By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—“It’s good to get messy loving other people.”
That was the word from the Rev. Patricia Parrish, senior pastor of Washington Street United Methodist Church, as her congregation hosted a Reconciling Ministries event centered on faith, love and friendship—and a bold effort to offer a truly welcoming table to all regardless of sexual orientation.
On Oct. 24, hundreds of Christians gathered at Washington Street for Reconciling Ministries of South Carolina’s The Welcome Table, an inclusion dinner that featured worship, music and testimonies, as well as a chance to hear from Helen Ryde, Southeastern regional organizer for the national Reconciling Ministries Network.
Parrish opened with a prayer of grace, love, peace and hope, noting the importance of church being a place consistently seeking to welcome all.
“This is life church,” Parrish reminded the crowd. “It’s OK if it’s not perfect.”
Ryde lifted up the inclusion dinner as a significant event. She said the fact that so many people attended an event of this nature on a Tuesday night in the fall and not during Annual Conference season says much. She said Christians must continue to stand up for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer people in the church.
Ryde noted the denomination is at a crossroads right now as church leaders around the world prepare for the called General Conference 2019, when the UMC will vote as a whole on bishops’ proposals related to church unity and homosexuality.
Given this, Ryde said, “It’s as important now as it’s ever been to be clear about the type of welcome we offer. We need to lean into and continue building relationships with people who do not believe what we believe. I did not believe what I believe today 15 years ago, and I’m gay!”
Ryde said she didn’t change her views on sexuality and the church overnight; it took a long time of prayer and study. It’s a process, and sometimes it can be slow.
“But change is happening,” Ryde said, noting those opposed to LGBTQ inclusion are not using the word “abomination” any longer; now they are using “LGBTQ.”
“We need to hold out our hand of friendship (with those we differ from) and continue doing so,” Ryde said. “We can work together and love together.”
Three people shared their personal perspectives. The Rev. Bob Borom gave his testimony, which he said was a “twofold process of unlearning old things and learning new things.”
Raised in the Methodist church, Borom said he learned two things: to love everybody, which is the theory, but not to fully include everybody, which is the practice. But as the years passed, he had to unlearn excluding some people—most particularly his daughter, who revealed to him she is a lesbian. As he began to realize this was no passing phase, he had to really think about what it meant to love her fully.
“I realized I loved her and not less because of this. She’s not diminished.”
But as a pastor, he said, he next had to unlearn a very powerful and difficult thing: the belief that the church is always right.
Borom said that over the years he’s understood an important truth: when it comes to what the church says and what Jesus says, “I’ve learned I’ll choose Jesus every time.”
“Open hearts, open minds, open doors has got to become more than a catchy little slogan,” Borom said. “It has to be a call to unlearn old practices and (embrace) God’s inclusive love for all persons.”
Next, Ashley Evans stepped forward to give her testimony as an ally—her brother is gay. Although he is a man of faith and was raised as a Christian, he left the church.
“The church turned its back on him,” Evans said.
Always very active in youth group, when her then-teen brother realized he was gay and slowly began to come out, he found far more acceptance and support in his high school than in his youth group. One night, he brought another gay teen to youth group, and his youth pastor discouraged them both from coming back—ever.
That pastor’s reaction—and the reaction of others over the years—led to her brother believing the UMC was not a good place for him. It is a heartbreaking reality Evans would very much like to see change before the UMC loses many others like her brother.
“We need to learn how to be there for people and how to react,” Evans said.
Finally, Christine Burke—a woman in her 20s who has had relationships with both men and women and choses not to be bound by labels, whether gay, straight, female or male—shared her story about the rejection she and her friends have experienced by other Christians.
“I have a lot of dear friends deeply broken by the institution of religion and what faith groups have done to not welcome them,” Burke said; all of this makes her inclined to be wary of church in general. “All oppression is linked to each other.”
Burke closed with a quote by Aboriginal Australian elder, activist and educator Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
The evening ended with Holy Communion held at the individual dinner tables, each led by a pastor seated at the table.
“The idea is to offer Christ at each of our tables,” Parrish told the crowd. “It is being served at the table because Christ is with us at this table, and at the welcoming table that is love.”
Washington Street UMC is home to more than half of the reconciling communities in South Carolina. The Reconciling Ministries Network mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform the church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love. Reconciling congregations and communities embrace RMN’s goal of full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church, both in policy and in practice.