The year was 1994. The General Conference of the United Methodist Church had just convened. And word came out immediately about a letter signed by eleven bishops of the church stating that as a Church we were not of one voice on the issue of homosexuality. The debate had begun. As I read the news report, one clear thought came to me: “You’d better know where you stand on this because you are going to need to know.” My journey to a deeper understanding of the human family, my call, and myself had begun.
In the summer of 1996 I was reappointed for a third year by Bishop Pennel to serve as campus minister to the Wesley Foundation at The University of Virginia. As is true for most campus ministers, I was preparing for a summer focused largely on clean up from the previous year, recuperation, including time for family, rest and renewal, and preparing for the year to come.
Shortly after graduation in May, I began to undertake that task of cleaning up. On this particular day, I was culling through old minutes from the meetings of the Wesley Foundation Board of Directors. Reading through a particular set of minutes from the earliest years of the Foundation, I came upon an action taken by the board to allow the then Gay Student Organization to meet weekly in the Wesley Foundation building. “Interesting,” I thought. It seemed to me in the moment to be a courageous decision, but one that seemed in the moment to have no impact on the current state of our ministry. Nearly thirty years later, in 1996, the group, now the LGBT Student Association, still met weekly in the Wesley building, providing a safe space for students who were deserving of just that, safe space and time to be in a supportive community. Little did I realize how important the discovery of those minutes would be, to the campus ministry and even to my own ministry.
In October that year, I was summoned by the District Superintendent to his office without warning or explanation. As soon as I arrived he quickly ushered me into his office and showed me a seat. Some conversations you remember close to verbatim for a lifetime. This is one of those.
“I understand that the gay student group meets in your building. Is that true?” he queried.
“Yes it is,” I replied.
“Well, you need to kick them out.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”
Face turning red and appearing angry, he replied, “You have to. Their meeting in the Wesley building violates the Book of Discipline.”
“Well that may be true, but the Board of Directors made the decision years ago to allow the group meeting space in the Wesley building, and I am not authorized to overturn that decision.”
He was stunned. Evidently in his mind he imagined that I would roll over and obey without question. It was as though he thought this was a decision made on a whim by a group of “youth” who didn’t know better, and it was my job, as their leader to show them the error of their ways.
At this point I am relatively certain that this was one of those God moments: that I had been given that information from the Board minutes for “a time such as this.” And I relaxed into the moment, trusting that God would give me the words, even though I was scared out of my wits!
The next words came quickly and easily, “You are on the Board of Directors and I invite you to have this concern placed on the agenda for the next meeting.” I’m fairly certain he was even more stunned, but I had no intention of backing down and doing his dirty work. Rumors around the conference were of his aspirations to become a bishop. I wasn’t interested in contributing to his campaign.
The conversation devolved from there, but I did offer to call the Board Chair and have his concern placed on the meeting agenda. Then I went and found a quiet place to look on the mountains, restore my emotional balance, and consider my next steps.
Newly composed, I called the Board Chair, we met for lunch and mapped out a strategy which would result in the Board taking steps to both educate and examine its building use policy. My next step was to arrange to meet with the Bishop. I needed to know where he was going to be on this. If he would be supportive, great; but if not, I needed to know. Surprisingly, I was able to get on his agenda fairly quickly.
I’ve had some pretty difficult conversations with bishops over the years, so I approached this one with a certain level of dread. Of course by the time I sat in his office in Richmond, he was well aware why I was there. Nevertheless, he asked questions as though he was hearing this for the first time. The questions were insightful and helpful to my thought process. But the take home for me that day was two statements he made that I will never forget. First he said, “Your job is to give the Board the information they need to make a good decision. I trust boards to make good decisions.” I took a deep breath of relief. Then he said, “And we want to make sure this isn’t about you.” My interpretation: “I have no intention of moving you over this.” Deeper sigh of relief.
With that affirmation, I returned to Charlottesville and began the tasks of equipping students, board members, local laity. Our Board moved to offer a six weeks series of conversations on the church and homosexuality, using the UMC curriculum readily available at the time. The sessions were led by others: former campus ministers, ordained clergy faculty, local church clergy. We extended invitations to the local churches in the Charlottesville area, but attendance was low and the audience was by and large “the choir.” There were one or two lay members of the church next door who attended because they were genuinely looking for insights on the issue, but by and large most in attendance were students who were already supportive of the stand the Board had taken years prior. For some, these were their very friends who were “under attack.”
The second action the Board took at that meeting was to name a task force that would examine the building use policy, seek like documents from other ministries, and come to the Board with recommendations for potential revisions. They went to work, and at their last meeting of the academic year in April of 1997 they presented their report: recommended revisions to the building use policy that was more welcoming and affirming than the one that had been in place for many years. The Board approved the policy by a vote of 17-2.
Fast forward one year. In June of 1998 I was appointed, “on loan,” to be the Director of the Wesley Foundation at UNC Chapel Hill, following the twenty two year tenure of Manuel Wortman. The Wesley building, like the one in Charlottesville and many others across the country, had been built in the 1960’s and its use was always being redefined. Shortly after my arrival I was welcomed by the Sunday morning “tenants” of our chapel, the Revs. Rick and Jill Edens, pastors of United Church of Chapel Hill. A year or two prior their sanctuary had been “condemned” and so the congregation was worshipping in the Wesley chapel while they conducted a building campaign and program for a new campus north of town.
Two or three weeks after arriving, Rick and Jill came back to visit me, this time to inform me that Jimmy Creech was scheduled to preach in their worship services in September. Rick and Jill, having had roots in the Western North Carolina Conference, were well aware of the potential repercussions of this for me. They offered to worship elsewhere on that Sunday. I declined their thoughtful offer. At the time, Jimmy was still ordained in the UMC, though he had charges against him and was awaiting another church trial. Jimmy was a guest of this UCC congregation. Wesley was not endorsing or sponsoring; we were landlords. In my mind there was not a single thing wrong with having him preach for these guests in “our house.” So I let it go, though I was personally disappointed because I had made a commitment to preach in a congregation in Virginia that weekend, so I could not be there.
In the meantime, I made an appointment to meet my new District Superintendent, for no other reason than for him to know who I was, a pastor on loan from Virginia, appointed to ministry on a campus in his district. We met for an hour or so, exchanged call stories, and I went on my way. When I got to my car to return to Chapel Hill, I had my hand on the door handle when I thought “You forgot to tell him about Jimmy Creech.” For about thirty seconds I stood there, “Do I go back? Do I let it go? Do I go back? Do I let it go?” My intuition prevailed: “You didn’t think of it while you were in there. Let it go.” And let it go I did.
Late August brought students back to campus. It was an exciting time, an exhilarating time. New faces. A new to me campus. Lots of energy, joy and opportunity for ministry. In early September, however, I walked into the office one morning and listened to a voicemail from my Board chair. “Call me as soon as you get this.”
“I had a call from the District Superintendent. He says that Jimmy Creech is going to be preaching at Wesley and he wants to know what you are going to do about it.”
If that call came today I would say, “Seriously?” But it was 1998 and things were different then. Things were different. I was not!
“I’m not going to do anything about it.”
“No, I’m not.”
“But the DS said you have to.”
I proceeded to explain to him all that I had said to Rick and Jill that day: we are not sponsoring, Jimmy is still clergy in good standing, there is no ground on which to take action.
“OK. I will deliver the message.”
Apparently a letter had been sent from United Church to all the local churches in the Chapel Hill area inviting them to come worship at Wesley to hear Jimmy. And apparently there was (at least) one clergy recipient of that letter who took offense and wanted it stopped. To my resistance the DS said to my Board chair, “Well the Cabinet is meeting right now. and we will decide what you are going to do.”
That was the last I heard of it. The DS never spoke with me about it directly. And apparently he never got back in contact with the Board Chair.
Jimmy came and preached. I went to Virginia and preached. And when I got home that night and turned on the local news, there was Jimmy, standing and talking to a reporter right in front of the Wesley building. But I never heard another word.
Fast forward several more years. A beloved colleague who once held a campus ministry position in Virginia was now a District Superintendent. He had been invited to come spend some time with our Wesley residential community as part of a grant we had received for developing a culture of call through intentional residency. Come to find out from him that my story had become legend in District Superintendent training school because he had heard it from both of my previous DS’s. He said he had heard stories about me. When I pressed him about it, he said, “Jan is just being Jan.”
Well those of you who know me know how that made me bristle. This colleague came to talk with my students about his “ministry of reconciliation.” So I wasn’t going quietly into the night on this one. I looked at my colleague and stated with conviction that I had clearly been called to a ministry of holy hospitality that was no less valid or significant than his ministry of reconciliation. I think he “got it.”
Within just a few weeks of that I sat in a meeting of North Carolina campus ministers with Bishop Kammerer. We spent the afternoon with her. She shared her vision for campus ministry. She asked how she could support our work. Well you know me. Jan being Jan, just had to ask “Please tell us what you see to be the role of campus ministers with regard to the issue of homosexuality.”
I don’t remember her response with the same clarity that I remember the rest of this story, but I do remember her clearly saying these words, “As campus ministers, you have a ministry of hospitality. And in that regard your ministry should be open to all.” She said something else about her role as enforcer of the Book of Discpline, but as you can tell, I didn’t pay much attention to that part!
In the spring semester following, someone in the office of Student Affairs extended me the invitation to participate in a panel Q&A along with other campus ministry colleagues at UNC. The subject: how different faith perspectives view homosexuality. About twenty students attended, a few of whom were participants in ministries of Wesley, and one of whom was carrying what my husband would describe as “a Bible big enough to choke a mule.” The conversation was well controlled by the moderator, who had students write questions on pieces of paper that were placed in and retrieved from a fish bowl. The moderator tempered the language in a few instances. As the panel progressed it was clear to me that the students had an angry, biased agenda. They were not there to learn as much as they were there to inform. Perhaps they were using this as an opportunity to find out where they would most feel comfortable.
By the time the questions passed to me, I had determined that never again would I have this conversation with anyone who could not acknowledge that they had a friend or family member who was gay or lesbian. But there I was, so I had to speak. My message was simple and clear and came straight from I John. “Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Students pushed back, but I would not budge. I would not argue. I would not even state my position beyond that. I was finished with the conversation.
That portion of the story came full circle last year however, when one of those students in attendance was front and center at a wedding I performed for two young women who first met at Wesley.
Now, some twenty years after the debate began and, I pray, the UMC approaches the end of its debate on this subject, I give thanks for the presence of God who walked with me through the dark night on this issue. I know that my words and my actions offended some, but for many more they were words and deeds that brought healing and hope. That was not a journey I ever would have chosen, but I am confident that I walked it faithfully.