Speaking Truth to Power in Cleveland: My Experience at the United Methodist General Conference

“You’re under arrest!” This phrase echoed in my mind as I rode silently in a taxicab from the Police Station to Soulforce Headquarters 20 blocks away. I was not one of the 191 arrested the morning of May 10 outside the United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, but I wanted to be. I felt on the “outside” of the action. However, my job was to be on the outside, to act as the media liaison, to answer questions the press had about what was going on and what was going to happen in the next few days.

I felt utterly alone in that taxicab, as people such as Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandis Gandhi, Bishop Joseph Sprague, Rev. James Lawson, friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Mel White, co-founder of Soulforce, Rev. Jimmy Creech, the minister who was defrocked by the United Methodist Church for performing a holy union for two men, and other ministers, members and friends of the United Methodist Church sat in jail cells for taking part in a peaceful act of non-violent civil disobedience to protest exclusionary church policies.

My mind drifted back to what led me to that point and the decision to join Soulforce, a movement based on the principles of Jesus, Gandhi and King. For the past two decades, the United Methodist Church, the church to which I belong, has been implementing policies that dehumanize and exclude gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from the life of the church. I could not remain silent and watch the church destroy people in the name of God, claiming to love all people, claiming to be one body. The church may think it is one body right now, but it is a deeply wounded body and bleeding profusely.

Early in the morning on May 10, approximately 400 Soulforce supporters, including Arun Gandhi, Yolanda King (daughter of MLK), several leaders of the ’60s civil rights movement, and bishops, ministers, and friends of the United Methodist Church had gathered on the mall next to the convention center to walk together, arm in arm, around the convention center. “Marching in the Light of God” resounded through the crowd as the line of marchers encircled the convention center, partially drowning out the cat calls by Fred Phelps and a dozen or so other people who were carrying signs and shouting, “GOD HATES FAGS”.

After the march, 191 courageous people, gay and straight, stood their ground outside the convention center blocking the exit, still arm in arm, refusing to move until police placed them under arrest. At the same time, several United Methodists inside the convention center interrupted a speech by the Bishop of Canterbury to show solidarity with those standing outside the convention center and with those who have been forced out of the church because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Approximately 100 people, half in the balcony and half on the floor, sang out a back-and-forth litany “Wide is God’s Welcome! – Extend the Table!”

Twelve hours later, all those arrested had been charged with persistent disorderly conducted and fined $100 plus court costs. It was a long day indeed. The next day was to prove just as trying.

As I sat in the Convention Center on May 11 and heard the debate and watched 27 people get arrested inside the Convention Center in a peaceful protest of non-violent civil disobedience by the coalition A.M.A.R., it dawned on me that the past 36 hours had been history-making. No longer would we sit silently by and watch the church send messages of antipathy and apathy as our brothers and sisters are defrocked, dehumanized, and devalued by the church.

The United Methodist Church claims to “love the individual”. But on May 11, delegates voted to retain policies that state:

  1. “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”
  2. “Self avowed practicing homosexuals” can not be ordained as ministers, and
  3. Ministers can not perform holy unions between two people of the same sex.

Not only do these policies affect those inside the church, but as the largest mainline denomination, the decisions of the church affect how society perceives all of God’s children. The Church may not use the same language as Fred Phelps, but the message the church sends is the same.

So many talented people have been forced out of the church because they could no longer deny a part of themselves. So many people have been forced to hide and lie about who they are to be able to answer their call to ministry in the United Methodist Church. So many people have left and gone to other denominations like the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian Universalist Church, or have given up on God and religion all together.

Thank God for people like Bishop Sprague, who are willing to stand up and speak out for justice and inclusion, for people like Rev. Mel White, who co-founded and leads Soulforce, and for people like Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was willing to perform a holy union for two men and was defrocked by the church.

Changing society and winning hearts and minds through relentlessly speaking the truth is never easy. But as history shows us, a small group of committed citizens can change the world. And Soulforce is doing just that.