Progressive pastors who support full inclusion of LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church have a lot in common with racially-inclusive poll workers and restaurant owners in the 1900s.
A Tradition of Social Engagement
Ten years ago, I was a seminary student in Boston, Massachusetts. Three times I visited Union United Methodist Church in downtown Boston, which was the first predominantly black Reconciling church in the country (it was pastored at that time by the recently-deceased Bishop Martin McLee). And on one of those times, I might have worshipped next to Rev. Jay Williams, a former congregant who is now their senior pastor.
Rev. Williams recently penned an article at UMC.org that frames the LGBT discussion in a way that I hadn’t considered before. Williams’ church has a story filled with engagement with social concerns and embrace of people hurt by oppression:
Ministry is more about people than policies.
Although the people of Union are not all of one mind, there is something that all of us have come to know: our DNA is made up of the double helix of biblical faith and social justice. Since the congregation’s beginnings in 1796, we have been abolitionists, de-segregationists, women’s rights advocates, civil rights activists, anti-apartheid protesters and economic-equality seekers.
All these issues are tied up in Christ’s invitation for us to be reconciled and set free. So as we struggle to find our way forward as a congregation, we have covenanted to stay at the table as we seek a table for all. We gather as broken vessels around a broken loaf as one people.
The Church has been through a lot and even though the congregation has found itself on opposing sides on many issues, they saw themselves as fellow human beings and stood with one another when the going got tough.
Echoes of Jim Crow…
It is in this tradition of engagement that Williams frames the situation in the United Methodist Church. Williams’ church and conference supports full inclusion of LGBT persons, and yet he is told by his denomination that he must not provide marriage services to his same-gender parishioners.
As an African American, here’s what it feels like to be told these contradictory things:
Walking this road as Union’s pastor has been challenging, complicated and occasionally contradictory. The painfully ironic thing is that I have been appointed by the general superintendent to a “reconciling church” and then ordered by the denomination not to pastor all my people fairly. As a black man in the United States, I know that the “separate but equal” thing simply does not work.
So I’ve decided not to be a “Jim Crow” pastor. I simply do not know how. As the pastor of a historic, justice-seeking congregation in Boston’s South End — the city center of queer life — I am simply doing what I must do.
You see, I do not know how to discriminate against my own members because I vowed in my ordination “to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people.”
It’s a framework that I haven’t considered before because we (rightly) usually focus on the African-American experience of Jim Crow rather than the white activist side. But in Williams’ framework, he indicates that the white poll workers and restaurant owners, folks who were not racist and did not see other races as inferior, were forced to discriminate.
It was the law to have separate rooms for races, to install separate water fountains, and for poll workers to ask license questions. Regardless of one’s personal convictions, they had to follow an unjust law and treat people as inferior because of the color of their skin.
…Reverberate in the United Methodist Church
In the United Methodist Church, we affirm that “LGBT persons are of sacred worth” and are not to be discriminated against…except when it comes to ordination and marriage. While people lift up this sentiment as compassionate orthodoxy or the middle way or even a very progressive position, for non-LGBT persons who support full inclusion, being unable to offer or support persons is an unconscionable position to be in, leading them to decide what to do when the Church is wrong.
Indeed, they might see much in common with racially-supportive persons in the Jim Crow era who were forced to discriminate or face retributions themselves. I would imagine that late 19th century poll workers and restaurant owners who did not see other races as inferior had to make choices that sound awfully familiar to progressive clergy who offer marriage services to all their congregants:
- Do they revolt against the unjust law, open their doors or voting booths to all people and risk being punished?
- Do they move away and go to a new state and abandon their positions to people who take full advantage of the way how the system is stacked up for their benefit?
- Do they use their position and work within the system to provide havens of help or muddled legalities to help people even if true systemic justice is decades away (and then only through the courts)?
It’s important to note that I am not calling United Methodists hateful or violent, as the term “Jim Crow” conjures up an era of lynchings and violence to African Americans (though violence against other races and LGBT persons alike happens daily). I am pointing out the predicament that people of faith who support full inclusion find themselves in in an institution that does not value people the same way by its actions.
Love in an Unjust World
Williams closes with a reminder that his convictions come not from secular nonviolent resistance training but from his call as a pastor:
This is not so much the position of an activist, but rather of a pastor who answered a call. My call and my vow are “to lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ.” The folk in my pews, who sing in the choirs, and place hard-earned money in the offering, are searching for unconditional love in a world full of broken promises.
As a church, when we baptize a child, we promise and covenant to support them. It lifts my heart when I baptize that child of a same-gender couple and I see in the couples’ eyes an earnest hope that their child will grow up in a better Church than the one they have now.
- Will you join with that family and stand against the echoes of Jim Crow laws in our Church?
- Or will you go along and by inaction allow the unjust polity reign unchecked?
The choice is yours.
It’s relevant to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. had to defend his actions -and the actions of the Civil Rights Movement- against Methodist bishops who said the time wasn’t right and condemned the non-violent resistance of the movement. Yet, MLK also had limits based on his social-location (consider how gay Civil Rights leader Baynard Ruston, who coordinated the March on Washington, was treated).
While not the same, there is a definite intersection between race and sexual orientation/gender identity on issues of justice– many African Americans are, of course, LGBTQ, and many African American Allies fight for full-inclusion within the United Methodist Church at great personal risk and stress, through groups like United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church.
Ecclesiastical abuse, emotional violence, against minorities and the marginalized is nothing new, nor is it Christ-like.
Shaming is an interesting and likely effective strategy; putting everyone who is not fully with you as being in favor of Jim Crow is a good rhetorical strategy, however dishonest.
Oh, there’s a whole series of laws that I could have used:
– I could reference police and judges who are supportive of women’s choice but are forced to shut down clinics due to legislative action. Would that have felt shameful?
– I could have referenced staff and workers who work for the R*dskins even though they think the team name is shameful. Would that have felt shameful?
– I could have really “nuked the fridge” and referenced the forced internment of Japanese in the 1940s and the guards who put that shameful act into action. Would that have felt shameful?
There’s good and bad of most of those comparisons, but none of them capture the essence of how progressives like me feel. Plus, the comparison came from an African-American pastor who has a better grasp of the analogy than I do. Take it up with him.
Thanks Jeremy. Grace and Peace to you.
Thank you for sharing this Jeremy. I grew up in the racially segregated south in an intolerant racist family. I had not made the connection even though I had made others regarding separation. Blessings.
well said Drew!
Jeremy, I loved this! How about adding this to the forum http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/sharing-in-faith-a-forum-on-sexuality-and-the-church ?
You know, both y’all can be a bit defensive at times. I’m not sure if you’ve sat down for coffee or not yet, but I think you two should, and then do it again the next time you’re in the same town. Speaking of which, I look forward to getting to do that with you sometime Jeremy, and hopefully you again Drew (another drink in Greece would nice too).
Drew, I don’t know whether your comment was directed at Jeremy or Jay, but I think it’s worth noting Jeremy’s specific acknowledgment of the potential misunderstandings that could result from the Jim Crow reference. And I think it’s worth noting the very pastoral and gracious wording from Jay in his original post. It may not be a perfect metaphor, but I think it’s got a lot of merit. But even if you disagree, please consider reflecting upon the words from Jay, (a gifted and respected African American UMC pastor who’s grown up in leadership in the denomination) without simply letting your first response be a stone, accusing others of shaming.
Someone who has faced and continues to face discrimination, feeling as though they are being asked to discriminate, is a profound thought to consider.
Julie A. Arms Meeks
This. Thank you, Jeremy.
Coretta Scott King, speaking four days before the 30th anniversary of her husband’s assassination, said Tuesday the civil rights leader’s memory demanded a strong stand for gay and lesbian rights. “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” she said. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’” “I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people,” she said. – Reuters, March 31, 1998.
Speaking before nearly 600 people at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Coretta Scott King, the wife of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Tuesday called on the civil rights community to join in the struggle against homophobia and anti-gay bias. “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood,” King stated. “This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group.” – Chicago Defender, April 1, 1998
We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say “common struggle” because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination. – Coretta Scott King, remarks, Opening Plenary Session, 13th annual Creating Change conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Atlanta, Georgia, November 9, 2000.
Jeni Markham Clewell
I can relate to Pastor Williams as a pastor in a Reconciling Congregation. Recently our Oklahoma Conference has sent email notices to all clergy about a “Called to Ministry Retreat.” The flier asks: “Is God speaking to your heart? Have you responded in some way to a call to ministry? Do you want to find out more about what it takes to become a lay, licensed or ordained minister in the United Methodist Church? If you answered yes to any of the above, please plan to attend.” And I got a second notice not long ago. To both, I responded with a question. How do I temper this for my gay and lesbian members? Shall I add an asterisk at the bottom of the poster that says, “UNLESS YOU’RE GAY?” Please put yourself in my place as I announce this retreat to my congregation on Sunday morning. Again, do I add, “unless you’re gay?” I cannot and I will not. How can you even ask me to do such a thing?
Even today in ‘post racial- America’, Sunday morning is the most segregated (voluntarily) time of the week! A few years ago I had a pastor who switched services with the pastor of a ‘black’ church (and the black pastor came to our church and preached), and the reactions were interesting…