By Jessica Brodie
GREENVILLE—More than 100 people headed to the Reconciling Ministries breakfast during Annual Conference to hear stories of inclusion and testimonies about sexuality and faith.
Held June 5 at First Baptist Church, the breakfast was offered by Reconciling Ministries of South Carolina, a group that works to mobilize United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities in South Carolina to transform the church and world into what they call “the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”
The breakfast featured an update from the Reconciling Ministries Network, the national organization, as well as stories of courage and leadership from United Methodist clergy the Rev. Tom Summers and the Rev. Keith Ray, as well as a testimony from Danielle Riechers, a high school student and member of Clemson United Methodist Church.
Dr. Jim Lane, chair of RMSC, began by welcoming the crowd to the church. He said the breakfast had a record turnout with a 25 percent attendance increase over last year’s event.
Next, Dr. Jim Dant, senior pastor at First Baptist, warmly welcomed the group and shared his church’s stance on same-sex marriage, ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning persons and the full inclusion of all persons into every aspect of church life. Dant called First Baptist a “welcoming and non-discriminating congregation” and said it was an honor to host RMSC.
The Rev. Liam Hooper, transgender community organizer from the Reconciling Ministries Network, next shared an update on his group’s work at the national level highlighting the growing call for an inclusive UMC from reconciling congregations, communities and individuals all across the country.
“Thank you for being reconciling people,” Hooper said. “You may not realize how important that is, but it is.”
Hooper lifted up his group’s new interim executive director, Jan Lawrence, and noted they are in a state of transition as they figure out how to reinvent themselves to be responsive to the needs of the people they serve.
“We are and continue to be committed to nothing less than full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in The United Methodist Church,” Hooper said, noting not being welcoming does harm to the church and to the people. “We interpret biblical obedience as demanding mindful attention and responsiveness to the most vulnerable among us.”
The “most vulnerable include people of color and immigrants as well as LGBTQ youth and transgender people.
Hooper said the RMN is hard at work creating resources about gender expansiveness and other issues, including a short video series with questions and answers called “TRANSforming the Church.”
Next, Lane recognized the newly established regional reconciling organizations (Upstate, Midlands, Pee Dee and Lowcountry) and leaders of each group, as well as all reconciling communities across South Carolina. Currently, he said, there are eight reconciling communities in South Carolina.
“We hope to have 10-12 by next year,” Lane said to applause.
Summers and Ray shared their stories next, and many said one of the most touching highlights of the morning was Danielle’s testimony.
Danielle, who described herself as “sad, depressed, lonely, decaying,” attempted suicide because “the church had convinced her she was worthless.”
She described how she grew up in a church that was not very welcoming, and the reaction she received from her church and her family after she came out as gay catapulted her into a downward spiral. On the verge of committing suicide, she reached out to the pastoral staff at Clemson UMC, which saved her life. Now she has a church home and a safe place to be who she is.
“I’ve grown closer to God,” she said, noting that when she experienced the earlier rejection from church and family, it caused her to question whether she was wanted or valued.
Danielle shared that without the love, support and hours the pastors at Clemson UMC spent listening to her and working with her, she wouldn’t “know joy, know God, or be alive today.” Danielle concluded by saying, “Different isn’t bad, it’s a chance to grow.”
The breakfast concluded with a musical celebration by Katie Gatch, featuring Lessie Polk, pianist, and a closing hymn by those in attendance.
“It was so encouraging to see increasing support and engagement for inclusion,” said Swann Adams, who said she cried buckets when hearing the stories from the panelists. “I was just so moved and inspired; it was good for my soul. It reminds me that we still have a lot of work ahead, but God’s grace and beauty is interwoven throughout the tapestry.”
Some information courtesy of Dr. Jim Lane.