Commentary: Why I Hope

by Rev. Jennifer Emert, Pastor at Algoma and West Kewaunee United Methodist Churches

Around 5 pm on February 26, I sat in front of my computer, watching the live-streaming of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference vote to tighten our denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQIA clergy – and wept. At that moment it became vividly apparent to me that the denomination I have been a part of since I was in seventh grade is irredeemably broken.

In the relatively short amount of time that has elapsed since then, I have seen so many reasons to hope that this is really a wonderful opportunity for those of us who will not accept the institutionalization of discrimination in the church. There are progressive voices throughout the UMC who are working fervently to bring about a time of resurrection for the church. It is currently estimated that two-thirds of Methodists in the U.S. do not want to be a part of a church that discriminates – that most of us want to follow the example of Jesus in reaching out to every person, no matter what may make them feel separated from God or the church.

Six weeks after General Conference, we now stand on the precipice of rebirth. There are enough of us who are frustrated – not just by the act of General Conference, but by the very structure of a denomination in which this could happen – that all kinds of grass-roots activism is rising up in the Methodist Church. I am proud to be a part of the recently formed Affirming Methodists of Wisconsin, which authored a letter and collected 800 signatures of both clergy and lay people communicating to our Bishop that we will no longer be a part of a system that discriminates. On a national level, we have serious meetings going on with people well positioned to be a part of the formation of a new denomination. And here locally, the people of Algoma and West Kewaunee United Methodist Churches have unanimously voted to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, a movement within the UMC that “works for full equality in membership, ordination and marriage for God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children.”

As far as Jesus went to welcome prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans and people who were viewed as outsiders, we understand our purpose as a church to be welcoming every person who wants to experience unconditional love. Being Reconciling tells the LGBTQIA community we are a safe and welcoming place to worship. It also says to all people who abhor discrimination in any form that in these two churches, we practice Jesus’ radically inclusive, unconditional love.

I have noticed the concern brought up by people that they do not want to be identified as a “gay church” and that somehow our signs in front of our church that “All Are Welcome, Really All” somehow discriminate against other people. Are we a “gay church”? No, not any more than we are a “white male church” because some men worship here; or a “Belgian church” because we have a handful of people with that ancestry. In fact, our congregations’ Welcoming Statement reads:

“Algoma and West Kewaunee United Methodist Churches serve God’s creation by celebrating and modeling the love of Jesus by welcoming, embracing and honoring people of all cultures, genders, races, classes, sexualities and abilities.”

I have noticed in my ministry that even those who are most grateful for a place in which they are welcome just the way they are do encounter moments in which they themselves are challenged to accept another person because of something that makes them different. It takes work to figure out why we begin to feel defensive, and how God is bringing new opportunities before us. Ultimately, we grow to the point of understanding that it is the diversity of God’s creation that allows us to most fully experience God. We are all growing in the ability to identify our own biases and be fully comfortable with ourselves and others.

And so, Algoma and West Kewaunee becoming the first United Methodist congregations in northeastern Wisconsin to take this step to openly welcome members of the LGBTQIA community is only one of the many reasons I hope. I believe that this is an incredible time of transition for the church. I believe that we are called together to build the church that the people around us desperately need. If you have felt disenfranchised by the church (of any denomination) in the past, this is the time to show up and be a part of the change. And if you have never felt that you fit in church, come now and be part of this rebirth. God is doing new things!