Earlier this week, I took my daughter with me to vote. She likes to feel part of the process, and her fine motor control has finally reached the point where she was able to sit on my lap and fill in the bubbles on the ballot for me this year! There were so many ovals for her to fill in – but the one I was especially concerned about was the lone item on the back of the ballot: Amendment One – in which an attempt is being made to write discrimination into the NC Constitution. It is already illegal for gays and lesbians to marry in North Carolina, so the amendment is at best unnecessary. But it could also take away protections that already exist for same-gendered and mixed-gendered couples alike – things like health care coverage, domestic violence protections, and the ability to visit each other in the hospital – the reach of the amendment could be devastating to so many people. But even were the amendment narrowly drawn, I would have voted against it. It seems wrong for discrimination to be written into a constitution – a document that is intended to set forth what is most essential to the governing of our state. Is only protecting legally married hetero couples under the law what is most essential to the governing of our state?
So my daughter colored in the oval I indicated next to the word “Against,” hopped off my lap with ballot in hand, and stood on tiptoes to feed it into the machine that counts and secures the ballots. She was given a sticker in return. “Why does my sticker say ‘future voter’, Mommy?” she asked. And I replied, “Because one day, when you are older, when you are 18 years old, you will get to choose for yourself which ovals to color in.” I buckled her into her booster seat, and soon we were driving away in the sunshine with our windows down, blasting Casting Crowns’ rendition of “Joyful, Joyful” (or, as my daughter calls it, “the song from your wedding, when you and Daddy walked down the aisle together at the end.”) It seemed like a perfect afternoon, and a perfect way to celebrate our vote, thinking about weddings and love and God, singing, “God our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are thine – teach us how to love each other…”
I know it is a close call in North Carolina. We may live in a city where almost every sign urges us to “Vote AGAINST!” – but when taking the whole state into account, the polls still show Amendment One passing by a margin of 2-3%. It is because of how close it will be that I wanted to be sure that nothing kept me from the polls this Spring. I always make an effort to vote, but I am usually not so precautionary – but this Spring, I am oscillating between hopefulness and concern about what will be the decision in this somewhat conservative state. So even though our official election day isn’t until this coming Tuesday, I took advantage of early voting, so that I could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that my vote had already been cast. That day, singing in the car with my daughter, hope welled in me – perhaps we would dodge this bullet – perhaps North Carolina would not be the latest in a series of states to make the national news for passing such a hurtful law. I was so filled with the assurance of God’s love for every person that the passage of Amendment One began to seem implausible.
And then I started tuning in to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Quite the bubble-burster.
For decades, the United Methodist Church has had discrimination against gays and lesbians written into its book of law – the Book of Discipline. “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching..,” “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained, same-sex unions may not be celebrated by a United Methodist pastor (lest he or she be stripped of his/her clergy status.) Until recently, at least gay and lesbian Christians were not barred from church membership, but a couple of years ago, a judicial council decision left the door open for individual pastors to refuse membership on the basis of sexual orientation.
Every four years, there is a battle about this at General Conference. And every four years, the language either remains unchanged, or becomes even more restrictive.
But this year, there was a ray of hope. A few visionary individuals recognized that an up or down vote – us vs. them – was not the way forward. (Props are due to James Howell, Mike Slaughter, and Adam Hamilton.) In order for reconciliation to take place on this issue, we first had to name that we are divided. And so a resolution was put forward to simply acknowledge that people within our church disagree on this issue.
There were a lot of concessions to the majority in there – it named, first, that belief that homosexuality is wrong is the majority opinion. It also didn’t change any policies – it was not an “agree to disagree” resolution, which might allow both parties to operate as their conscience directed. Pastors still would not allowed to perform same-sex unions, no matter what their feelings on the matter. Pastors still would be subject to being defrocked if they were found “guilty” of being “self-avowed, practicing homosexual[s],” no matter how gifted they were. The resolution simply described the situation on the ground: the majority believes x, the minority believes y. Both groups base their conclusions on their reading of the scriptures. Both groups are made up of faithful United Methodist Christians.
I could not bring myself to watch. I felt sure that even such a reasonable resolution would not pass. But oh, how I longed to be wrong about that. Sadly, I wasn’t. The resolution was defeated. The Social Principles of the UMC would not name that good Christians can disagree on the matter of homosexuality. Instead, once again, it would simply name homosexuality as sinful.
What was most hurtful about this decision? A vote against this resolution was a vote against the assertion that a person can be a Christian and believe that gay and lesbian relationships are not condemned by God, but may even be blessed by God. Those who voted against were saying, to put it egocentrically, that I am not a Christian, that I do not base my thinking on the scriptures, that I do not belong in the United Methodist Church. Further, they were saying that the vast majority of United Methodist pastors in the United States are not Christian, do not base their thinking on the scriptures, do not belong in the United Methodist Church. The vote rendered myself, most people my age or younger in the church in the U.S., and most pastors in the church in the U.S. invisible. The vote made it possible for the New York Times to report that the United Methodist Church had once again condemned homosexuality – when, in fact, large swaths of our church do not feel that way at all.
And so, while I was not in the least bit surprised by the outcome of Thursday’s plenary session (I am from Generation X, after all – we were born jaded,) I was nonetheless further alienated by the decision than I had anticipated.
Yesterday, I turned my attention away from General Conference in order to attend the funeral of a friend from seminary. He was a pastor of a local Baptist congregation, active in the area Baptist association, an instructor at a college in Raleigh. I remember that my father used to say that he tried to avoid Baptist funerals, because they went long – “every preacher there thinks he has to stand up and give a eulogy,” he would complain. And I sure enough heard 4 eulogies yesterday. But if Woody Guthrie’s line, “I ain’t got a home in this world anymore” was echoing in my head after the vote on Thursday afternoon, it took three eulogies and three choir specials to get my head in the right place to hear the word in the fourth eulogy that I most needed to hear, “… I’m going to make Heaven my home.”
One day, we will all be drawn to God, and so all be drawn close to one another, and every one of our tears will be wiped away. But until that day, when I am feeling homesick, I can taste homecoming in my interactions with the friends who recognize in me a fellow lover of God and of the scriptures and of God’s work in the world – even when we disagree on what that might look like.
I’m pretty sure my friend and I did not agree on what role gays might have in the church – but I know that I was not invisible when I was with him. We were real to one another, and respected one another as people of deep and thoughtful faith.
It is a lonely thing, being invisible – no matter what the reason. To love someone well, we must first see them, name them, acknowledge all the contours of their existence. And what is the church called to do, if not to love, and love well?