After a 60-year wait, I was able to participate in a church service designed to include the full and complete fellowship of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) people with the rest of the congregation. My newly found church home is active in the Reconciling Ministries Network movement within the United Methodist Church (UMC). The movement is committed to increasing the church's focus on love and reconciliation towards LGBT people. It encourages member congregations to conduct services to join in prayer and education about our spiritual needs. Our Reconciling Sunday service on Feb. 3 became my most memorable spiritual event.
The message that Christians frequently deliver to LGBT people is that we are particularly revolting sinners in desperate need of repentance. The pain and trauma caused by repeatedly hearing that message tends to generate feelings of self-hate which frequently lead to secrecy, substance abuse and, ultimately, separation from God.
Having a church open its arms to welcome us is a true blessing because they become a beacon of God's love by accepting us as we are. The entire service was emotionally charged and many in the congregation were fighting a losing battle to hold back tears. It retained all of the basic elements of our weekly service and blended in the active participation of our Reconciling Committee members. It delivered a simple, powerful, Gospel-based message -
The service began with our Assistant Pastor "J" leading an interactive "Call to Worship" which contained excerpts from our Affirmation Statement:
We affirm the teachings of Jesus that call us to move beyond judgment to love and renew our commitment to one another and to this church to be faithful witnesses of the Gospel
That prayer was followed by the opening hymn, "Help Us Accept Each Other," in which we collectively asked God to help us to learn to accept and care for everyone as Christ accepted us.
We decorated the sanctuary with stoles from the Shower of Stoles ministry. The ministry maintains and shares a collection of liturgical stoles from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people of faith. These people are ordained ministers, elders, deacons, seminarians, church musicians, missionaries, and other gifted people who have been forced to choose between serving in silence or being barred from their faith community because of their sexual orientation. Other stoles were prepared by churches to memorialize their commitment to end that practice. "M" related some of the stories. The most poignant concerned the child of lesbian parents. The pastor refused to announce the child's birth and denied him baptism because the child's parents, "Cannot provide a Christian home for him." Our prayer is that God will raise up spiritual homes for all people. Please read about this incredible ministry on their Web site and consider a display in your church.
At our children's story time, "E," related the story of the Good Samaritan. He explained how the Samaritans were separated from Jewish society as unclean and untrustworthy. Jesus used a Samaritan to illustrate that we should treat those who are different with love. The kids got it.
Our hymn of preparation was entitled "Reconciliation" and sung to the tune of "The Church's One Foundation." It was written by "H" who is considered the patriarch of our congregation. Its message is that we should reconcile with all in loving, pure acceptance.
Pastor "R" provided an historical background beginning with the 1996 UMC decision to add a paragraph to the Book of Discipline prohibiting clergy from participating in same-sex commitment ceremonies. Three years later that paragraph was elevated from mere guidance to carrying the weight of law. Our pastor stood with 67 other clergy at a ceremony to test the law and all were charged with a violation of clergy orders. While the charges were not forwarded, they could have been and other ministers have lost their credentials for similar efforts to extend the Gospel to all.
Pastor "J" related how she was nearly ready to abandon her ministry by the time she arrived at our congregation due to the oppressive treatment towards her because she was an ordained woman. She didn't feel that she could take the pain any longer and thanked our congregation for exhibiting unconditional love and encouraging her to continue ministering.
Pastor "J" said that the sermon would be a series of short scriptures and witnesses by members of the committee and led us in a refrain that was repeated after each reading - Love, love, love, love; The Gospel in one word is love. Love your neighbor as yourself; for God loves us all.
First Reading - Matthew 22:34-40
The Two Love Commandments - Love God and Love our neighbor as ourselves. "D" described the impossibility of loving others when you have been taught to hate yourself because of internalized homophobia. She has learned that she feels better when she loves and prays for those who have shown hatred towards her.
Second Reading - John 15:9-14,17
God's simple command to us - Love each other. "K" related volunteering a significant amount of time and energy in working with leukemia patients thus actively carrying out the commission we have all received.
Third Reading - 1 John 4:7-12, 16-21
God's admonition that if we don't love our brother, then we certainly don't love God. "D" expressed with deep emotion his belief that this message was the essence of Christianity. As a teen he was warned that even thinking gay thoughts was un-Christian. He was threatened with excommunication and eventually left the church and sought refuge in drugs and alcohol. He finally found the true message expressed in this passage and personally accepted Christ. Through God's love he has returned to wholeness.
Final Reading - Do you love me?
I read a poem that describes various aspects of my character and concludes by asking if people will still love me if I admit to also being a cross-dresser. I closed with words on a stole from Carol Scott of Park Slope UMC in Brooklyn; "I am a child of God. Nothing more should need to be said."
The service moved directly into the celebration of communion which Pastor "R" described as the answer to the question, "Do you love me?" Yes, we love you! Everyone is loved and invited to participate at the communion table of God's grace. During communion the congregation sang three songs that reflect the core message of the service, "The Gift of Love," "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love," and "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian." While I distributed communion, many members of the congregation squeezed my arm in a gesture of oneness.
Pastor "J" led us in a closing prayer - "It's strange, Lord, but I never thought that I should finish up being thankful for who I am. I am thankful Lord because I realize that rather than not being able to serve you because of who I am; BECAUSE of who I am I can serve you in a unique way."
The closing hymn was "Bind us Together Lord" followed by Pastor "R's" message - There is only one body ... We are all God's people bound together by Jesus Christ ... We are to go forth and shine the love of God upon all we meet.
During fellowship time many positive comments indicated that the service had touched hearts in a profound way. One spoke particularly strongly to my heart. A woman hugged me and with great warmth asked if it was harder for me to come out as a Cheese-head (in 49er/Raider territory) or a cross-dresser? It put the issue into perspective. Is my sexual orientation any more important to God than my favorite football team? Probably not!
Later, a member of the congregation wrote her perception of what had occurred. "Thank you for gently reminding us what has been 'stole'n from the church because we have prevented GLBT persons from sharing their gifts and doing the work God calls them to do. We can never thank you enough for your candid and openhearted sharing….your communal care and amazing strength was bright with Gospel words and called us at the core of our lives in Christ. The communion service made it physically and symbolically clear that we are the Body of Christ ... (called) for a new communal life in our wounded world."
Why doesn't your church reach out to those who have long been neglected? It is a perfect way to bring the Gospel of God's love where it should be but often isn't. You are the only one who can allow God's unconditional love to flow through you and embrace others.