This week, I'm watching and praying for the United Methodist Church as they meet in General Conference. Among all the issues, there are major decisions about whether lesbian and gay people can be married and serve as clergy. These deliberations are not new to me, or to the United Methodist Church.
I pride myself on my United Methodist identity and heritage. My father and my grandfather were both United Methodist ministers. I was the proverbial "preacher's kid" as my father was a pastor to several congregations, District Superintendent (Supervisor of and Pastor to Pastors) and a Campus Minister at two historically black United Methodist Colleges. Early on, I avoided the idea of following my father into the ministry, but eventually relented to my own "call to ministry."
Despite my call to ministry, I was rejected admission to Duke Divinity School because when I applied in 1954, Duke enforced a policy that denied Negroes (as we called ourselves then) admission. Instead, I entered Boston University School of Theology in 1955.
At Boston University, I met Martin Luther King Jr. and began to include the quest for racial justice and equality in my ministry. I did not realize it at the time, but meeting Dr. King and my concerns about racial segregation would result in my participating in "Mississippi Freedom Summer," the Selma to Montgomery March, the March on Washington, and a march against the segregation policies of the Boston School Committee. I later served as Master of Ceremonies as Dr. King spoke on Boston Common.
Perhaps the most defining United Methodist moment for me and my family was the 1968 General Conference, in which the all-black Central Jurisdiction was merged into what is today the United Methodist Church. My father spent most of his ministry in this racially segregated structure endorsed by a "Unification Conference" of three United Methodist bodies in 1939. I had also made my initial steps into United Methodist ministry in the Central Jurisdiction. Those of us who were segregated by race were finally included in the larger church as well.
My service as a United Methodist Minister has included serving as pastor of several congregations, two stints as a District Superintendent, executive of an interfaith organization, campus minister, adjunct faculty at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, and Associate General Secretary of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race based in Washington, D.C. I have served at United Methodist General Conferences as a volunteer page/usher, delegate, chair of a Legislative Committee, platform presenter as the Chairperson of Black United Methodists for Church Renewal. I eventually retired in 2001 as Senior Pastor of Park Hill United Methodist Church in Denver.
At the 1972 United Methodist General Conference I realized my concerns about racism were linked with concerns about heterosexism. It was at that General Conference that the delegates present enshrined these words in our church policy: "Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
I found it strange that four short years after voting to end the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, the bias that supported and sustained racial segregation in church and society, became the bias that supported and sustained exclusion and initiated punitive actions against gay and lesbian people who were open about their commitments and who sought entrance into ordination within The United Methodist Church.
Ever since those words were entered into our denominational policy, I have served as an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the United Methodist Church. In 2000, I was arrested twice as a part of a protest against the anti-gay legislation that General Conferences have voted place in our Book of Discipline. I was one of the founders of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church and am now a partner in Truth in Progress, which explore the intersections of racism, heterosexism and religion.
As I follow the General Conference in Tampa, I am reflecting on my own history and place with the United Methodist Church. It is my hope that the church that has shaped me as a minister and included me in the life of the church will re-visit and revise, if not rescind, its language and legislation that presently restricts gay and lesbian clergy in loving committed relationships from active ministry. Additionally, I pray our church will no longer limit the ministry of clergy who desire to offer marriage equality as a form of ministry for same sex couples.
For now, I watch and pray...