On Thursday, September 12, 2013 – Joy Butler, our SWTX Reconciling Team Chair, was asked to speak at the Southwest TX MFSA Chapter meeting about the national RMN Convocation over Labor Day weekend in Maryland attended by 18 United Methodists from the Southwest Texas annual conference. She also spoke about returning home from RMN Convocation to participate a week later in the Austin Pride Parade with 406 Reconciling United Methodists on Saturday September 7, 2013, and this is a copy of her speech. Joy is a lay member of Saint John’s UMC Austin.
Joy Butler pictured on the upper left (wearing glasses) with some of the RMN and MFSA members from the UMC Southwest Texas Annual Conference while attending RMN Convocation: ChurchQuake at 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, MD.
I didn’t used to know that a church could be inclusive. I grew up thinking that the real sinners…well, they were out there, outside the church walls. Inside the church were the holy people, or at least the people trying their best to get right with God.
There was no time for being inclusive, or for meeting people where they were. You just got with the program or you could forget about heaven. No redemption for you!! So sad…. 😦
This kind of attitude, the same culture I encountered in the Methodist church I grew up in, and in the churches I visited in the South and in TX, left me feeling not really worthy and not quite good enough. So I drifted away….
Like many who leave the church as a young adult, I found my way back after having a child. My family ended up at Saint John’s UMC in Austin, where Rev. Bobbie Kaye Jones was preaching at the time. She made us feel very welcome, so that seemed like a good sign! My husband and I joined the Companions Sunday School class, the only group in the church that was at that time affiliated with RMN – Reconciling Ministries Network. This meant that the class was welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That was my first education on what it meant to be truly inclusive in church. I began volunteering for RMN and got connected with MFSA – Methodist Federation for Social Action. The more I learned, the more I realized that there was so much I did not know about how to be inclusive and welcoming.
I was invited tonight to talk to you about RMN’s Convocation, which happened this past Labor Day weekend in Maryland, near DC. It was my second Convo; they are held every 2 years. I attended my first Convo in 2011. It was an eye opener, for certain. I could not believe all the things I was asked to do, asked to consider!
When I arrived, I was handed a program book with a list inside containing all the things I had to accommodate: I shouldn’t wear perfume because it causes migraines in some, I had to be careful of my pronouns, because I was told you could not assume which pronoun was the right one, and some people want to be called by their names only. RMN had even placed signs over the bathroom doors – so that you couldn’t tell if you were going in the men’s or the women’s restrooms. We had to share them all! I remember thinking, weren’t we going just a little overboard with this inclusivity thing?
Well, I survived that Convo two years ago. I went along with it, and I let myself be immersed in the experience. I started talking to everyone I met, and more importantly, I listened to their stories. By the end of that Convo weekend, I realized how important it was to connect with everyone, even if, and especially if, someone’s personality or appearance were foreign to me. I was learning from hearing perspectives new to me, and I was growing. I was becoming more inclusive, and my relationships were more Christ-like than before. This was happening with near strangers! My heart was opening, God was working within me, and was helping me realize….that inclusivity thing? It is a 2-way street! I felt accepted, I felt listened to, I felt noticed, and I felt loved. At a conference! If you have ever attended almost any kind of conference, you know just how unusual that kind of experience is. 🙂
Because I learned so much at Convo, I wanted to bring a crowd with me the next time, more than the 6 from our SWTX conference who attended in 2011. We ended up with 3 times as many going to Convo this time – 18 of us went! We took workshops, we learned (so much it was overwhelming at times), we went on field trips, we sang, we worshiped, we listened to inspiring sermons. And, our hearts and minds opened wider. One particularly special moment was being able to attend the wedding of our friends Mary Ann and Annanda in the picturesque courtyard of the 4-H Center where Convo was hosted. In the evenings, Lorenza Andrade Smith, a UMC clergy women based out of San Antonio who does homeless ministry, slept on the ground in that very same courtyard! Lorenza’s ministry includes living like a homeless person, and interacting with her as part of our group added to our inclusivity education!
Convo showed us the vision of a more inclusive church. Now it is up to us to bring that into our home churches, to spread that vision throughout our conference, to be a model of Christ’s inclusive love.
How do we do that? We start the conversation…some of our churches have already started the conversations, and in those churches we need to continue talking, in church but also outside the church walls. We can help other churches who haven’t yet started talking about inclusivity. I learned at Convo that churches are afraid of conflict; many people come to church on Sunday to avoid the arguments and the polarization of the outside world. The last place people want to have a debate is in church – and talking about tough issues is avoided as a result. But…does that sound like the way Jesus worked? Did he avoid the tough issues of his day?
I learned that we can teach our church families how to stay in a Christ-like relationship with each other, even while talking about polarizing topics. We can share our stories with each other. We don’t have to try to convince each other, or get frustrated with each other. We don’t even have to agree. I’m going to say that again because it is a big point – we don’t have to agree with each other to stay in Christian fellowship. It will be ok. The crucial part… is the relationship. The main thing… is to keep talking.
We can be the answer (even those of us who did not attend Convo). We can show our church how to be inclusive, and we can start by not excluding or shaming those who disagree with us, even when they make us really, really upset. And, that can be hard work! Now, I’m not saying stay in a relationship if you are being emotionally damaged, nothing like that. But there are many of us – and allies listen up now because I’m talking to you – who can be patient enough to listen to those who are not currently inclusive of marginalized groups, and can do the important work of moving us forward. Listen first, then share your story. There are some of us doing this in our conference already, but we need many more to join in if we are going to move this inclusivity thing forward.
Did you hear how many of us were in the Pride Parade? Nine churches representing 406 United Methodists – wow!! The SWTX MFSA chapter and the Reconciling Team are planning for over 500 next year, and we hope you will join us, to help us show our conference that being inclusive matters.
A couple of days after the Pride Parade, someone I know from another part of my life left me this post on my Facebook wall:
Hi, Joy! I attended the Pride parade Saturday with my daughter and her friend. The crowd around us was young and wild and they responded with so much energy to all of the floats, cars and groups as they passed. As the first of the Methodist church groups started coming through enthusiasm fell off a bit, as happened with some of the smaller church groups that game through before.
But then, more and more participants from Methodist churches from all over central Texas came – and they just kept coming. They carried signs with the most loving and supportive messages and they danced, smiled and waved and they were all having a great time. It wasn’t long before the crowd around us got into it too. The size of the Methodist group was impactful! I’m not sure if the twenty-somethings around me were moved by the significance, they seemed mostly just happy to be there celebrating. 🙂
My daughter and her friend only started to get it after we talked about it on our way back to the car. As for me, I had to hold back tears – it was beautiful. I’m not a religious person but when I see an act of love like that it makes me want to be. Here’s to hoping that more hearts and minds follow the lead of Central TX Methodists. Thank you!
The next day this same woman initiated a conversation. She asked a few questions about which Methodist churches in Austin were inclusive, and she plans to visit one of these churches soon with her family. Did I mention that she is straight? She has a husband with two children in middle school, and they live in central Austin.
Being inclusive impacts all of us. This is not a gay issue. This is not an African-American issue. This is not an immigrant issue. This is not a homeless issue. We are talking about people; we are not talking about problems. Being inclusive means reaching out and making sure everyone feels welcome. In helping others, you will be helping yourself. And in doing so, you will be growing the church, and growing closer to God. Amen?