I grew up in a very conservative Presbyterian church in Seoul, Korea. Before my husband, Bong-Choul, began studying for his doctorate at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, I had never seen a clergywoman. Gradually, I — a woman and a person of color — was awakened to the possibility of becoming an ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church.
When I finished seminary, I was appointed to two churches. I thought to myself, “What confidence the bishop and the cabinet have in me! Praise the Lord!” However, not everyone praised the Lord. One church resisted me as their pastor, even before they got to know me. A woman from that congregation said, “Pastor In-Sook, you are a wonderful pastor.” She should have stopped there, but she went on. “But there are three things against you. You are a woman. You are a Korean. And your English has an accent!” She seemed to be saying, “Three strikes, and you’re out!”
The Staff-Parish Relations Committee chair said he didn’t think it was biblical to ordain a woman. I said, “I’m glad our bishop didn’t have to ask for your permission to ordain me and to appoint me here.” I was thankful our bishop didn’t wait until local churches were ready to accept an ethnic minority clergywoman. Guess what? They received two other woman pastors after me. No complaint! It’s a work in progress.
I feel very blessed as a clergywoman and as a pastor of color in The United Methodist Church. I am included. We call ourselves the church of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” But are we really open to including everyone? Can you see the big footnote? It reads, “Except LGBTQ.” What kind of openness is that? I thought we were moving forward. Then the special General Conference 2019 declared an exclusive, punitive and discriminative decision that demoralized God’s beloved and beautiful people in the name of the Bible. For the first time, I feel ashamed. My heart hurts as I feel the pain of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters as well as their supporters. I sent my apology to them and asked for God’s forgiveness.
At the same time, I struggle on another level. As a person who immigrated to the United States, I always appreciate being included in this country. I am blessed and privileged to be a citizen, enjoying freedom, prosperity, beauty of nature and opportunities to learn and to work. I have been very proud of my adopted country. However, my pride has been shattered recently.
For the past year, one word we have heard frequently from news media is “wall.” Political leaders try to convince us that we are threatened by people from other countries and that we need to protect ourselves from them. It’s the tip of a giant iceberg. We have already built invisible walls among people based on race, ethnicity, religion, economic class, gender and sexual orientation. The strong walls of prejudice, hatred, suspicion and systemic racism have divided and demonized people. People are excluded in this country of immigrants.
The story of Peter gives us insightful lessons in inclusion. Fisherman Simon was transformed into Peter, the Rock, through several radical experiences. After Jesus ascended, the apostle Peter received the power of the Holy Spirit and became a leader of the early church. Another transforming experience awaited Peter when he encountered Cornelius, a high-ranking Roman soldier. Peter and the first Jewish Christians thought the salvation of Jesus Christ was limited to people just like them. God gave a vision to Peter to be awakened and transformed. What did Peter do? Did he call a special general conference and wait until the law was changed? No!
Peter, driven by the Holy Spirit, took a risk to come out of his comfort zone. He knew that Jewish law prohibited him from entering a Gentile’s house. He was not supposed to associate with Cornelius who was not only a Gentile, but also an enemy. But Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, met Cornelius where he was and saw how the Holy Spirit was working. The circle of the church was expanded.
This offers a critical lesson for our churches. We wait for people to fill our pews. We say, “Our doors are open. We welcome you. We are friendly people IF you look and act like us. We accept you IF you agree with us about what to believe and how to live.” We have forgotten how Jesus reached out to people. He walked in towns and along seashores and visited people in their homes. Jesus ate with sinners, touched the untouchable and healed the sick. We also have forgotten how John Wesley reached out to people. He came out of the church building and became a walking church in the middle of fields where poor and marginalized people were.
Just as Jesus Christ was the bridge between God and all humanity through his incarnated life, the church’s role is to connect God and people. It takes risks, sacrifice and empowerment of the Holy Spirit to break down walls and barriers and to build bridges.
Inclusion is easy to talk about, but hard to practice. But it’s possible. It begins with you and me. I am thankful for being included in The United Methodist Church and in this country. I realize that I am blessed to be a blessing for those who are excluded and marginalized. I should be a voice for the voiceless. We all are called to be in solidarity with those who are excluded, to break through the barriers and build bridges. May it be so.
A retired elder of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Hwang served for 30 years as a pastor and as a district superintendent. She retired from Grace United Methodist Church, Carbondale, Illinois, in 2018.News media contact: Vicki Brown at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.