The Slow Build
(Originally published on April 5, 2013 on the blog of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization which seeks to mobilize"United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love." Minor grammatical edits have been made.)
In 1995 (photo above), the summer I left for college, I stood in the pulpit at Tennessee Annual Conference to speak in support of a piece of legislation I’d proposed. As a young person interested in studying the claims of my denomination, I was tired of finding affirmations of all of God’s people on one page, and the systemic withholding of privileges to LGBT folks on the next page. I viewed it as hypocrisy, plain and simple. I’d proposed that the conference perform a study of sorts, documenting each mention of human sexuality in the Book of Discipline, regardless of what I knew would be some apparent contradictions. That’s it. It was essentially costless legislation. The conference secretary or a volunteer could have pounded it out in a day. I stood there in that gigantic sanctuary and watched the question get called and the vote taken. I watched the sea of the white-haired faces of men in suits raise their hands....
I have a confession to make, dear reader: I was that guy. When you were going to youth group just to have a good time hanging out with your friends and to slam down slices of delivery pizza like it was your job, I was the one wondering why our devotionals didn’t go deep enough. I was one of those lifetime United Methodist laypersons. And I was only a teenager. My Sunday school attendance pin collection would destroy yours. Trust me.
My father started taking my brother and me to church in Nashville when I was very young, probably 5 or 6 years old. By the time I was a young teenager, I had managed to become the youth representative on every single committee in Methodism. Committees are one of the few things Methodists seem to like even more than potlucks and event t-shirts.
Like any organization, the more deeply involved you become and the higher you connect, the more faults you begin to see. In the early 90’s the Tennessee Conference was run by older, straight, white men, much like the rest of the denomination in America to this day. Add a healthy dose of Southern conservative Bible literalism, and you’ve got yourself a pretty dangerous place for diversity of sociology or theology.
And yet, I can point to that place and that time as the roots of a free intellectual and theological questioning process. My parents, both teachers, taught me to care for those around me, and to never accept a dusty handed-down belief without wiping it off a bit first. The neighborhood in which I grew up was surprisingly diverse in many ways that lots of suburban kids didn’t get to experience. My adult mentors in the Nashville District were incredibly supportive, honest people whom I could trust. And by the time I was a senior, I had met several gay men and their straight allies doing life together at a state university in Tennessee.
Let me say that again: Though I probably couldn’t name it at the time, my first experience of true adult Christian community was visiting a Wesley Foundation attended by gay men and the supportive straight community around them. One of the places they felt safe to be themselves was in a United Methodist organization.
Back to the ‘95 conference. The legislation was voted down, without even a need to count votes. There was maybe a third or a quarter of those assembled to voted in favor. All the rest hardly even thought before they voted no. There was no debate.
I was crushed. I felt like I was using my voice, the one that even our bishop listened to, even though I was so young, to speak for my friends who loved their church, their community, and themselves. And I had failed them.
Two years later, I had left the church completely.
As of a few years ago, thanks in no small part to my incredible wife, I found my way back to the church, and eventually back to the UMC.
Somewhere in our denomination right now, there is a young person like I was, hoping that our denomination will catch up to where the Spirit is heading. S/he has tons of friends who aren’t like him/her and sees Jesus in them every day. S/he was born around the time that I felt like my church was failing my friends. What church will we be for that young person? What inheritance will s/he receive from us?
But, those hands who voted yes! That third of the body who thought the idea of self-examination was a positive thing! There have always been prophets who can point over the river and describe the other side, even though others do not wish to look.
I hope to our dear God that we claim that mantle. We can’t just blog about it. We can’t just share articles about it. We can’t just talk to people who agree with us. We have to be the Church, the entire Church...the church that was just starting to listen 18 years ago.
Let’s talk. Let’s listen. If you can’t hear the Spirit, shut your mouth and raise your hand.
(Kenneth J. Pruitt is a teacher by trade, and the director of the volunteer program at a nonprofit. He is proud of St. Louis, his adopted home. Sometimes he blogs. Sometimes he tweets. His wife is far more attractive and intelligent than he. He loves what you’ve done with your hair.)