I didn’t grow up in a church or a family that particularly valued inclusion. I lived in a diverse urban neighborhood and enjoyed that diversity in friends at school, but my parents seemed mostly uncomfortable with people who weren’t like us: white, American-born, middle class. The church was the same, and that became more and more noticeable as the neighborhood around it changed.
I don’t know when I learned the value of inclusion, but it began to bother me more and more. By the time I went away to college, I was thinking I just might be done with church.
In my college town, the Methodist church was across the street from campus, and I gave it a try. In the turbulent years of the late 1960s, I heard in church concerns about war and peace, about justice for the poor and people of color, and I grew in my understanding of God. By the time I graduated and moved on, I was firmly rooted in a theology of grace. Sharing God’s love with all God’s people was more important than any set of laws or “correct” beliefs. And I joined The United Methodist Church.
As a young adult, I assumed I would get married, have children and live a typical life in the privileged minority to which I was born. Sometimes it made me feel slightly guilty to see how easy things were for me. But gradually I came to understand that God didn’t make me quite as I had assumed and that I wasn’t in all ways part of that mainstream. As I slowly accepted myself and my sexual orientation, the work for justice and inclusion for all God’s people became a struggle for my own inclusion as well. And so it has remained.
There is no way for me to separate inclusion of one group from inclusion of any other group. We want to exclude those we fear, but we are called from fear to love. We want to judge those we believe to be falling short of a standard we have determined, but Jesus warned us about judging others. We reject ministry if we don’t approve of the minister, but Jesus called the least likely characters to follow him and serve others. I am left with no excuses to separate myself from those God loves, even those whom I know want to exclude me.
‘No law can contain or negate God’s love’
I look at the legislation that will come before the General Conference regarding homosexuality, and I see very little that is new. Is there any chance the outcome will be different this time? I love The United Methodist Church, the way we are connected to each other across geography and all of the other barriers, to enable us really to have the world as our parish. But as I look at this argument, I know it is hindering our mission.
Can we have a witness that truly invites other people to become followers of Jesus when we are busy fighting over whether or not everyone has a place? I don’t think so, but I don’t know how to end it. Should I and other gay people really take our gifts and graces and go away? Should we all pretend to be someone other than the individuals God made, just for the sake of “unity?” Should the people who don’t want us pretend not to care if we’re here, for the sake of that “unity?”
We cannot legislate away the problem, although I will continue to hope for a Book of Discipline that proclaims us a church filled with God’s love for all. No law can contain or negate God’s love. For me, the answer can only come through relationship with each other, and that in turn requires much prayer, empathy and real listening. And although I will go to this General Conference and work as hard as I can, I know the answer will come in God’s time, not in mine.
*Nelson, a lay delegate from the Oregon-Idaho Annual (regional) Conference, is a retired educator. She lives in Salem, Ore.