Hope for Tomorrow

May 17, 2012

By the Rev. John Oda*

Coming into the 2012 General Conference my hope, at least in part, lay in the removal of the "incompatibility" clause from the Book of Discipline. It was at the 1972 General Conference that this anti-gay language was written into the Book of Discipline. Paragraph 161F states, "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
 
Surely, 40 years was long enough.
 
Anticipating the removal of the "incompatibility clause" from the Book of Discipline was perhaps overly optimistic, but I held fast to that hope. I wasn't the only one. I found out, as I spoke to people across the country, that they had embraced a similar optimism. Jason Dobney of New York, a Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) board member, acknowledged that, "If we could remove the incompatibility clause, that would be huge."
 
There were hundreds of people in the reconciling movement who worked very hard in the months – and, in fact, years – leading up this General Conference. But as the General Conference unfolded and the piece of legislation to remove the incompatibility clause was voted down in the committee, my hopes dwindled. My optimism grew, however, as a proposal from the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, was brought forth. His proposal acknowledged "our disagreement on a huge issue that is separating churches in North America today." It was defeated by a vote of 54/46 percent. A subsequent piece of legislation that also focused on the anti-gay language in the Book of Discipline was also defeated. 
 
I – and others – took to the floor of the General Conference. We broke the bar and essentially shut the General Conference down. As I stood at the Communion table, I closed my eyes and wept. In my mind, I pictured many of my friends who are gay and lesbian, some of whom were standing around me. I imagined all of the young people, especially the young LGBT people, who had been watching the actions of the General Conference on line. The Church had failed them. My hopes were shattered, my hopes were smashed, my hopes were gone.
 
I was ready to leave The United Methodist Church. They could keep their bloody anti-gay and dying Church. Why should I stay in a homophobic Church, and why should I continue to support a Church that actually took a vote on whether God's unconditional love reached everyone – a vote which passed by only 56%? I kept saying to myself, "This isn't the United Methodist Church that I know and love!"
 
And then I realized that this is precisely one of the reasons why I must stay. This is NOT the United Methodist Church back home that I know and love. This is precisely one of the reasons that I now have hope for tomorrow.
 
Bonnie Beckonchrist, the Chair of the RMN, said to me later that afternoon "My hope is not in the larger UMC, it is in my church back home."
 
My own church, Lake Park UMC, is full of loving people who don't care whether you are gay or straight. We affirm the LGBT community. In fact, our church is getting ready to launch an LGBT Bible study this month.
 
That night at the worship service, I was in a slightly better mood. The worship was lively, the message was wonderful, and I sat amidst a section of rainbow stoles. 
 
I remain hopeful for tomorrow, not because I agree with – nor will I uphold – the Book of Discipline, but because I know that back home, the reality is a much different story. I will also remain hopeful because of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which brings hope to thousands and thousands of people, including myself. I will remain hopeful because of people like Jan Olson, board member of Affirmation, who told me, "I stay because if I don't, who is going to continue the fight?" I, too, will stay to fight another day.
 
We lost the vote on "incompatibility" at this General Conference, again. Indeed, many groups of people – including young people, women, and the gay and lesbian community – lost. Yes, I am still angry, pained, disappointed, and outraged, but I will not lose hope. I will continue to preach the all-inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ at my church back home. I will continue to tell the truth, that gay and lesbian ordained elders already are faithfully and skillfully serving our churches. I will continue to love my neighbor even though we may not be in agreement. I will continue to nurture my hope for tomorrow.
 
It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, "We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope." 
 
And from Romans 12:12: "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer."
 
My sincere prayer for all of us is that places such as Lake Park UMC will continue to be the all-inclusive church for today and tomorrow, even if the larger United Methodist Church is one step behind us. And I hope to see you all at the Reconciling Ministries Network Convocation in 2013!
 
*John Oda is a past Chair of Reconciling Ministries Network, and current board member and chair of the Grassroots Committee. He is the pastor of Lake Park United Methodist Church in Oakland, California.