It was my pleasure to sit behind retired Methodist Pastor, Lyle Hamilton in the basement of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Helena, Montana for an All Church Conference to discuss a proposed Reconciling Congregation statement. The Conference Superintendent led the meeting and asked the fifty or so assembled to speak what was on their heart. And a few did.
The meeting, however, was anti-climatic. Their was a strong sense that the statement of inclusion and affirmation of groups of people who have formerly felt shunned and excluded was merely a reflection of the already imbedded character of St. Paul’s anyway. In fact, a few people described how they had heard comments over the previous year of meetings, discussion and classes leading up to this moment to the effect of “duh-uh! Don’t we have that already?”
Yet, there was also a sense of importance, of critical mass, of mission, purpose and rightness of call. My friends, John and Vicky Wieda, had painstakingly spearheaded the effort in that vain with deliberateness. So yes, when it came time to reach consensus as a congregation there was little to detract from an outcome which seemed certain. St. Paul’s would become a Reconciling Congregation.
So, why do it? I mean, why all the fuss if St Paul’s, with its open minds, hearts and doors, has already established inclusiveness as part of its character? Isn’t it really much ado about nothing?
Pastor Lyle gives a clue about the answer in this post on his Facebook page:
Late yesterday afternoon, at an all church conference, St. Paul’s UMC in Helena officially became a Reconciling Ministries Congregation by a consensus vote. We have now publically declared ourselves to, in fact, be what the community of Helena and most of our congregation has long felt is both our calling and our reality: “All truly means all,” and everyone has a place in this community of faith.
Our incarnated statement, that is imbedded in our soul, is as follows: “St. Paul’s United Methodist Church welcomes all people of any age, gender, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, or disability into the full life and membership of this congregation.”
May God bless us, every one . . . as we move forward with grace and compassion toward all!
The oft repeated statement over the months of examining this issue that “All truly means all,”which, as Lyle says, is “imbedded in our soul,” is not just a statement. It is in many ways transcendent, like a lighthouse beacon shining through the storms and rough seas of understanding and reconciliation between who we are and what we believe, between what we believe and the world around us, between the world around us and the one within where Jesus calls with open arms and his profound and unconditional offer of love.
To proclaim that “All are welcome here,” and mean it, is to shine the light of Jesus’s love through all the violence and hateful rhetoric in the world around us for those, like me, who else would have no place to go for the communal understanding, practice and experience of that love. I would have no congregation, no church. For some, perhaps, it is possible to live as a Christian without church. For me, from the day I walked into St. Paul’s almost seven years ago in my first week of gender transition on “Welcome Home Sunday” to this moment, it is not.
Christianity is a communal practice. God speaks to me in many ways, some far, far away from books and buildings. But God also speaks to me through other people – through you. And I can find few better places to hear God speak and feel God’s presence than in the company of other Christian believers – through congregation and communal worship. Thus, as a Christian transwoman, it is vital for me to have a Christian community to call home.
Last night I was reminded, as I spoke what was on my heart, of the day I became a member of St. Paul’s. It was my birthday and the whole congregation sang Happy Birthday. I stood there, dumbfounded, with a tear in my eye and my flesh all goosey. I knew then, as publicly affirmed by this Reconciling Statement that I have my congregation and my church. Thank you St. Paul’s for welcoming me home.
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