When I joined the Peace Corps, in the process of moving to Kenya one of the forms I had to sign was a statement declaring that only the Peace Corps Director could speak for the Peace Corps in the country where I was volunteering. I was a volunteer, the only personal connection many people had to the Peace Corps, and I lost track of the number of times I said, “for me, since I can’t speak for the Peace Corps.” I took it to heart. The statement was really about the news media and political officials, none of whom I had any contact with when I was serving as a volunteer, but I still feel the need to say that I was only speaking for myself.
I also had to sign a form saying I would not proselytize while in service… since I wasn’t a missionary, and we were representatives of the United States Government, so, you know, no street corner preaching allowed. (Which is still a little funny to me, because while I was in service in Kenya—and I expect the numbers haven’t changed very much over the last 12 years—the country was 90% Christian.)
So instead of talking to my coworkers about faith… I talked to my fellow volunteers, 90% of whom were not Christian. Each of my forty fellow volunteers had a different reason for their dismissal of the church, most of them were seated in the harm that they received or the hate they heard come from a pulpit or a pew. I had a couple of close friends who said that I was the first person they had talked to that actually listened to them when we talked together about faith. It remains one of the best compliments I have ever received.
Listening well, trying to understand, receiving words with grace, and being open to ways in which I could be contributing to harm has been my goal as I have continued into formal ministry since then.
The Peace Corps declaration about my needing to be careful to never speak for the United States Organization I was serving with stuck out to me, and still sticks out, because it echoed the language of the church I was raised in, a phrase I learned when I was a teenager: the General Conference is the only group that speaks formally for the United Methodist Church. And they only meet every four years, so the United Methodist Church is not inclined to knee-jerk reactions and heat of the moment responses.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church. And at least since I was twelve, I have considered myself to not be a member of a particular church, but the annual conference I resided in, and really, the global church. I deeply felt part of the global church, a church that reaches across oceans and crosses borders and opens doors and provides shelter to those in need of sanctuary.
I love this church.
I returned to Kenya while I was in Divinity School as part of an internship with North Church Indianapolis and the Umoja project, a partnership between ten congregations in Indianapolis and ten congregations in the Chuliambo region of Kenya outside of Kisumu. I remember one meeting in particular where the directors representing the Kenya side and the Indianapolis side of the partnership were creating a Memorandum of Understanding. I remember being particularly impatient as I heard the same things said repeatedly by each of the members of the discussion group. I didn’t realize until we finished the meeting that we had accomplished far more than I realized, in part because the decisions were made by all the group, developing a consensus between the entirety of the group.
It was a far cry from majority rules.
This week, the United Methodist Church completed a special session of General Conference, called together to discuss one single topic: the consideration of ordination and marriage of LGBTQIA+ individuals. A narrow majority of the delegates voted to keep the language of the current Book of Discipline and increase judicial penalties for congregations and pastors who break the rules. (The Judicial Council will be meeting in April to determine the constitutionality of these decisions. Yeah, the United Methodist Church has a Constitution and makes decisions based on a democratic process.) This was the first time that General Conference had discussed the issue of the rights of our queer siblings to get married in the church since it became legal in the United States.
Eight years ago, I became a pastor, and took my first appointment of my own in the United Methodist Church. For five years, I served under appointment, and until about three years ago, when I took extended family leave, and became a pastor without a congregation. I still preach, and have celebrated communion a handful of times, (I have sacramental authority at my husband’s church…) and we baptized both of our daughters into the United Methodist Church.
I love this church.
I’ve preached approximately five hundred times. Every single time I stand (or sit, when I was unable to walk) before the gathered congregation, the first and last word I want to say is that God loves the people who are before me. Those who are present have represented a vast diversity of opinions and political stances. And I still, every single time, regardless if that one person is listening simply to think of the best verbal jab to give at the handshake line, preach grace to the people who listen.
I love this church.
Every single person is created in the image of God. I love the image of God in them, and so I love them, even if I don’t really enjoy the verbal jabs and the antagonism and the judgement I have received from people I was sent to serve.
My word from the pulpit is still love. It is still a declaration that each child of God is created in the image of a God whose love poured out so much that we were created so that God could love us.
I love this church.
My heart broke this week when my church said that the United Methodist Church would continue to create a dividing line, excluding some of the very children of God I am called to love.
General conference doesn’t speak for me. Not in this case.
When I celebrate communion, I always say: This is not my table, this is not this church’s table, this is not even the table of the United Methodist Church. This is God’s table, and all are welcome to come, taste, and see that the Lord is Good.
In my own words: I love you, as you are created, formed and molded in the image of God, and you are worth that love. And you will always have a place at the table I celebrate.