Tuesday, May 8, 2018

More on the Church Thing

The long coming-out story I posted recently, as you might recall, was inspired by a nice little process my church was going through. The ONA, or Open and Affirming process is a way that United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations can spend about a year looking at how they can do a better job “walking the walk,” extending “extravagant welcome” to everyone, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s path. The immediate core of ONA is about being welcoming to LGBT people.

The process, eventually and ideally, helps people get up-to-date with current knowledge about human sexuality and gender identification. Like, what does science say? What do mainstream psychologists say? And can it be that most Christians have been misinterpreting those passages from Leviticus, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Is our faith strong enough to ask such questions, or is it so brittle that we cannot face ideas that conflict with those that have congealed in our minds for years?

Anyway . . . things have happened. The “pushback” occurred, and it occurred with breathtaking immediacy and inflexibility. The way things have happened, I think, is the single most damning aspect of the last few weeks. And I think this story should be told.

I realize my blog absolutely has not been intended to be an online journal—but the public aspect of it seems important. There are a lot of stories that may be written about this episode in the history of Jefferson City’s Central United Church of Christ. The historical aspect is especially compelling, since my own dad wrote most of the congregation’s sesquicentennial history not very long ago. And I have wondered, “Who will write the story of this crossroads? And will both sides be presented, or only one?”

I want to make sure that my side is presented, at least. And it’s odd, because I feel rather detached, while many of my friends at Central UCC are grieving and angry—so much that many of them will not step foot inside the church anymore.

So, what happened?

A week after our church had guest speaker John Pavlovitz for a weekend (March 16–18), the president of the church council presented three petitions to the council, signed by just enough members of the congregation, according to the congregation’s bylaws, to force votes on the issues. The petitions called for

(1) leaving the UCC denomination because it is too progressive socially (but not supplying any alternative direction, even though it is clear that certain right-wing members of the congregation want the church to become affiliated with the Evangelical and Reformed Association, a group of ex-UCC congregations which, at it root, is reactionary conservative, anti-LGBT, and anti-anything-progressive; seriously, they are okay with barring women from the ministry);
(2) immediately firing the senior pastor, listing a bewildering list of grievances, real and mistaken, all of which would better be managed through the church’s existing human resources committee; and
(3) firing the associate pastor, mainly based on theological issues that conservative and fundamentalist people have, which is the height of hubris, as both pastors have actual seminary/theological training, and the persons making the accusations are theological dilettantes.

It was a painful few weeks. These people had remained silent as the Open and Affirming group had made its glacial progress; we were moving slowly because we didn’t want to offend people. We were just starting the process of creating “small groups” so that we could talk more in-depth about the issues involved. And these people had quietly tolerated a Lenten reading group on John Pavlovitz’s book, “A Bigger Table,” which outlines a way for Christian churches to reclaim the Christ in their communities and become “the good guys” again.

But as it turned out, the Pavlovitz book had struck a nerve—indeed, one of the rightwing members of the congregation mailed to CUCC members a blog post from a Junction City, Kansas, Southern Baptist preacher, about how Pavlovitz is a “heretic.” (Why should we care much what a Southern Baptist preacher says?) And the movement toward establishing “small groups” for the purpose of moving the ONA process forward was the final straw: The social conservative faction needed to move fast, before we eroded support for, well, ignorance and misplaced bigotry.

And the way the petitions were disseminated and delivered was disturbing, in itself. First, the president of the Church Council convened small, limited, hand-picked members of the church for meetings to sign the petitions. One person, who was invited by accident, reported that, when he asked, “what’s this meeting about?” was told, “Well, let’s put it this way: How do you feel about ‘black lives matter’?” It was a litmus test: are you a rightwing person, or not?

The president of the Church Council supposedly should represent all members of the church, not a faction that wants to overthrow the Church Council and the minister. But that’s what he did.

And who are these people wanting to undermine the elected Church Council and the unanimously accepted pastor? Oh, my friends, you can imagine: It’s the Old Guard, the Elders, the people (men, mostly quite old men) who for thirty years grew accustomed to intimidating the previous pastor, who called the shots and always got their way.

How else did Central UCC manage to persist as a do-nothing, say-nothing, namby-pamby, “we welcome everyone but we don’t really welcome everyone” kind of church?

When I first joined the church, soon after we bought my grandma’s house, I asked the then-pastor, “So, it’s a UCC church—can Sue and I get married there?” And he hemmed and hawed (this was in our living room—the same room where Sue and I eventually got married) . . . “Well, there are certain members of the church who would be against it, and I have to respect them, you see.”

Oh, I saw, all right. The word that drifted through my mind was “invertebrate.”

But to be kind to him, he was nearing retirement. I’d probably cave in, too. He meant well. Do you hate someone because they’re weak? No. You feel pity.

So, continuing the story: more on the petitions and how they were delivered.

Apparently, the petitions were written such that anyone who signed it might have done so based on any one of the bucket of real and imagined problems with the minister and the UCC. They were apparently told that the petitions would not necessarily be presented. Instead, they were told, the problems would be presented, first, and if they were not resolved satisfactorily, then, and only then, would the petitions to leave UCC and fire the pastors be served. (It’s still a rotten, dastardly way of doing things: “Here is how we want you to change. And if you don’t do it, we’ll whack you with this petition.”)

But guess what? The grievances were never actually presented! Instead, the duplicitous president of the Church Council presented the petitions, then basically walked away! It’s like deploying nuclear weapons before even attempting diplomacy. (Wait, this is supposed to be a group of Christians—?)

So the council was forced to take action on the petitions—to schedule a vote.

On Thursday, March 29 (Maundy Thursday), the council had a special meeting after the evening’s service. I attended. When I learned that some of the petitioneers felt tricked into signing (they thought that the grievances would be discussed before any vote was forced), I could hardly wait to make my suggestion: Look, there’s still time to mend this rift! If petition-signers are not wanting to have a big showdown right now, why don’t they send a letter to the church office saying “take my name off the petition.” Wouldn’t that be a way to go into mediation and heal our wounds, rather than have an ugly vote? The council members agreed that this would be satisfactory: Yes, petition-signers could put in writing their wish to retract their signature, and if enough of them do so, the vote would not be forced. Splitting the congregation could be averted, if they wanted.

But NONE of them rescinded their signatures on the petition, and so it went to a vote. There was an “informational” meeting on April 15, between the two services, which was pretty ugly, as people basically stated their views and nobody apparently listened. The following week, April 22, was the vote.

I was amazed at how many people showed up! They came out of the woodwork. It looked like Christmas. The conservatives clearly got out the vote, bringing in kids who are technically still members, and other people who are still on the rolls but not active at all. They squelched all discussion. It was ugly—it’s always ugly when you prevent someone from having their say. And the votes, mostly, went the way they shouldn’t have: They didn’t succeed in seceding from the UCC denomination, but they did manage to fire both of our pastors.

Did I mention that there were some young couples that had been coming to our church, that suddenly quit attending when all this ugliness began? I saw all this because I was running the PowerPoint displays from the back of the sanctuary, which is where they tended to sit, too.

After the vote, I felt numb and floaty. It was hard to believe what had happened—how something so wonderful, and hopeful, had so quickly been snuffed out. And snuffed out by people who worked behind curtains, who plotted and schemed, who were too insecure and weak to bring their issues out in the open in a decent, fair way, but instead used slanderous lies to foment anger against those who are innocent.

I can see how my friends at church, who also had been hopeful and energized by the direction it was taking, were hurt and angered by this occurrence. Compared to me, many of them have a deeper relationship with the congregation: they were born in CUCC; they had kids in CUCC; their kids were confirmed in CUCC; they devoted time, energy, funds to CUCC. They believed they were a family in CUCC. But what kind of family takes a sudden, slanderous vote to expel other members? I can see why they’ve bailed out.

But me? It feels like just another example of Christians being assholes. When will they learn? My boots were made for walkin’, and I don’t take it personally (not like so many of my friends, who seriously believed they were part of a church family). I don’t have a long history of comradeship with these people, and I think I’ve always been skeptical of the depth of their so-called welcome. Actually, I’ve often thought of myself as a seeing-eye dog for the morally impaired. They actually need me more than I need them. They need the opportunity I present to them: please grow beyond your prejudices. All you have to do is open your eyes, and your hearts. You can do it, I know you can.

As Zora Neale Hurston said, “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” And as she also said: “Those that don’t got it, can’t show it. Those that got it, can’t hide it.”

After the infamous vote, several of us adjourned to the local Perkins restaurant to kind of decompress. As I sat there eating my salty Spinach and Mushroom Skillet, it seemed odd to think that I might not see these people again. As they reviewed the events of the last few weeks, I pondered my place in their distress. As far as I know, I’m the only “out” member of the congregation. Of course, I’m certainly not the only LGBT person known to people in the congregation. But I’m the only member who is comfortable “proclaiming” it. And I feel a certain . . . guilt, I suppose, about it.

In other words, a large part of the dissolution of the congregation—or at least the timing of it, the catalyst for it—was on account of me, of people like me. Is it worth it?

When I was initially contacted by the woman who initiated the ONA committee in our congregation, my immediate thought was that the church wasn’t ready for it. But then I thought, “if not now, when? And why not?” How could I not participate? I’m kinda the token gay. And, I knew, the ONA process is all about growing in understanding; it’s not something that requires a certain outcome. It’s like a conversation, a looooong conversation, with the result that we all become a little bit kinder and more welcoming to those who are different. What could go wrong?

I think that Central UCC (or whatever it becomes, once it’s left the UCC) is destined to failure, within five to ten years. The current members are old and aging, and they aren’t attracting new, younger folks. Why should they? Whatever do they have to offer anyone who is young and looking for a church, when there are plenty of other, more dynamic churches, churches that have coffee shops and pop music, that offer the same exact thing? And how are they substantially different from all the other “welcoming” but fundamentally regressive or societally stagnant churches that are out there? And therefore they will dwindle and expire; a nursing home for people who pine for the world of the 1950s.

Meanwhile . . . as of May 6, there are apparently some 80 people attending Central UCC services, while some 25–30 came to an informational meeting about a possible second Jefferson City UCC church—one that is ONA out of the starting gate, one that proclaims a socially progressive viewpoint, one that flies in the face of the bigotry and judgmentalism of most Christian churches today. The difference? Hope, heart, cheer, creativity, fairness, friendliness, focus. Hell: common decency.

It could be . . . like an oasis in a spiritual desert. Its time has come!

Meanwhile, I’m actually a little torn: Those people still need me. They still need their seeing-eye dog. They need someone to shine the way for them, to be the unconditional loving “look, it’s really quite easy: just relax” example. Hmm.

If I depart from the CUCC, am I being less loving and inclusive of them? Or am I simply saying, “Look, I know when I’m not wanted”? Do I betray myself if I stay?

No comments: