Before The Vote, Monday night of General Conference 2019, I experienced my least faithful moment in all of this. It was clear to me that unless an outright miracle happened the next day, the Traditional Plan would pass. My stomach sank, I felt sick and bereft, and I thought, I’m an orphan. What do I do now? Where can I go?
I thought I was alone. I reacted like I was the only person in all of United Methodism who was bereft and betrayed. I’m not proud of this, and I wish I could tell this story without telling you that part. It’s not that I thought God had left me, but I truly did react as if everyone in our church had.
For a few minutes (was it as much as an hour?), I turned things over in my mind. What now? I don’t have a church anymore. Then I remembered…all those people who were longing for something more and better for our church. I thought of my students. I pictured the faces of alumni. I said the names of my colleagues. Duh! They didn’t all vanish because something hateful was happening. I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t have to find my way forward on my own.
The next day it got better. Not the part with The Vote. What got better is that I saw everyone. I saw students who came to our Tuesday night dinner just moments after it was decided, phones in hand and still live-streaming General Conference. They were confused and angry. They were embarrassed that friends were reading about us in The New York Times. I saw messages of support from UVA professors, from LGBTQIA+ alumni who remembered Wesley and me with thankful hearts, from friends who knew my heart was breaking. I saw the resistance forming (or, for those of us from a certain generation, the Rebel Alliance).
Days before, I was corresponding with an alum named Samantha, now living in the country of Georgia. We were going over plans for her wedding next fall here in the states (to an Orthodox man from Georgia) and she was watching the UMC news from the other side of the world. With her permission, I’m sharing something she wrote to me that week: “In this difficult, complex time it makes me so happy that you are willing to do this for us. Thank you so much. We are so grateful for your love and compassion. Also - seeing on Facebook and discussing with you about your perception of religion and life and the Church just makes me so much more confident in the choice not to join the Orthodox Church. Thank you for showing me that it is possible to be a Christian and love everyone, accept everyone, be for equality and justice. It’s so important, so valuable.”
Here’s the point: We have to be visible.
It matters to the LGBTQIA+ teen who struggles at the edge of life and death. It matters to young cisgender, straight couples like Samantha and her fiancé, who want to stay in the church and who are trying desperately to hold onto that tether, even as part of the church is taking a knife to the rope. It matters to clergy like me at their lowest, least faithful moments when they think they are standing alone. It matters to people in their 70s like my parents, who don’t vote like I do or watch the same news channels, who asked what each of the letters in LGBTQIA stood for – and then signed our statement in response to General Conference. They said, about the authors and supporters of the Traditional Plan, “They don’t seem to be acting very Christian.”
I have been surprised again and again by who has stepped up to resist this injustice – especially since General Conference. The “us” is a lot bigger than we thought. And the “us” includes folks who haven’t always been familiar with the lingo or with the Reconciling Ministries Network. “Us” includes those who don’t fly rainbow flags, even now. Welcome them all.
The week after General Conference, Charlottesville clergy offered a letter of confession to our LGBTQIA+ neighbors in the local paper. One of my board members wrote to thank us: “I want to thank you and all of the other pastors involved with this weekend’s message to our LBGTQ community. I and many others stand in firm agreement with you on this issue. While I have relatively little at risk in my stance, I am deeply appreciative of what you and others have invested. Your example as clergy in the United Methodist Church firms up my belief that I need to stay with my Church and continue to love my Church family even as they are trying to push away part of mine. As the parent of a gay man, I know that God made him exactly who he is.” I’ve known this man for years and have met his entire family, but this was new information for me. We had never talked about this topic or about his son. When I thanked him for writing and asked if I could share his words with others, he enthusiastically agreed, adding, “I think that the time to remain silent is over and I am trying very hard to learn how to do that without shouting. I think the example of Christ is more important now than it has ever been in my life and I do not want to miss the opportunity.”
We are not alone unless we cut ourselves off from one another. We are not silent unless we choose to keep our beliefs and our Christ-following to ourselves. This is the time – right now, at Annual Conference, and all year up to and through GC2020 – this is the time to speak up and to show up. Don’t miss the opportunity.
Talk about what’s happening in our church and where you stand – not to convince or to argue, but to be heard and seen, to be faithful. Carry a rainbow flag and wear the all-inclusion wardrobe every day of Annual Conference: this shirt on Friday and this one anytime. Be as visible as you possibly can be to let LGBTQIA+ folks know you are safe and to let others know that exclusion is not safe. Do this at church, in the grocery store, in your family, online…
Sign our statement in response to GC2019. Ask your pastors if they have signed, and your friends, and your Sunday school class, and then post the link online explaining why you have signed on. The more of us who stand behind this, the more powerful our position. None of us knows what will happen in the coming months or year, but it seems clear to me that, one way or another, we won’t all remain in the same church. When the split comes and tough decisions must be made, our conference leadership needs to see who’s really in the Virginia Annual Conference and where we stand.
We all need to see it.
The new thing is on its way and we are the midwives. So roll up your sleeves and get to work. Be heard and be seen. Be unmistakably visible and unapologetically inclusive. Be the city on the hill, unable to be hidden. Be the light you are, bathing the way in light and love for all to see (Matthew 5:14-15).
Deborah Lewis is an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference and serves as Director & Campus Minister of The Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia. She serves on the Board of Ordained Ministry and her writing was included in There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor. She spends a lot of time swimming in pools and outside in open waters, remembering her baptism.