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:
Tearing People to Pieces
Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, clergy delegate from New York Annual Conference
4:48. That’s when I woke up this morning, with one thought on my mind. Not a new or revolutionary thought, but the numbers on the clock–4:48—gave it shape. 4 + 4 makes 8. I lay there reflecting on the elementary truths of arithmetic, in contrast with the wondrous possibilities of the economy of grace as framed by the systematic theologian Kathryn Tanner. Through grace, 4 + 4 can produce 9 if the math is done in God’s name, and the more Trinitarian among us might even be inclined to say that 4 + 4 makes 11. Through the economy of grace, 2 fish + 5 loaves of bread can yield food for 5,000 plus a few baskets of leftovers. But this awe inspiring economy of grace is made possible only when God’s name is evoked and the entire Body of Christ is taken into account.
One such mathematical miracle took place in 1968, when The Methodist Church and the United Brethren Church joined one another with the goal of producing something greater than the sum of their parts. It also marked the end of the shameful institutional segregation of our African American siblings. This unifying vision was embodied in the 1968 Book of Disciplineof the newly formed denomination and spelled out in the Episcopal Greeting by Bishops Lloyd C. Wicke and Reuben H. Muller:
At the beginning, when our structures were as uncomplicated as the society in which the Church lived and labored, the Discipline was small and simple, vest-pocket size. Over the past decades, almost unnoticed, our structures tended toward more rigorous conformity. This present Discipline, more complex and bulky than many would desire, attempts to aid the United Methodist community in serving its Lord in these revolutionary times, as did its forerunners. Its substance bears witness to our nature as a “connectional church,” each local church organically related to the whole, the whole dependent upon each branch. This volume is sent forth trusting it will be used as tempered instrument, flexible to serve the immediate demands of humanity in this time and location. This book is designed to open new doors of choice and action into the larger room of life for the local congregation.
Sadly, these “new doors” did not stay open for long. Only four years after the creation of our denomination, what was meant as a “tempered instrument” aiding in our service to God and the “immediate demands of humanity in this time and location” began to be used once again as a tool for discriminatory practices. Following a last minute amendment, an entire group of people came to belabeled as “incompatible,” and at General Conference after General Conference more complex discriminations and punishments have been imposed upon the underrepresented group labeled“homosexuals.”
Our denomination attempts to live fully into the arithmetic of grace, and abundant grace is evident in all of our social service efforts, but we keep coming up short in some social justice aspects. United Methodists are always among the first responders at disaster recovery sights. Our denomination supports health projects and capacity-building projects all over the world. Methodists built the first higher education institution in my home town in Brazil. The region was chosen because it “was one of the main centers of the social, political and economic transformations of the Country.” My late father was awarded a scholarship as a child to attend the Methodist middle school. Unfortunately, he could not take advantage of that opportunity because as the eldest child he needed to work fulltime to help make ends meet. However, many of my childhood friends were blessed to get their education at that Methodist institution,and I have witnessed the power of our denominational educational efforts around the world: in Cambodia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Nicaragua. Although not educated in a Methodist institution, when I came to the US as an exchange student, it was a Methodist family in Missouri that offered me radical hospitality. They had already hosted 6 international students, and although not planning to host any more students, they opened their home and hearts when they learned that a young Brazilian guy was in need for the school year. My host mom was an amazing United Methodist woman and the entire family taught me the power of Christian love and self-less service.
Our denomination and our people are unquestionably gracious agents of miraculous work throughout the world. Unfortunately, we do have another side, and we keep coming up short on social justice concerns like the one before us at this special Called General Conference. Could it be that our systematic exclusion, dehumanization, and degradation of LGBTQIA+ people make all that we do somewhat less than fullyfruitful? Could it be that our ambiguities about social justice are actual injustices in itself?
Have we become the people prophet Amos reprimands in chapter 5 of his book?
21-24 “I can’t stand your religious meetings.Amos 5:21-24 The Message (MSG)
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
Some of us find this passage too harsh, unmarketable, hard to swallow. Others may even find it too close to the bone when we take into account the social justice realities of our denomination for the last 46 years, or since 1939, 1894, 1844, 1816, or 1808. Some people prefer to compare the current (or recurring struggle in our denomination depending on your historical interpretation) to the Biblical story of splitting the baby. The gruesome account titled “The Judgment of Solomon” or the “Tale of Two Women,” 1 Kings chapter 3. The splitting of the baby narrative that has been a popular allegory for the proponents of denominational “unity.” They appear to be equating our denomination to the baby in the biblical story of these two mothers, who are also labeled “harlots” in some translations. Equating the baby in the biblical story to the institution is akin to the objectification of the LGBTQIA+ community since 1972. They frame the institution as the baby in need of preservation while actual LGBTQIA+ babies are deemed acceptablecasualties. The sacrificing acts expected by the institutional plans are still imposed onto the very people that have been systematically split into pieces since the year I was born.
Gracelessly, most calls for “unity” have nothing to do with authentic unity. It seems to be all about the acceptable political illusion of unity, even if beneath the surface the Body of Christ continues to be dismembered at will by the “contextual majority.” I am all for denominational unity: for the true unity of the entire Body of Christ, not the “unity” of the institution minus the queer members (or some queer members in the bargaining). This is not the grace-filled math of God we worship. Our God’s arithmetic of grace always produces more than the expected sum of the parts. Through God’s grace 2 + 5 = 5,000 and change! If we are the followers of this gracious God of abundance, how can the dividing of queer “babies” be an acceptable compromise?
It might be convenient, expedient, and even popular to expect that “other” people agree to surrender “their” queer baby, gay uncle, lesbian mother, trans sibling, intersex cousin, gender non-binary friend, bisexual neighbor or parts of one’s own self for the sake of denominational “unity,” or the illusion of it. The truth is that we have never been united. It has always been aspirational. The labor fueling the aspirational hopes of the church has come greatly from the ones outside of the centers of power, the ones doctrinally cut off yet willing to serve for the sake of true unity of the Body of Christ. Throughout our denominational history, and in every denominational rendition before the cross and the flame came together, there has always been a group of people cut off from the Body of Christ. Our ambiguities about justice have yield injustices.
I am all for true denominational unity: for the true unity of the whole Body of Christ, not the “unity” of the institution minus the “minor” or “invisible” queer parts. Is it any wonder why we keep coming up short as we strive for quasi “unity?” Are we living into the warnings of Prophet Isaiah…?
13-17 “Quit your worship charades.
I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why?
Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces,
and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat for the defenseless.
Isaiah 1:13-17 The Message (MSG)
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