In a city that sits under the watchful eyes of a 67-foot Jesus, a United Methodist church marching in a Jesus Parade, waving a banner “Jesus Loves All! All are Welcome!!” would seem to be right in step with the celebration.
It didn’t turn out that way for First United Methodist Church of Eureka Springs when the congregation was disinvited to join the parade on April 4.
Eureka Springs is home to “America’s #1 attended outdoor drama,” The Great Passion Play about Jesus’ last days on earth, and Christ of the Ozarks, a 2-million-pound sculpture of Jesus. The city in northwest Arkansas is also the only city in the state with a nondiscrimination ordinance providing protection for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) residents and visitors.
Diversity seems to be embraced.
But Suzie Bell, a member of First United Methodist Church, believes the church was turned away because it is a “reconciling” congregation. That means the church is committed to equality and full inclusion for all people regardless of race, gender, age, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality or economic status.
The Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group, recognizes a congregation as reconciling if it adopts a statement to welcome people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The group also asks congregations to look for ways to be more welcoming of other people who may be missing from their pews, including people of color and people with disabilities.
The Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, ruled in 1999 that a local church or any of its organizational units may not label itself as an unofficial body. Many congregations disregard that ruling.
‘A pretty great message’
“‘Jesus loves all. All are welcome.’ Can’t argue with that. It’s a pretty great message,” Bell said. The church applied and was accepted to participate in the parade. Parade organizers talked to Bell about what the church’s message would be and also approved.
That permission was rescinded by parade organizers the Monday before the event. Organizers said the church “was the wrong kind of group” for their parade.
Steve Roberson, another church member who represents the reconciling congregation group, said people in the church were shocked and angry but God turned the incident into a blessing.
"We are Christians just like everyone else and just wanted to celebrate Jesus on Easter weekend. It has allowed our little congregation a chance to shine and show what we are about," he said.
United Methodist News Service tried to contact organizers of the Jesus Parade but got no response.
Laura Nichols, parade director, did release a statement to the press after some local news stations picked up the story.
"This day isn't a day of pointing fingers or playing the blame game. This parade is to honor our Lord and Savior and for praising God for sending His only Son who willingly went to the cross, died and rose on the third day that when we repent of our sins and accept Him. We have the promise of eternal life with the Lord. But more than that, He carries us each day that we are on this earth. We are all sinners redeemed by the grace of God. We believe that the Bible is the uncompromised Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
The statement from Nichols goes on to say, “We do not have anything against the Methodist Church. After all, my uncle was a Methodist minister. Nor do we have anything against the homosexual community. When I worked downtown I had homosexual people that I considered my friends and still do.”
Following a plan
Bell said the church was following a 10-point plan for Arkansas designed by Bishop Gary E. Mueller.
“One of the goals is to look like your neighborhood,” she said. “This is our neighborhood; we cannot ignore this large group of people who feel left out and ostracized by the church.”
Mueller sent a letter to the congregation of First United Methodist Church saying he was saddened by the treatment they received at the Jesus Parade and was grateful for the church’s response to stand on the sidelines and cheer for the parade marchers, as well as offering food and water to all.
“You responded in love,” he said.
The Rev. Bud Reeves, district superintendent, attended the parade and witnessed how the church responded to exclusion.
“When the parade started, a bunch of UMs gathered along the route with their banner (that would have been used in the parade) saying ‘Jesus Loves All’ and a few homemade signs with similar messages, and each group that came down the parade route, the UMs applauded for them!” said Reeves, noting the church members knew many of the marchers. “I was frankly astounded at the response of the leaders who curtailed the anger and bitter reactions to the hypocrisy and exclusion to turn it into an expression of love.” He was so impressed he sent that message to Mueller and other members of the United Methodist Arkansas Conference.
Bell said she has had many conversations with Reeves, who did not approve of the church identifying as “reconciling.”
Reeves said that was true.
“I still don’t agree with the decision of the Eureka Springs United Methodist Church to become a reconciling congregation because the Judicial Council has ruled it inappropriate. But I was glad to be there and be in conversation with a group of positive and gracious people,” Reeves said.
The United Methodist Church’s official stance is that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. United Methodist pastors are not allowed to officiate at same sex weddings; same sex weddings cannot be held in United Methodist churches; and “self-avowed practicing” gay people cannot be ordained.
Behind the story
In a “behind the story” story, Suzie and her husband, Dan, started a free ecumenical medical clinic in Eureka Springs in 2005. The clinic was featured on ABC World News Tonight, in an issue of People magazine and on the Oprah Winfrey Show, which included a visit to the clinic from Dr. Oz. Laura Nichols and her husband as well as four other people on the parade committee were all part of a prayer team that meets in support of the clinic. Bell said all of them resigned after the incident.
Since 1972, the denomination has been debating this stance at its top legislative body, General Conference. Each time, General Conference has consistently voted to keep the language, and over the years has expanded restrictions against gay clergy and same-gender unions.
Disagreements do not have to mean exclusions, Mueller said on Easter Monday.
“Yesterday Christians throughout the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the day after Easter, it’s back to business as usual as we criticize each other in ways that break Jesus’ heart and give the world all the evidence it needs to not take us seriously.
“Why does this happen? There are many reasons, some profound and others petty. But there’s one that’s far more powerful than all the others put together — each of us believes Jesus prefers our worship style, beliefs and stance on social issues more than others. It doesn’t have to be this way if each of us is willing to set aside our own agenda and give ourselves wholly to Christ,” he writes.
Bell said church members had many “fabulous conversations” with members of the LGBT community on Saturday, and many of them came to First United Methodist on Easter morning “to see what we were about.”
“It cracked open the door for many in the LGBT community and I think that will be ongoing,” Bell said.
Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].