In the Crosshairs, at the Crossroads: Perspectives of LGBTQI Delegates
Series introduction: Given that the fate of LGBTQI people is at the center of the struggle over the future of the UMC, and that LGBTQI people represent only 2% of the General Conference 2019 delegates, the experience and perspective of this group of delegates is of critical value to church leaders, other delegates, and the wider church. There can be no viable or lasting way forward that is not forged with LGBTQI people. As a small contribution to that path, this series brings you the voices of LGBTQI-identified delegates.
Previous articles in this series:
- Rev. Gregory Gross, UMC: Care For The Children!
- Dr. Dorothee Benz, The Sin of Patience
- Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, Tearing People to Pieces
Cannot Love Pieces and Parts of People
Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth
As I was preparing for the 2016 General Conference in Portland, a retired African-American Bishop scheduled a time for us to have lunch and to be in conversation about what was ahead. This was not our first, nor was it our last lunch, but it was one that stuck with me throughout and beyond the events of 2016. During our lunch conversation, he shared how things were for black people as the 1968 merger discussions were taking place. Not only were there rumblings within the church, but there were alsot conscience raising actions and agencies beyond the church issuing edicts of change and calls for integration. He said, “We knew we were up against a mighty force. We knew racist policies and racism could be eliminated because the tide was turning in the country. It was illegal to discriminate based on race. Sure, people did it, but it was illegal.” I sat and listened intently as I somehow knew what he was saying truly mattered and would have a great impact. He continued, “The difference now in what you all are having to face and what we all must fight is something that has been legislated. The discrimination we now seek to overturn is not simply a matter of conscience, you still have to overturn the [church] law, and that is a very difficult thing to do.”
I walked into the Portland Convention Center full of the hope and optimism I carry throughout my daily encounters. No matter how difficult the task, regardless of the height of an obstacle, or how many people are upset or in an uproar, I believe healing and wholeness are always viable options. That is not to say that reality and the weight of certain moments are not factors, but they do not sway the optimism and approach I employ. Well, Portland challenged much of that thinking and caused me to question so much about my convictions and myself until there was a move to approve and form a commission that would recommend a way forward. Throughout that experience, I held to that bishop’s words in hopes that this may be the action and work needed to move The United Methodist Church to a place where discrimination of any and all kinds would finally be eradicated.
For me the elimination of race-based discrimination served my blackness well. It allowed me to be able to be born into a church where no one could openly discriminate against me in matters of membership, ordination or marriage because both my parents checked the “black box.” In fact, my blackness wedded to my maleness afforded me certain access and privilege no always available to African and African American women. That was not a battle I had to fight firsthand. There were many who put themselves on the front firing lines long before my birth to ensure that would not be my battle to fight. I could stand and say it loud: “I’m black and I’m proud!” Doing so would garner some looks but it would not get me barred from service or from marrying others who made that claim or those who wanted to marry others who staked such a claim.
I in no way believe that racism and racist policies have been abolished. We live in a nation and a world that follows a colonialist and patriarchal order that gave rise to those policies and practices. So, as long as expressions of xenophobia, nationalism, and talk of border fences coupled with activism spawned by “not in my backyard,” “Make America Great Again,” and any slogan aimed at alienating or disregarding the immigrant, poor and the stranger, we know racism and racist polices still abound. If not in law, they are certainly present in behaviors of apathy, complacency and silence.
However, as I celebrate the church for taking big steps toward integration of African Americans into the fabric and workings of The United Methodist Church, it was while sitting in the Convention Center in Portland that I had to truly come to grips with the fact that it was impossible for me to celebrate the strides the church had made on racial integration when another part of my being was being parsed out as if it were debatable. I truly want to believe that there is no way the delegates on the floor and the many faithful United Methodists watching from the stands and online would have sat by and allowed a floor debate to take place about whether black people from Africa or America could be ordained, marry or be members in good standing in the church. I want to believe that is true. However, I wonder with the rolling back of voting rights, re-districting, and a call for a “return” to something I never knew to be “good” for my people is a clarion call that I must pay attention to as the 863 other delegates and me gather to take some action in St. Louis.
I cannot deny my race or ethnicity. I cannot deny that God called me to ordained ministry. I cannot deny that there is blood running through my veins. I cannot deny that I love God and long to be loved. I cannot deny any of those things any more than I can deny that I am a same gender loving man. I did not craft my race or ethnicity; I embraced it. I did not conjure a call to ordained ministry; I embraced it. I did not manufacture an orientation that would certainly place me on the margins of society, my family and the church; I embraced it.
I embraced all of who I am because the Church of my youth and of my adulthood taught me that I was created in the image and likeness of God. Those same churches taught me that God is love, which led me to believe and now to teach that if we were made in the image and likeness of God, then I am love, I am to give love, and I am worthy of love. I embraced love and love has embraced me. I now long for the church to come around to love’s way of being.
The church made a decision regarding gender and the church made a decision regarding race. Now it must make one regarding human sexuality. Race and gender knows no more bounds than sexuality and sexual identity because they cannot be parsed and legislated without asking people to live in silence or in part. We cannot love pieces and parts of people, even when we have broken them into categories and issues. I am black and I am proud! I am what some call gay and I am proud! I am serving the church faithfully and fruitfully and that makes me proudest of all!
I have a lunch reservation to make. I need to meet with that retired bishop because I need wisdom, encouragement, and guidance to enter this conversation and to be able to walk into the Convention Center in St. Louis with my whole being intact and with great expectation that I will leave there knowing I am enough, I have enough, I have nothing to prove because I am loved – all of me – loved.
Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth is an Elder and a General Conference delegates from the California-Pacific Annual Conference
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