and the struggles facing our denomination. I understand there can be confusion as to why this has had an impact so deep that some would consider leaving the denomination. For many of us, the grief comes from understanding the price of this decision. The price of exclusion is far reaching and can have a profound effect on whether or not someone comes to know God. There is a reason this topic impacts me deeply. I have always shared I came to the church later in life but there is also a far more deep, hurtful reason.
My parents were believers, but we never went to church. My dad worked a lot, and my Mom was burned out on church. We never talked about going to church. Nor did we talk about gay people. I use the word “gay” very broadly. Looking back, I just assumed they were okay with it because my dance teacher was gay. Since I spent so much time with him growing up, it was a safe assumption. No one ever sat me down and told me, but I eventually figured it out as I got older. My dance teacher took me on trips and took me to see the Nutcracker. His friends were often around, and they helped with our sets and props for competitions and recitals. One in particular was around a lot. He was very kind to me, and I was sad to eventually learn that he was living with HIV/AIDS. When I stepped on a nail backstage during a dance recital, he was the one I sought out to bandage me up. He gave me a good pep talk, and I danced on that hurt foot. I was crushed when he died. As a young girl, it was one of my first experiences with death.
Shortly before his death, I had taken my first steps toward God. A friend was just starting to talk to me about the Bible. I turned to her about this death I was trying to process. Although I had no real concept of God, I said the phrase I had always heard people say, “He’s in a better place.” She replied, “No, he isn’t. Gay people go to hell.” I had never heard such a thing! I had somehow managed to get to that point in life without ever knowing there were people in the world who didn’t accept gay people. God hated him? Back then, I knew two things for sure: 1) My teacher was gay, and I loved him, 2) He loved me, and his friends were kind to me. I decided if God could hate such wonderful people, I wanted nothing to do with Him. I was beyond disappointed. I was angry. I didn’t just neglect God, I actively rejected Him. I would not step into a church (other than for a funeral) for almost 10 years. The girl who spoke those words to me grew up to be a very accepting person, and I know she has no idea the harm those words did in my life.
I graduated high school, and kids I knew in high school started “coming out” meaning they began to identify as LGBTQIA+. This is the time in life when young people are finally away from their families and parents’ churches. Many will never return to the church. My best friend, Chris, came out as gay. He is still my best friend more than 20 years later. My parents’ house was his safe place. It was the place where Chris was not only welcomed in the door but free to discuss who he was dating and who he loved, and eventually brought the man he would settle down with to meet my parents. He was not the only one who enjoyed the acceptance of my parents. I went to college and met many more people who didn’t always have a safe place. My bestie and I friended them, plus their friends, and started bringing them to my parents’ house. One of those men called and apologized for not being able to attend my mother’s funeral. I was shocked since he lived so far away. He flew in my for father’s funeral…18 years after he had been welcomed into my parents’ home one year for Thanksgiving. We had several visitors at my parents’ house that year, and we still refer to it as the gay Thanksgiving! My family and my parents never batted an eye. We just loved everybody. That young man’s parents are actually pretty accepting, but they lived in another country, so he became part of us. During my college years, I saw young people struggle. I heard stories of parental arguments, rejections, and hurts. Hurtful things were often done in the name of religion…in the name of God. I knew I never wanted to know that God if he could make parents reject their own wonderful children.
When I was 23 years old, a friend invited me to a Methodist church. I was scared. I believed people would dislike me if they knew I had gay friends. I didn’t want to be subjected to hateful words about people I loved. Not to mention, I was a single mom with a toddler. Would they reject me too? That is how church people are, right? I eventually caved and accepted the invitation just to satisfy my friend. I would eventually be baptized in that church. I joined the UMC knowing I disagreed with parts of it. Many seemed to think it would change at some point. So I prayed, and I believed if everyone who desired change left, change would never come. Many of us have prayed for God’s will to be done; yet, members of our denomination prayed for different outcomes. I don’t believe God’s will prevailed in St. Louis. When humans make decisions, God’s will is harder to discern. I have been praying for 17 years.
Our denomination has been down this road before regarding the ordination of women. A former pastor once told me, “There came a time in the UMC when the Holy Spirit shone so bright through women it could no longer be denied. The same will one day be true for our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.” I believe that, but I am tired. It hurts me that many of my friends will never have a church family. As much as I would love to see them in the UMC, being welcomed by a local church and full inclusion are two different things. How can I expect them to come and listen to God’s calling for their lives knowing the calling can never be as a pastor? How can I expect them to come and build a church family, perhaps even watch weddings, when they would never be permitted to wed in their church? For many, this is the same hurtful behavior which occurs in their families’ homes. They can walk in the door but with limitations. Don’t hold hands, don’t kiss, don’t talk about the person you are dating, etc. This is the price of exclusion. They will either reject the God who they believe has rejected them, or they will find a denomination which will love and include them fully.
I am sometimes asked how my career and belief in science conflicts with my faith. I always found this an odd question as science and faith go hand in hand. God set into motion all the wonders of the world, and the rules of science. I have at times joked with people saying God had to keep us busy so He gave us much to discover! The truth is there is conflict with my faith and my career. My doctoral work was in human development and family science. I now teach developmental courses at the undergraduate and graduate level. I tell my students what the research says…identifying as something other than heterosexual is a normal human variation. Sexual behavior is not the same as sexual orientation. Sexual orientation cannot be changed. Conversion therapy, which claims to cure homosexuality, is not evidence-based and has not been found to be effective. Rather, it has been found to be extremely harmful. I could go on and on about that, and if you want to discuss the research, I would be glad to sit down and visit. I don’t force or expect my students to agree with me, but I do remind them homosexuality and other variations are not recognized as mental health disorders and suggest they refer future clients to others if they find this is a population they cannot comfortably counsel.
I also work in the area of suicide prevention. According to the American Association of Suicidology, risk factors for LGBTQIA+ persons include conflicts with family and friends over issues of sexual orientation, institutional discrimination, as well as isolation and exclusion. Young lives are at risk. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported, “Over 80% of LGBTQIA+ youth have been assaulted or threatened, and every instance of victimization in an LGBTQIA+ person’s life more than doubles the likelihood of self-harming.” This is the price of exclusion. Suicide is already the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. There is some hope. The American Association of Suicidology, has also cited protective factors such as support and connectedness.
With LGBTQIA+ youth at greater risk than their heterosexual peers, there is a place for the church to be the support and connection needed to change the trajectory of lives. We could be saving lives and souls.
It has become more and more difficult for me to accept the church’s stance on sexual orientation when it goes against everything I know to be true. I have raised my son with certain values; yet, I continue to stay in a situation that does not match the values I am teaching him. I will now have students who might not come to me to discuss their issues or concerns if they know I am a United Methodist. This is the price of exclusion. As far as my son and I, we are reluctant to make a quick decision on whether we will stay or go. Part of me wants to stay and part of me feels too tired to walk the road ahead of the UMC. If my son were younger it might be different; however, he and I have a limited amount of time to explore other denominations if we are to do so together before he moves off to college. To be perfectly honest, time may have run out for us to fight this fight. It is heart breaking. In many ways, I feel like that young girl again. All these years later, and I’m struggling with the love and kindness I see in others and the position of the church. I have been so busy focusing on the love within the church, I have failed to give my full attention to those on the outside who could not feel our love. We have passively condoned limitations on our LGBTQIA+ United Methodists by not loudly proclaiming our support. We have failed to make all the disciples for Christ we can. The doors have been open; yet, we have failed to give many souls a reason to ever walk through them. This is why we grieve.
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