A carefully thought-out choice by a local church and its congregation was at once defiant and inclusive.
A vote in April, 2011, by the congregation of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church to become a reconciling church, a church that actively welcomes people of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer (or queen) community goes against the church’s general conference doctrines, but that’s OK with them. They care more about the people who just happen to be gay, and wanted to find a way to let them share their faith alongside the general congregation.
“We did a lot of soul searching over this subject. We may have lost one or two members, but the whole church has basically embraced this,” says Mimi Underwood. “This is a very public statement against our conference … A lot of people think of this as a civil rights issue.”
Underwood was among a handful of church members who led the drive to become a reconciling ministry.
“About five of us initially came together and wanted to take this on and see if we could gain consensus from the entire congregation to take this stand,” she says.
As a reconciling church Good Sam is a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), which “mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform” churches and the “world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”
Good Sam is not alone in moving in the acceptance direction; partly the shift comes from moving past 2,000-year-old language and coming to the belief that to be truly Christian one must accept all people.
Other churches and denominations have “changed their stance on this issue,” says Mark Teagle, Good Sam’s director of music and engagement. “Couples come in all shapes and sizes. Families come in all shapes and sizes. We’re all God’s children.”
On behalf of the church Teagle submitted a letter to the editor to Patch in October in which the church wrote, “…we find it urgently necessary to include these healthy and loving people in the full life of the church. Doing less often does real harm, and distracts us from the great commandments to love God and our neighbor (Luke 10:24-37).”
The words deeply struck some who read them.
“Seeing the words ‘gay’, ‘church’ and ‘welcome’ in the same headline brought me to tears,” said one woman to Patch when she read the letter.
The path to becoming a reconciling church was not taken lightly nor was the decision made overnight.
The process that lasted more than a year was a grassroots effort led by lay people, Teagle says; Underwood being one, and “very much at the center” was Dollie Forney whose daughter is gay.
A few years back Forney posted to her Facebook page an open letter to the church and poured out her heart about the people she loved, some who just happen to be gay. She described the love she had for them, and their love for their partners. And she asked the church’s members to “bravely state out loud LGBT people are welcome to participate in the full life of the church.”
In part she wrote:
“We would like everyone to know that when you express opinions that LGBT people are less than deserving of full participation in church life, when you judge LGBT people harshly, or if you just speak of them as subjects of academic discussion or debate, you harm our family and hurt our feelings. You are not just speaking about LGBT persons, you are talking about our children, our babies, our beloved, our flesh and blood. Please choose your words with that in mind.”
Forney, Underwood and a few other members set out to create a discussion about becoming an open and welcoming church to the LGBTQ community, and it was one that took many, many hours of meetings, workshops and conversations.
Some people hold to a “literal interpretation of the Bible”, Teagle says, so they talked about the context of the times, the social science and scientific analysis of homosexuality.
“In social science’s latest research, it shows homosexuality is just who you are, not something you choose… (this is) a civil rights issue, much like it has been for African Americans, and continues to be for women. The church needs to be sticking up for people who are suffering injustice,” he says.
In the process “we spent a lot of time in prayer and study,” Teagle says.
Before they put the decision to a vote they held panel discussions, educational seminars, surveys and Sunday school classes.
Attendance and interest was “across the spectrum”, Underwood says.
In the Methodist church once a member is confirmed they are a full-vote member meaning teenagers had a say in the decision as well.
Maybe not surprisingly the youth members needed no swaying to full acceptance, Underwood says.
“Most of our youth looked at it like, ‘What’s wrong with you adults? Why are you talking about this?’” she says.
By the time the vote came up the majority of the congregation was encouraged by the move. Now, Teagle says, they hope the church’s general conference will reach the same acceptance. That vote, which comes every four years, gets closer and closer to changing the language to full acceptance. But in the meantime, every Sunday at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church located at 19624 Homestead Rd., those who just happen to be LGBTQ will find open doors, open hearts and open minds, Underwood says.
“Pretty much every Sunday morning we do a ‘call out’ where the pastor says ‘If you are in our midst today we want you to know you are welcome,’” she says. It’s also helpful to remind “those who are not as passionate” about the reconciling ministry that “this is what we stand for.”