I attended the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference today of the United Methodist Church. Annual Conference is a time at which clergy and laity gather from all over the area. It is a time to worship together. It is a time to laugh together. It is a time to make important decisions regarding the future of the church. And, it is a time in which our appointments to a local church are set for the coming year. While I have attended several annual conferences, I have never been to an annual conference session like today.
The Clergy Session is a session in which the main business is a report from the Board of Ordained Ministry. The report includes the people who are retiring from ministry, the people who are coming into the ministry, the pastors who have gotten in trouble, and the pastors who have had their names changed in the last year.
Three individuals have had their names changed this year. It is clear that two of the three name changes are related to either a marriage or a divorce. The other name change was rather different, however. The name had been changed from Ann to Drew.
The names were before us. Someone then asked a question. The Bishop responded. And then Drew went to the podium. He shared his entire story - his story of being born a gender that never made sense to him - a story of being in a body that did not seem right - his story of being called his 'father's son' even though his body was that of a father's daughter. And, he shared the story of the church he pastors - how attendance is now four times what it was five years ago, and how giving has tripled. He told of the support he has from his members, and how families are coming to the church for the first time in years.
I'll be the first to admit that I was very uncomfortable when the conversation started. I turned to my neighbor when I noticed the name and said, "Do you know Ann? What happened? Was it a sex change or what?" I actually did not know what to think. But my snickering was silenced the moment Drew started to speak. It was further silenced when a doctor shared a presentation on gender issues. And then the bishop spoke.
All of this was repeated at the full session tonight, with the exception of the doctor's presentation. And, my heart was touched. While I cannot begin to understand the complexity of Drew's situation, and while I am still very uncomfortable about the issue, I watched as he courageously addressed the entire annual conference, his papers shaking while he spoke. I wondered what it would be like to have my deepest issue and pain laid out for all to see. I watched the entire room grow silence. And, I stood in awe. The more I heard his story, the more I appreciated him. The more I heard his story, the more I realized how we do not have all of the answers we need and how we are all so much more complex than we like to realize. The more I heard his story, I realized how God uses a variety of people to build his church. New people are coming to Drew's church. A lot of new people are coming. Lives are being touched and transformed by the ministry of this one called Drew.
And, then I watched as my spiritual leader began to speak. Bishop Schol addressed the conference with the media flashing photographs of him and Drew repeatedly. He shared the deliberate process he has undertaken since Drew first came to him one year ago to share what was happening in his life. The Bishop explained what the United Methodist Book of Discipline says and does not say. And then he prayed. He prayed in a way that makes me realize that he is my pastor. He prayed for Drew. He prayed for the congregation Drew serves, asking God to protect them and be with them, to keep the world's hatred away. He prayed for the media that they would not report the story in an effort to sell papers or start a frenzy. And I cried as the bishop's voice began to shake, joining him in his tears.
The blog entry on marriage and homosexuality has generated more comments than any other posting on my blog. The sermon did the same thing when it was preached. I do not believe there are any easy answers to these matters. There is not a quick fix solution or a one size fits all belief. What I have learned, however, is how much we grow when we do not point fingers or spread hatred like the Institute on Religion and Democracy. We do not grow when we sweep the issue under the carpet, pretending it does not exist. We grow when we take the time to hear one's story, to see one's gifts, to understand one's pain, to think about the other individuals who may have the same pain with us going unaware. We grow when we do not allow the differences between us to continue to separate us, putting us on opposing sides ready to fight and choosing to split instead of coming together. We grow when we look at each person and remember how they are a precious child of God, made in God's image, beautiful to behold.
I am quite sure you will be able to read about Drew in tomorrow's paper. Pick up a copy of the Baltimore Sun or the Washington Post. Go to the IRD website and see what people are making of the story. What I hope will continue to happen, however, is that the story will be told not by people with hatred behind them but to people who will be willing to listen - to listen for the voice of God in each one of us.
Life is so complex...and yet so beautiful.