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Essays, Justice

Getting the Conversation Started: guest post by J. Michael Cobb

This week’s blog is a guest post by my friend and colleague Michael Cobb. I’ve been a witness to the process he describes below, and also a sounding board as he has made the courageous decision to be the straight ally to bring up the conversation about LGBT inclusion in his UMC congregation. It seemed fitting to turn the column over to him this week, and his story reminds us all of why it’s important to have people who choose to stay and work for justice rather than leave for a congregation where the work has already been done. 

It took me more than a year to get up the nerve to tell someone else that I wanted our United Methodist congregation to have a conversation about whether LGBT people would have any reason to feel welcome in our church.

It’s hard to articulate what was holding me back, but I think I was mostly afraid of causing conflict. I am an elected delegate to my denomination’s district Annual Conference, so I had seen firsthand the strong emotions from people who want to move my denomination towards full inclusion, and from those who want to see our current prohibitions stay in place. There were good people on both sides of the debate, convinced that they were doing what was right for the United Methodist Church we all love.

That's all I can stands!Around this time, I had what Bill Hybels refers to as a “Popeye moment” in his book Holy Discontent. You may recall that in the old cartoons, things would build and build, finally reaching a crescendo where Popeye finally exclaims “That’s all I can stands, cuz I can’t stands no more!” He reaches a point where inaction becomes more painful than taking action. When I saw the frustration and pain in the debates over LGBT people at last year’s General Conference in Tampa—abuse even including one delegate comparing homosexuality to bestiality—I realized that I was pretty much at that point myself.

Last year, in a conversation around President Obama’s newfound support for same-sex marriage, I decided to tell a friend that I’d long wanted to see our congregation become openly welcoming, but that I was scared of how people would react. To my surprise, she also wanted to see this happen, and had very similar fears. We were both afraid of losing friendships, but the pain of keeping silent about something so important to us was even stronger. Before long, we were exchanging ideas, trying to spot potential allies—and thrilled to discover that we weren’t alone in our desire to see our congregation truly extend its welcome to ALL of God’s children. Without even realizing it, we had given each other the courage to speak out.

A few weeks later, we held our breath and sent carefully targeted emails to several people we thought might share our desire to have our congregation become welcoming and affirming. Here is a portion of the email we sent out:

At General Conference earlier this month, the UMC voted to uphold the section in the Book of Discipline that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” and sanctions only heterosexual marriage. The vote came after a debate that became contentious when one African delegate compared homosexuality to bestiality, and declared that God would not create humans as gay or lesbian.

We disagree. It makes us heartsick that we are actively excluding anyone from our church, and we feel an overwhelming need to do something about it. As United Methodists, we are charged to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What better way to transform the world than to start by transforming our own church, and to reach out in Christian love to those who have been told they are not welcome?

It is hard to describe the feeling of receiving the first replies, and our excitement as person after person told us that they supported this move, and that they wanted to be involved. Our now-expanded group met in a private home, exchanging books and pamphlets, did a PFLAG webinar, and had a LOT of conversations. We would all meet from time to time, discussing, discerning, and looking for a path forward. We evaluated action plans from various organizations on how best to have a congregation-wide conversation on such a likely divisive topic while diffusing hostility and keeping the focus on our shared Christian faith.

The group grew eager to expand the conversation, and so in November, I informed our Church Council of our existence, and of our intention to ask for recognition as an official part of the church. In January, I emailed the Council with details on what we wanted to do. And in March, the Council debated, asked both of us lots of questions, and eventually voted to approve the creation of a Task Force, “charged with facilitating conversations and discussion and sharing about issues of gender expression and sexual identity” in our congregation.

We were elated!

Finally, it was time to go public by announcing our existence during Sunday morning worship. We were nervous—we had no idea how the congregation would respond!—but we both agreed that we were also feeling relief about releasing a pressure that had been building up through years of silence and inaction.

The week before our announcement, Jason Collins became the first out gay male athlete active in a major American sport. The reaction from the world of sport and beyond? Overwhelmingly positive.

His announcement was a reminder that quite a lot had happened since we had sent that initial email. Four more states approved marriage equality during that time, with another following shortly after. There was overwhelming public support during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments around two high-profile marriage equality cases earlier this year. What had seemed so risky when we began had taken big steps towards the mainstream. Surely that would make our task easier…

Rev. Dr. Tom OgletreeAs we prepared our announcement, we learned that the Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, a highly respected United Methodist clergyman and scholar of Christian ethics, would be charged and tried in a church trial for officiating at the wedding of his son and another man. We had been under no illusions that everyone would agree with us, but this news served as a stark reminder that we were not embarking on a hypothetical discussion. Real people’s lives were involved, and real harm was being done to them, every day.

Last Sunday, we stood up, took a deep breath, and spoke. After more than a year of excitement, trepidation, and prayer, the conversation had finally begun.

J. Michael CobbJ. Michael Cobb is Director of Outreach and Communications at the Religious Institute. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Gettysburg College, is a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church and regularly preaches and teaches in Western Connecticut. You can follow him on Twitter @jmichaelcobb.

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