It was just like any other early May morning in Tampa, hot and muggy. The General Conference of The United Methodist Church, the main decision-making body of The UMC, would soon be coming to a close. We knew that it was the big day, the day that whether or not The UMC would agree to disagree on human sexuality would be on the table.
No legislation had made it out of committee to be passed on to the main body, but in one last-ditch attempt to salvage the dignity of queer folks, a replacement was proposed. While effectively stating that The UMC agrees to disagree on human sexuality, the compromise offered was less than satisfactory in some regards, but the legislative strategists among us knew that it was likely our only chance to remove the statement that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers it incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Incompatible with Christian teaching. No matter how many times people insist “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” those are some hurtful and harmful words. Though some people say this statement separates the “practice of homosexuality” from the actual person, those in the queer community recognize it for what it really is, a means of exclusion and marginalization. We know the person cannot be separated so easily from the practice.
The non-delegates hoping to remove the statement decided to stand vigil around the outside of the bar, the area where delegates were seated at their tables, which was delineated by a roughly waist-high fabric barrier. We stood just outside the curtain, some praying, others watching, while the human sexuality legislation was being discussed.
In order to be eligible to vote, delegates must be within the bar; this was the common knowledge. However, during the course of the conversation, one delegate asked the bishop presiding over the session what the limits of the bar were. While not wishing to miss the vote, he expressed that rather than remain idly at the tables as we stood vigil, he preferred to move out to the margins, to join us there.
I don’t recall exactly what he said, but sentiments expressed both by him and other delegates regarding the action stated that for the church to truly be the church, those in power and places of privilege needed to move to the margins to be with those who are there. He chose to set the example and move to the margins of the bar in solidarity, still able to use his power, but using it in a symbolic way that expressed an active desire to use it constructively.
Tears welled up in my eyes as dozens of delegates stood up from their tables, the place of privilege and comfort where they could have remained without any risk to themselves, other than, arguably, their integrity. Their symbolic act, choosing to stand with us, choosing to join us, choosing to be present with and to us, as they voted on legislation that would have such a deep and personal impact on so many of us, meant so much.
As I stood there, watching the delegates stand in solidarity with those of us standing vigil, I thought to myself “this is the way the world should be.” Too often, the expectation is that change will come from the hierarchy. Those seated in the places of power will make the decisions and make the changes, even though they are distanced from the margins, out of touch.
It was not that way this time, though. Those in power intentionally stepped away from their comfort zones in order to come to the margins, to be with the marginalized, to live with those who their decisions affected. I think in this case it was particularly telling because it was literally as the vote was being taken that they chose to be with us.
Were their risks to their action? Potentially. Were there gains? Also a potential. What really made the difference, though, was the symbolic relationship. They chose to reject the barrier which had been set between us as best they could and step out as far as possible in an act of solidarity.
In the end, the vote did not work in our favor; the “incompatible with Christian teaching” language was left intact, but that moment will never be shaken from my mind. It was such a deep, personal, meaningful action, with delegates reaching out to us when we most needed to feel that support, and being the example for those around them, who may or may not have chosen to do the same, but who, regardless of their eventual actions, were impacted by what happened.
What would the world look like if more leaders took the same step, left their places of power and privilege to be with the marginalized? What if they intentionally built relationships with those on the margins, not just meeting them, but truly seeking to understand them? Would the concerns addressed in politics and the means of addressing them change? Would certain things that seem so big right now be effectively a non-issue?
I have hope that we might someday see a world where we can tear down the curtain that sets the bar of General Conference, or any place of power for that matter, that the powerful and privileged might not only be able to stand at the margins of the bar, as close as rules will permit, but on equal footing with the marginalized. For now, though, I am very grateful to those who chose to take the first step, to move towards the margins.