Out of the Fold?

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steven pumphrey for time

ONE CHURCH: Pastor Sid Hall, Lisa Dalton, her partner Carolyn Dietrich and Wise, Dietrich's Sunday School teacher

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Humdrum as such activism might be in big-city streets, it can still shock the church world. Since the 1970s, mainline homosexual church activists have worked within the system, assuming that their quest for inclusion would begin as a minority cause but triumph when their brothers and sisters in Christ saw the justice of their plea. Only recently have some reached the conclusion that they are no match for Evangelical forces campaigning fervently from the right and that after rejecting gay ordination and marriage at convention after convention, denominational consensus was only hardening. In this context, White's attitude makes a certain harsh sense.

His campaign has predictably attracted ire from the right. Says James Heidinger II, publisher of Good News, a conservative Methodist journal: "We don't feel good about outsiders coming in and using intimidation and pressure on our delegates for something that ought to be a family affair." In fact, even some in-house gay activists feel trampled on. "He's just like Falwell in his own way," says an Episcopalian.

White claims to understand. Of the gay Methodist activists who met him when he arrived in Cleveland (and who were themselves eventually arrested, to Bishop Solomon's dismay), he says, "They're thinking, 'Mel, we've worked four years for this moment. Don't screw it up for us.'" But to the extent that they are worried that he may mar their dialogue with their denominations, he really doesn't care. "Schism? Yes, we are calling for a personal schism. I don't think there's any chance for reconciliation in these churches. We're pushing people to say, Either you change the policies, or we will leave and get someplace where we can be spiritually fed. We're calling gay, lesbian, bi- and transgendered people to leave these churches ... And then let them try to find an organist."

A New Sunday Lesson
Jane Wise was worried about gays in her church. Not about their being there. But that they might walk out the door and she might have to decide whether or not to go with them.

Wise, who is 73 and straight, recently arrived at her usual pew in Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, for a special meeting of the congregation. In front of her was her friend Carolyn Dietrich, 39. At the pulpit was Trinity's pastor, Sid Hall, recapping: the Methodist General Conference's 65% vote calling homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching was even higher than the tally four years before. Where did that leave Trinity? Eight years ago, it became a reconciling congregation, one that "welcomes all people regardless of race...age [or] gender identity." But didn't the General Conference's emphatic, repeated rejection of homosexuality make that an empty pledge? Could Trinity in good faith stay in the Methodist fold? A woman stood and declared with some heat, "Whether you are gay or lesbian, black or white or transgendered, we're all part of God's family and should be accepted as that." "Very well put," muttered Wise.

Things have come a long way since 1988. That was the year Trinity hired Pastor Hall at age 30, hoping a young minister could revive a congregation shrunk to a mere 120 members, mostly old; they joked that anyone under 70 should join the youth group. Hall proved dynamic alright, but not in a way the solidly middle-class, overwhelmingly straight congregation had expected. Over three years he explicitly campaigned to extend fellowship to gays. This caused considerable whispering. "People said, 'Sid's not going to last very long, and we can always get another minister,'" recalls Wise. "One friend of mine said she thought if gays came to church, Sid's children would be molested. I told her I didn't think so."

When Trinity finally voted in 1992, reconciliation passed by a 4-to-1 vote. And the church thrived. This year it counted 350 members, a full third of whom are gay (plus one transgendered person, a Mary Kay beauty-products saleswoman). For Wise, the transformation was a joy and a challenge. A joy because people like Carolyn Dietrich returned to the church. Thirty-five years ago, Wise had taught Carolyn in Sunday School. Since then, Dietrich had gone off into the world, become a teacher and then a funding consultant, lived in Dallas, and wooed and wed her partner Lisa Dalton in a nondenominational ceremony. On the day Dietrich arrived at Trinity for the first time in nearly 30 years, Wise gave her a big hug.

Dietrich and Dalton also represented Wise's challenge. Issues like same-sex marriage still trouble her. "I don't know how to put it," she puzzles. "My own marriage meant so much to me...I'm sure it would mean the same to others, but we haven't approved such things in the church."

Today, however, she is worried that as a result of the Conference vote, Pastor Hall--who has already stopped performing any weddings at all because of the ban on gay nuptials--may feel called to lead Trinity out of the church altogether. That would put Wise in a terrible place. "I've grown so accustomed to the [Methodist] rules and regulations," she says nervously. Luckily, the meeting flows another way. One by one, congregants declare that they will continue to struggle for gay initiatives within the Convention. Alice Crabtree, a heterosexual mother of three, rises and says, "This church is a place where you can bring your most-honest-to-God-awful self or your most magnificent self," she says. "And people know you and love you. You watch people die. But you can come here because this is a safe place. For some people it's all the family we've got."

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