Love, Fear, and Joy
Love, Fear, and Joy
Reflections on The Ninth Annual Reconciling Convocation
Rev. Scott Summerville
Asbury UMC, Yonkers NY
I was privileged to attend the convocation of Reconciling United Methodists, August 2-5, 2007 in Nashville. For those who may not be familiar with the Reconciling Ministries Network, its mission is “to enable full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, both in policy and practice.”
There was great music. There was superb preaching. There was first rate Biblical teaching. The event was inspiring, scholarly, and informative. Rather than describing the formal aspects of the program though, I wish to share some reflections of a more personal nature as a participant in the event. While the theme of the convocation was Faith, Hope, Love, my own reflections cluster around the words: love, fear, and joy.
One of the first voices I heard at the convocation was that of an octogenarian United Methodist preacher who came forward at a time of informal sharing. She said – as best I can recall her words – “My life partner of forty years died suddenly this year. She was younger than I am. Her unexpected death was the greatest of blows to me. Our love was as perfect as anything can be in this life. I miss her terribly. At the memorial service for clergy and spouses at our annual conference our bishop permitted her name to be read. That meant so very much to me.”
The present discussion in regard to sexual orientation focuses too often on sexuality in the narrower sense. What is lost so often in this discussion is the simple reality of love – deep, passionate, sacred love – between people whose gender is the same. There was a deep spirit of love in the convocation: love of individuals for one another, a spirit of love and support for those who are hurting and struggling to find acceptance, and a spirit of love also directed to some of the active opponents of the reconciling cause. It was a rich blessing to have been in such a loving atmosphere for those five days in Nashville.
My experience at the convocation led me to some important new insights into the way I am acculturated as a heterosexual male in our society. It is always difficult for those of us who are in majority populations to grasp what it feels like to be in the non-majority population. When we are part of the dominant group we are likely also to misunderstand ourselves, because we are seeing ourselves through the lens and the filters of our dominant group. ( I don’t mean to sound like an anthropologist, but I’m trying to describe a profound experience I had at the convocation.) As a white, heterosexual, middle-aged male, I fit into the majority and/or dominant slot in a lot of ways. At the convocation people did not identify themselves as gay or straight, though one could assume that the gay/straight ratio was much higher than it would be in a random population sample. It seemed to me that anyone at the convocation could be gay or straight, unlike most places I go where the probability is that a given individual will be heterosexual. So I was in a population where my sexual orientation was not clearly the dominant one.
In this setting I experienced a deep sense of safety. To ask ourselves where we feel safe is to pose a very sacred question. My experience as a heterosexual male in the present culture – and the convocation helped me to realize this – involves walking around inside a defensive force field. Why is friendship so difficult and elusive for men in our culture? Why is it so difficult for men to let down their guard? The fear that surrounds homosexuality seems to me to be an outgrowth of a more generalized fear of intimacy and vulnerability. These are simply my impressions. For the five days I was in Nashville I was aware that I felt a sense of safety with the men and women in the gathering, and I was aware that such a sense of safety is often missing in my life. I am grateful to all of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) and straight sisters and brothers with whom I gathered at the convocation for this gift and the insights that came with it.
Out of this experience of greater self awareness there came for me a deeper appreciation of the lack of safety, the vulnerability, and the fear experienced by many who are not in dominant groups. I heard story after story of physical violence, rejection by family, rejection by church, loss of ministries, and the anguish of secrecy borne by my LGBT sisters and brothers. Our church structures are grappling with the fears many people still have in regard to LGBT persons. In the church’s effort to address the fears of the dominant group toward LGBT persons, the fears of those who suffer condemnation, rejection, and violence is often missed. I am haunted by the testimony of a talented and engaging young man who has so much to offer in ministry with youth. He came out to his supervising pastor and subsequently to another pastor, both of whom rejected his ministry and shunned him in their congregations.
Then there was joy. It was a very happy experience for me being at the convocation. The worship was joyful. The mood was hopeful – not necessarily hopeful about progress in the short term on key issues of inclusiveness in the United Methodist denomination – but a greater hopefulness about the power of love to conquer fear. The days were long and intense. The convocation was much less relaxing than I expected in to be, but I came home in a joyful spirit.
When we gathered at Vanderbilt University for the opening of the convocation, the coordinator of conferences for the University introduced himself and explained some of the logistics of meals and other arrangements. He added that as an openly gay man he was particularly pleased to be greeting us. Then the local City Councilman was introduced. He informed us that he had been elected just the day before as the first openly gay person to serve on the Nashville City Council.