Today, as of this very moment, my name still appears on the membership of a United Methodist congregation. For the past few months, I have been contemplating what that means. A few weeks ago, I arrived at the conclusion that I would not be traveling into the next quadrennium with the United Methodist Church. I didn’t decide this based on fear of the outcomes of the General Conferences of 2019 or 2020. I arrived at this point not because of what I want to move away from but because of what I want to move towards: my new career as a mental health professional, paying of student loans and other debt, striving to make a difference where I can, and maybe, just maybe, finding a love to walk this journey with, with or without the blessing of “church law.”
This morning, as I sit writing this, I do have to acknowledge that I am feeling a bit wounded. This is somewhat surprising to me. I thought that I had divorced myself for the most part from the emotional entanglements of this General Conference, and, to be honest, I don’t believe that it is the conference itself that is upsetting to me. The aching that I am experiencing right now stems from the reality that there are real people, people that I have spent the last several years getting to know and to love, that are hurting. While I have decided that my time with the denomination is ending, I very much want them to have a church that sees, appreciates, and nurtures them. It does not appear that this is the reality that we are heading towards.
In response to this, I find myself thinking about a significant day in my life, February 13, 2011. This is the day that I first walked through the doors of Broad Street United Methodist Church in downtown Columbus, Ohio. I had been told to go there by Troy Plummer, the Executive Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network at the time. Troy had told me to go there and to find David Meredith and to tell him that he had sent me.
I didn’t go alone. Despite Broad Street’s overt message of welcome, I had been badly hurt by a church in the past, and I wanted to be cautious. My friend Brittany went with me. We had both left the same non-denominational congregation around the same time in 2009 because we no longer felt like there was a place for us there, me because I was starting to accept that fact that I am gay and she because she had asked her husband for a divorce.
We went to that church because of my journey, but Brittany received an incredible blessing from it as well. Brittany’s marriage had been awful in every way that can be imagined. There is not a category of abuse that she did not experience while in her marriage, and, yet, when she finally found the strength to leave, the eyes of judgment in the church were not standing behind her. They were aimed at her.
Over the course of his sermon, David wove a beautiful narrative of love and the nature of humanity’s relationship to Christ. He spoke about what the love of Christ looks like to the church, and he spoke about how that love appears when it manifests within human relationships as well as what relationships look like when that love is not present, when love looks like demeaning, hitting, screaming, and controlling. I sat beside my friend, watching tears stream down her face, wanting to comfort her, and, at the same time, reminding myself that she needed to hear this, that these were words of healing for her.
For years, I have used the comparison of a broken and abusive marriage to talk about the connection of the United Methodist Church. Sometimes, in marriages where everything appears picture-perfect on the outside, people hit each other, and harsh words are said in the confines of homes that would never be spoken in public. This morning, that comparison has never felt more accurate, except the fear of being seen and heard by the neighbors is gone.
It can be terrifying to walk away from something that you have worked so hard to hold together, and it makes sense for it to feel that way. At the same time, staying in a relationship of abuse seldom ever gets better, especially when the controlling and abusive behavior of one partner is seen by them to be coming from a place of loving correction.
Sometimes, abused spouses remain in harmful relationships because of phrases like “God hates divorce,” because of the kids, or for fear of losing financial stability. Those all feel similar to the reasoning that that I have used that I have heard other progressive United Methodists use as reasons to stay together. I have to admit that the kids have always ben the most compelling reason to me. My heart always breaks when I think about those we would leave behind in a split. There is another side to that though. When adults stay in abusive relationships, they send an unspoken message to their kids that it is okay to allow someone to treat them that way, that it is okay to stand in the stream of abuse and suffering fo the sake of “holding things together.” Similarly, when adults stand up and advocate for themselves, they also transmit that message to their children. Children learn far more from our actions that from our spoken words.
It was terrifying for me when I left my former congregation. I knew that I needed to go if I was ever to figure out who I needed to be, and, yet, it was not easy. Tears streamed from my eyes, and my hands shook seismically as I walked out of that building into a light rain, having no idea what my future looked like. I’d left behind a community. Looking back on that moment, I can still remember that fear, AND, today, I know that it was one of the strongest, most defining moments of my existence. I would not be who I am today without that moment. I have grown and moved on so much since that moment, and I am not content to stop that progression simply because the church is not willing to come with me.
To my LGBTQIA+ siblings within the United Methodist Church, I see you. I love you. You are worth standing up and advocating for, and, sometimes, standing up looks like walking away.