The congregation where I serve as pastor has a history of building barriers. It's the very foundation of our existance. We began after an 1844 split in the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery. Slaveholders and their defenders believed a "representative church" was needed in the city of Washington, and fifty of their friends formed our church in 1850. White supremacists tattooed their label above both entrances to the "grand" edifice they labored to build for decades with enough funding in place to lay the cornerstone in 1917. The words, "Methodist Episcopal Church South" must be confronted each day by all who enter or walk by. We sought to finally deal with the sin of our past through a service of repentance in October of 2017. While the congregation's beauty and diversity changed much in those 100 years, it took a century to faithfully confront the sins of our past.
When I arrived as the pastor in 2005, I was greeted with these gates. They were installed by trustees consumed by exhaustion for clearing the porches of people and possessions. This particular set of gates, on Massachusetts Avenue where thousands of people pass each day, remained locked. I never saw the barrier to entry opened with even a small crack until the gates were completely removed as part of a building restoration in 2008.
The majority of the 864 delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church didn't appropriate funds to follow President Trump's lead and build walls around our churches. But I dare say the actions taken in a 438 to 384 vote are more damaging than any physical barrier that could be installed.
In approving the Traditional Plan, delegates--largely from outside the United States--voted to not only keep the current discriminatory, outdated, harmful language about LGBTQ+ people, but also supported the creation of standard, punitive measures for pastors who officiate same gender weddings and clergy who admit or are found to be "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." I can barely stand to type the words, let alone say them out loud.
In approving the Traditional Plan, delegates to General Conference propelled journalists from the New York Times, Time, NBC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and countless other news outlets to write about our church last night. The headlines have nothing to do with who Jesus is, the grace Jesus gives, or the love he embodies. Quite the contrary, the Wall Street Journal reads, "Methodists Reject Plan to Open Door to Gay Marriage" with another headline reading, "United Methodist Church Leaders Vote Against LGBTQ Inclusion." Barriers, walls, divisions have been fortified between our church and millions of individuals outside the church who only know the church to be judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. The barrier is fierce, and it will take consistent, focused effort from countless disciples of Jesus to tear it down by embodying a different way.
We removed the metal gates installed at our church and quickly learned what happens when the barriers are no longer present. People move in. Individuals with nowhere else to go constructed desperate measures to stay alive just outside the doors of our sanctuary. It was messy. It was heartbreaking. And it was a call to action for our 2015 trustees who knew something had to change.
The gates would not be reinstalled, but new guidelines were created along with a ministry that sought to gather with the current group of residents on our porch. Great efforts were made in an attempt to walk with people out of unemployment and into employment, out of homelessness and into housing. More people started to show up each week. New conversations were shared. Divisions within church leadership emerged over our role, expenditures, and limits. Some people left. Others came. Lessons have been learned. Beautiful friendships have been formed.
The image of the makeshift home rattles me every time. Individuals with nowhere else to go constructed measures to stay alive--on our porch--of a church. Where are others desperately trying to stay alive? How many LGBTQ+ people are trying so hard to get to the place where they hear a word of love, a word of welcome, a word of pure acceptance with no strings or barriers attached!
How many people are longing to get to the other side of the wall the religious institution first constructed in 1972--and then fortified with broken glass at the top to cut the hands, inflicting literal pain, on all who might dare to cross over through its actions yesterday afternoon.
I can only imagine who might have showed up in our sanctuaries this Sunday if the headlines read, "Methodist Church Welcomes All People," or "United Methodists Get Over Deep Divisions to Stand on the Side of Love," or "The Church Finally Stopped Arguing," or "LGBTQ+ People Have Another Church to Call Home." Can you imagine what might happen if every newsstand was filled with papers stamped with these words! These words are the good news of Jesus, the overwhelming message of his gospel, the spirit of the red letters found in scripture.
Countless colleagues have made statements over the last 14 hours about standing with LGBTQ+ people, ensuring that our churches will welcome all people. There is still a big barrier between our open arms and open doors, and the official stance of the religious institution. If we fully welcome LGBTQ+ people, then we cannot treat them as second class members of our churches, offering blessings to some members while withholding them from others.
I do not know what the future of my beloved church holds. I was baptized by my grandfather in United Methodist Church. I am a lifelong United Methodist with the exception of a hiatus in high school and college. I love our church. Our Wesleyan theology is second to none. It will not be robbed from me by people who stand for anything and everything but grace and love.
I vow to do all I can to not only welcome all people to the church where I am privileged to serve. But I also vow to do all I can to notice, name, and nurture the gifts of all people who God is calling or has called to ordained ministry. And, I will faithfully stand with and bless the marriage of any active member of my church. For me, anything less continues to construct a painful division that is not of God.
My first meeting at MVP was in May of 2005, just prior to my officially becoming their pastor. On that night, I met Mabel, our then 97-year-old chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. A genteel woman from North Carolina, Mabel looked me straight in the eye at the end of the meeting and offered these words, "Donna, Mount Vernon Place is in the city of Washington. Washington needs Mount Vernon Place. Mount Vernon Place needs you. Don't you ever forget you have the best job in Washington."
I'm convinced more than ever today that Washington needs Mount Vernon Place. We have an incredible role to play in this city with people who have already come inside and those who might be trying to get closer to the doors before finally coming in, longtime residents of our city and hotel guests who stay across the street or down the block, folks who have seen the best of the church and especially people who only know yesterday's headlines. I vow to do all I can do embody the very best of Methodism while also working for its newest expression to emerge.
In the meantime, I pray the Spirit of the living God falls freshly upon each LGBTQ+ person, boldly reminding them of their belovedness. I am so sorry for the pain the institution has caused, the harm inflicted. I see you. I love you. I stand with you and for you.