Gays and Religion

Soulforcing the Church

Monday morning, April 28, marked the beginning of our fourth day of Soulforce activities – our third day of vigil at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. Five of us from Tyler had taken the three-hour trip to Fort Worth: Lou Anne, Brenda, Tom, Ernest and me, Troy. At least it wasn’t raining, like it had been on Sunday.  Now, at last, a little weary for the effort, I began to understand the drum. In this early morning hour, a young woman unexpectedly yet most welcomedly positioned herself behind us, in support of us and our cause, and began drumming. In the crisp morning air, the deep beat of her African drum wrapped us in a blanket of beat that seemed to urge, “keep go-ing… you go, boy… I love you… keep go-ing….”

Soon, the doors of the conference would open. Throngs of delegates emerged for their break period. Now, we were more popular than before. More delegates took our pictures in that fifteen-minute period than during the entire previous weekend. Eventually, a half-dozen delegates would hug us and explain that the General Conference had just elected five new members of their judiciary body, which I took to be the Methodist equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. Every last one of the new judiciary members had expressed liberal support of gay rights, and every one of the members who had expressed conservative, right-wing, anti gay views had been voted out.

What’s more, the delegates felt that Soulforce had made a real difference. They had come out to thank us and hug us and to take our pictures! Even some of the ultra-conservative people who had earlier only sneered came out, as if to look for the first time at the group who had made such a difference to the Methodist voting machine -- as if to gather evidence to take home and say, “We hadn’t expected these people!”


I was greatly moved by my Soulforce weekend, and I think you will be, too, when you read this. Even now, I’m trying now to digest it enough to write about it. This is hard because there’s so much to explain -- why we needed to go; the role of religion in our oppression; the camaraderie we felt, the victories we won, the hope we were washed in, the songs we sang and the tears we cried.

First, it may be helpful to ask the first question. Why did we need to go? Or more to the point: Why did Soulforce have this weeklong vigil outside the United Methodist 2008 General Conference in the first place?

You know your actions are most effective when they’re aimed at the source of a particular issue. If I’ve got a leak in my ceiling, I can either keep cleaning up the water, or I can patch the hole in my roof. In the case of hate and violence against gays, the source tends to be pseudo-literal biblical interpretations. Our churches unfortunately empower and even encourage all anti-gay violence, from the mildest but insidious spiritual violence, to egregious laws against our human rights, to the most grotesque murders and assassinations. When preachers say that, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity,” our religious institutions grant license for violence. They are therefore a primary interest to gay activists. And by “gay,” our meaning is inclusive, not leaving out lesbians, bisexual or transgender people.


This is a crucial point, because many of us still want to leave out the transgender community. But we do this at our own peril. We must believe that our goal is equal treatment for all people. Since transgender people suffer the most severe discriminations, we have a special duty to always include them in our quest for equality. So when I say “gay,” I’m talking about all of us. The footnote is that transgender people have long been fighting for your rights. When I went to Equality Texas’ “Lobby Day” late in 2006, I found that nearly half of the lobbyists were transgender people. Transgender people always show their activism more than the rest of us – they put us to shame… maybe because they are the brunt of the worst discriminations. They “get it,” they understand the urgent need for change, and so they are more likely to do something about it. Many gays, by contrast, don’t personally feel discrimination, so they don’t understand the need for activism. Every year, on the 18th of November, there’s a vigil called “The Day of Remembrance,” for all those transgender people who were slain the previous year. We either stand up against this violence, or by our inaction or exclusion, we tacitly condone it. Which side would you rather stand on?

Slow to Change

It’s best to think of activist events in terms of making a dent in prejudice, rather than ending it. Like world hunger, maltreatment of gays tends to be too big an issue to hope that any one of our activist activities might actually stomp it out altogether. Furthermore, even this “dent” we’re hoping to make is likely going to take place long after we’ve left, in some private space removed from our sight or knowledge. There’s something about human nature that makes us change our minds in personal places and in the sanctuary of our own reflective times. It is a gradual process – one that resists force. This makes change a very slow process. There’s a long history of sanctioned church violence against gays in America, which only makes it slower to change. In spite of great leaps in other areas, we continue to suffer tremendous backlash and reversals. Almost without exception this is a direct result of efforts by religious leaders.

A brief history of the United Methodist General conference, which is held every four years, shows just how slow this change is. At the 2000 Conference, held in Cleveland, “Police arrested 27 gay-rights protesters who took the stage at the United Methodists General Conference yesterday and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ moments after delegates reaffirmed the church's ban on clergy performing same-sex marriages.” [1] By the conclusion of that convention, some 200 protesters would be arrested. And 2004, in Pittsburgh, the Conference once again reaffirmed the church’s position against gays [2].

The issue was especially poignant for us with the United Methodist Church, or UMC, because these were supposed to be the “good guys.” Having adopted a slogan of “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” many church-goers were shocked to discover that their church was still employing the language of exclusion, calling gays “incompatible” with Christian teaching, barring pastors from performing same-sex commitment ceremonies, disallowing gay or transgender people from ordination, and turning away gay people who wanted to join, sing in the choir, teach classes and even refusing transfer of church membership.

Sometimes it helps to realize how long it took the church to give blacks equal consideration, and to realize that even today there is work to be done. At the General Conference of 1836, prominent Methodists such as Dr. Olin, Bishop Soule, Dr. Bond and Bishop Hedding argued that blacks did not deserve to be treated as equals, one of them going as far as to say that slave owners should be allowed to be bishops [3].  Yet gradually, these attitudes and perceptions gave way to the idea that we should not draw lines between “classes” of people. Even so, as recently as 1968, we see that many Methodist leaders were still arguing for continued segregation of the church.

Friday was a celebration of Soulforce

Our long weekend served two purposes. Aside from voicing our opinions to the Methodist Conference, we were also celebrating the ten-year (almost to the day) anniversary of Soulforce itself. I had met Soulforce founder, author and religious leader, Reverend Doctor Mel White, Friday afternoon at the first scheduled event of the weekend, Picnic in the Park with Transgender People of Faith – held directly across the street from the Methodist Conference headquarters.

For me, seeing Mel White in person was like meeting a rock star. Author of the influential books, Stranger at the Gate and Religion Gone Bad, Mel is an itinerant, long-time activist’s activist, and a modern-day bearer of the torch for the brand of non-violent protest originally carried by such visionaries as Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Those are pretty large shoes to fill… which may help explain why I was tongue-tied when I met him. When he asked me whether I was from Dallas, I awkwardly responded, “No, er, we just drove in from Houston, uh, I mean Tyler….”

All during the transgender presentation, the rhythm of drums played, like a human pulse, from across the street, where a Methodist gay & lesbian youth group held a drumming circle. This drumming circle would play non-stop for the first two days after we arrived. They played through the night, taking shifts, the beat not stopping even in the night time hours, when they were forced to endure hateful slurs by drunk visitors. The police were called, but thankfully, there was no violent incident.

Friday evening, Soulforce volunteers were setting up the registration tables, and I offered to help. Soon, people were filling the Marriott’s ballroom, as a piano player laid into fun renditions of Broadway tunes. I consider myself an activist, yet here, in this room, I felt small next to the celebrities and the gathering cadre of regulars, most of whom were long-time Soulforce “peace-niks.”

The anniversary program included a tribute to Soulforce co-founders, Mel White and Gary Nixon; executive director, Jeff Lutes; and to the entire Soulforce board and staff. There was also a video presentation, chronicling ten years of Soulforce actions. For ten years, they’ve continued a steady stream of actions, several per year, which is all the more impressive when you realize how small the Soulforce staff is. In my book, that makes all of them true heroes.

Saturday, we learned how to draw lines, and then how to erase them

Tom, Earnest and I shared a room to save expenses, and we were up at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning preparing for our first vigil. We dressed in the special T-Shirts, designed to help explain our purpose there. These were simple, white T’s, the backs of which were printed with: “Soulforce Vigil for Justice – United Methodist General Conference ’08.” And on the front, the slogan: “Open your: HEARTS to marriage; MINDS to ministry; DOORS to membership… for lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender people.”  

The hotel had promised to have coffee ready for us, but the employee assigned to this task had failed to show up, so the joke began to circulate that we’d be hearing all weekend. “Coffee failure” was to be our first act of “redemptive suffering,” a concept first mentioned during the anniversary celebration the night before, when Mel White had urged us to reconcile ourselves that most of the “change” we’d likely experience would be the change in our own hearts and souls. We didn’t yet realize how profound this transformation might become for us. For now, it was a cause for a simple chuckle. And the coffee was made shortly anyhow, offering some welcome respite to this so-called “redemption.”

The shuttle busses rolled out from the hotel around 6:00 a.m. -- to the convention center, where we received some brief training in peaceful, non-violent protest. Then we were assigned group leaders and escorted into position. Some were given signs, some held banners and others had leaflets explaining in detail our purpose and the mission of Soulforce. Few of the hundred or so participants were prepared for the chilly morning, however. I began shivering within the first few minutes. “Ah,” I chuckled to myself…. “So this is redemptive suffering.”

We weren’t the only protesters at the convention, though we were definitely the biggest group, aside from the conventioneers themselves. Most of the conventioneers (called “delegates” because they were there representing local conferences to determine Methodist policies) were friendly, and greeted us warmly. A large minority simply ignored us, walking silently by without comment or eye contact. And the smallest minority of delegates were openly hostile, making stern eye contact or shaking their heads in disgust. So the effect was that the vast majority of delegates made our presence feel welcomed, while the smallest minority made it feel necessary.

There was a woman near me, handing out her own fliers. Her smile was infectious. She approached me with extended arm, asking, “What are you here for?” We exchanged fliers, and I explained we were trying to convince the delegates to treat gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people like human beings. Glancing at the flier she had just handed me, I saw she was there for un-controversial reasons. She was just urging people to join her at her own local Methodist Church.

“Oh,” she said, as she began to grasp that our purpose was probably more controversial than hers, “I used to be in favor of gays in the church.” She added, “I never saw anything wrong with it. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. But then, finally, someone explained to me that we have to draw a line somewhere.”

I felt as if she had just slapped me in the face. But I was curious, too, because her sweet demeanor and friendly smile never wavered, so I risked asking the further question, “Can you explain why we have to draw a line?”

“Oh,” she answered, maintaining the smile, “You know. Murderers, rapists, criminals – we have to draw a line somewhere, or everyone would come in.”

I didn’t offer the obvious response, which was that the UMC drew no such line at murderers or rapists – that there was no church rule forbidding marriage, membership or even ordination of someone convicted of a capital offense. No, this exclusionary line only applies to gays. Among all God’s creatures, gays are apparently the only class of people considered by the church to be unworthy of being treated like people.

I didn’t ask her why we needed to draw such a line, or how the obviously circular logic might have changed her mind in the first place. I suppose I was simply in awe that the command: “We must draw lines,” could be so compelling that some would instantly and without further consideration discard a whole segment of the population.

Gradually, the sun rose. The shadow that had marked the opposite side of the street was now lapping at my feet, and with it came the warmth of mid day and the end of our first morning’s vigil.

Now the schedule diverged. Most of the Soulforce activists returned to the hotel for an early afternoon strategic planning session, but Tom, Ernest and I stayed downtown to watch and join in with the gay youth rally. The rally was to be held at the historic First Christian Church, just a couple of blocks from the convention. Since we still had some time to kill, we showed up early, and found downstairs a sort of queer conference headquarters, with books and publications available from different groups, and a special free lunch provided for the activists. I hadn’t realized how many organizations had joined together for all this Methodist gay activism. We were with Soulforce, of course, which is non-denominational; but there were also several queer Methodist groups, like “Reconciling Ministries,” and “Affirmation,” all joining forces to try to convince the UMC that gay people are people, too.

We bought rainbow stoles (the colorful fabric accessory you often see draped around the necks of religious leaders), and these, along with our Soulforce t-shirts would be part of our “uniform” for the rest of the weekend. We then enjoyed a soup and sandwich prepared by volunteers, and went upstairs to the sanctuary for the youth rally.

The sanctuary quickly filled with at least three or four hundred people, mostly in their teens or twenties, but also quite a few older people (like us). The rally, presented by the gay Methodist “Reconciling Ministries” group, consisted of a series of talented young seminarians, all of whom, in my opinion are already great speakers. Even now, writing about it two weeks later, my eyes well up remembering the passion with which they spoke. One of these young people mentioned a church-wide Methodist survey that showed some seventy percent of young Methodists wanted total acceptance of gays and lesbians now. “We have already won, you see,” she said, “even if we have to wait a few years until our youth is running this church!” At this, the crowd cheered.

On the way out, we were each given a streamer, upon which the young people had each written their own hopes for a brighter future. Then we formed into two long lines. Streamers streaming, we marched and sang “We are marching in the light of God,” along separate routes to rejoin at the drumming circle, across from the convention building, where the beating of drums had continued unabated. Now, the few last speakers spoke the few last words, including a touching message from Joey Heath, a lifelong Methodist youth who was not allowed to transfer his membership when he moved, because the pastor of the new church didn’t allow gay members. As he spoke, I read the streamer I had been given, which said, “Let’s sow the seeds of God’s future, and dream of full participation for EVERYBODY in the United Methodist Church, to transform not only the U.S. but the whole world!”

It was true, and we all felt it. Our purpose was much bigger than Joey Heath’s denial of membership, and it was much bigger than the simple transformation of the Methodist Church. Through the uncomplicated agenda of proving our love, we stood there… hundreds of us, to transform the entire world.

We then split into small groups, maybe twenty-five groups of fifteen people each, and silently walked into the conference. There we took up stations outside meeting rooms, and kneeled to pray for a softening of hearts of those inside. For me, however, the softening had already happened. My jaded old heart had been rejuvenated by all the youthful hope, love and optimism I had seen at the rally and march. I was still in my first day of activism, but already, and just as Mel had predicted, I had been changed forever.

It was now late afternoon, and we had a couple of hours to kill before the gay Methodist organization, “Affirmation” held their annual awards banquet. So we went back to the park to help Soulforce set up for the evening’s outdoor film presentation of “For the Bible Tells Me So,” [4] about religion and the treatment of gays. Soulforce had managed to keep the same park space right across from the conference main entrance for the whole week, so I spent some time handing out film fliers as the delegates left for the day, urging them to catch the evening’s presentation. All five of us from Tyler had already seen the award winning film, so it was easy for me to recommend it. While none of us stayed to watch the film that night, one Soulforce report stated, “In a Q&A session after the film, Dan Karslake, the film's producer said, ‘Without Soulforce this film would not have been made.’” [5]

Soon, it was time for dinner, and the three of us were happy to rejoin our other two Tyler friends (Lou Anne and Brenda) who had attended the strategic planning session at the hotel. We met new friends at the dinner, though I must admit that by now, we were mainly glad to be sitting down, and doubly thankful that Lou Anne and Brenda were able to give us a lift back to the hotel, where this camper easily called it a day and slept.

Sunday, we joined the long redemptive line

Sunday morning was similar to the morning before, but with a few notable exceptions. On this morning, we woke up late, while the coffee was on time; and where the first morning had been chilly, this morning was instead down-right cold and rainy.

Undaunted, and with umbrellas in hand, we returned to the convention center and positioned ourselves outside the main doors, near the street. There were fewer of us at this early morning hour – perhaps fifty all told. The drummers, thankfully for them, had dispersed, but left in their wake an empty silence. Our faces seemed drained of color under the overcast sky.

Likewise, the few delegates we saw were mostly too hurried to bother with us today, scurrying by without so much as a nod. I recognized the young man next to me as one of the leading instigators of the drumming circle the previous day. His energy and enthusiasm had moved many then, inspiring an abundance of amateur drummers, intensely clapping their hands or their sodas, even the statuary in the park became for a while improvisational drums. Frequently, convention delegates had stopped to take photographs, though a picture could in no way capture that soulful heartbeat. It was an experience that had to be felt.

I congratulated him on his infectious spirit and energy. He explained that he was also a seminary student, and that his reasons for wanting Methodist acceptance were personal, since their decision would affect his ability to serve – to fulfill his calling. I suggested we start singing to chase away the gloom of the day, and he was hesitant at first. Soon, however, we were quietly exchanging old favorite hymns.

Gradually the rain subsided, and the delegates appeared in greater number. It was the morning rush, the beginning of another busy conference day. At about ten o’clock, one of the delegates confided that this would be a key morning, because several major issues affecting gays were up for discussion. My new young friend, the seminary student, leapt into action and began leading us in song.

Before this weekend, I had never stood vigil before, and I had no cause or opportunity to learn chanting songs. But they were simple tunes, and I quickly learned them as I sang. Like soldiers’ marching tunes, our chants had been passed down from the proud movements of the past, and one particular piece etched a place in my heart:

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday.
Deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome someday

Soon, a few delegates and some volunteers began to prop open the doors, so we could be better heard inside. The word went out that they would be voting on the language that said gays were “incompatible” with Christian teaching. This gave us a surge of hope that the language might be overturned any moment now, so my young seminary student friend bade us change the words from “someday” to:

We shall overcome today!

Our voices soared with confidence (my memory has every last one of us singing in perfect tune). Our song leader ordered several further revisions, including, in turn, each tenet of the UMC slogan:

Open up your hearts (then, in turn)
Open up your minds
Open up your doors, today
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday!

Finally, with the professional drama perhaps best mustered by a gay clergy member, came our shining moment. Our seminary student cum drum circle chairman cum chant leader had us kneel down while singing, still to the tune of “We shall overcome,”

(kneeling) We want to come in (then, in turn)
Please let us come in
We want to be ordained, today.

Then, at our young leader’s expert direction, we all slowly stood once again. Our impromptu choir’s refrain pierced the farthest reaches:

Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday!

It was impossible to sing this famous civil rights song without invoking the ghost of the civil rights movement. The spirits of the past – the heroes of old – haunted our every phrase. Sunday was, in fact, an entire day of understanding the “gay rights movement” and the “civil rights movement” as being one and the same. We had become part of the long, redemptive line, hearkening back though the civil rights activists of the fifties and sixties, and maybe as far back as the Israelite exodus from Egypt….


In keeping with this civil rights theme, lunchtime featured a panel discussion with civil rights heroes and Methodist leaders Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Gil Caldwell; and was entitled, The Struggle Continues: Racism and Heterosexism in the Church. I helped set up chairs and was especially happy to see them quickly fill up with delegates. Soon, our little park area, across from the front doors of the conference, had become a standing-room-only event!

The two distinguished gentlemen proclaimed what we have all believed – that there is a strong link between all civil rights movements. Reverend Gil Caldwell went first, reminding us that:

“Two of our Methodist bishops… went to Galloway Memorial Methodist Church, in Jackson, Mississippi, on Easter Sunday in 1964. They were met at the door. They were turned away by an official who read this church policy statement: ‘It is not un-Christian that we prefer to remain an all-white congregation…’ Now, my sisters and brothers, could you not substitute, rather than ‘race,’ ‘LGBT people?’”

“I say that we engage in serial ‘isms’ … anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and now, heterosexism, and you can go on with ‘isms’ … As we look at tradition, how do we learn from history? … I say there is a great need for us to link the ‘isms.’”

 “We remember, of course, Martin Niemoller [6]: When they came for the Jews, I did not speak up because I was not a Jew; when they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist; when they came for the Catholics; when they came for the gay people, I did not speak up because I was not one of them; but then when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up. How do we find ways to understand the intertwining of ‘isms?’ How do we understand that none of us are free until all of us are free?”

Then, Reverend James Lawson spoke:

 “There can be no cleansing of our nation, or of any of our denominations, so long as we do not recognize that… you cannot separate… the injustices that produce pain for so many people in our world from one another. They all are connected in some very tangible ways. You cannot be anti-racist if you are not anti-sexist. You cannot be anti-sexist if you are not anti-violence… You cannot be anti-violence if you are not also anti-plantation-capitalism in the United States. These are all connected to one another. You cannot be anti-capitalist in the United States if you are not also against heterosexism…. Now, let me suggest how these are all connected. … [A]ll these ‘isms’ teach a spiritual poison to the human race. And what is that poison? It is the poison that says there is not one creator of heaven and earth, but that creator has only created the light persons. And that creator has only created the male. That creator has only created those who are wealthy and mighty. The poison we spread is this: that we decide out of these ‘isms,’ that there are some people who are not worthy.”

As these two great men spoke, I felt literal electric tingles of truth descending on the hushed crowd. More than anything, to have my cause, which is our cause, which is the cause of gay equality, embraced so completely as being the same cause of all oppressed people… that was an extraordinary moment. Alone we cannot win, but together, we cannot fail.

At the end of the day, we boarded shuttle busses for the ride back to the hotel, and I sat next to Reverend Jimmy Creech. Creech is another civil rights hero who, though straight and married, was defrocked in 1999 by a Conference of The United Methodist Church– after famously defying their order to cancel his plans to conduct a commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple with the words, “I will not uphold bigotry.” When I took my seat, he was talking to a young woman about a focus group they had recently conducted in his home state. The focus group asked self-identified right-wing conservative Christians their opinions about gays and religion. Interestingly, the group tended to agree that the world is changing – and that soon the Bible would not condemn gays, even though they felt that the Bible does condemn gays now. The focus group participants seemed to have nothing against gays personally, but they also claimed that they were  not willing to accept gays as equal Christians until biblical reinterpretation became more popular.

All of this is both encouraging and disheartening. Encouraging that some conservative Christians aren’t frothing hatred, and that they do see change as inevitable. But disheartening that few seem to have the moral courage to do the right thing now, but rather want to wait for popular opinion to change. This has been a major obstacle for all civil rights movements throughout history – that even when people see the path to justice, they’re afraid to take it.

That evening, in the comfort of our hotel, my friend Ernest told me a story about cattle. Though I’m a country boy who grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, I never knew cattle don’t protect each other. When one is being attacked by a wolf or some other predator, the remaining cows apparently just stand by, idly grazing, and watch the awful assault. Ernest wondered why some people act that way, too, even though we all have a choice.

Monday, we brought it all home

And this brings us full circle, back to the beginning of my tale, to Monday morning, when the drummer mysteriously reappeared, played a while, and then left us alone once again without saying a word. It was almost as if she sensed our need for some encouragement – a reminder that we share a legacy with all seekers of truth and justice and basic human dignity – that we are not all simply cattle.

Gandhi said, “It is as much our moral obligation to not cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good.” So, like the drummer, I also leave you with a thought: that it is not enough, as Mel White says and as others have said, that it is not enough to do no harm. We have an obligation to stop harm. We can no longer sit on the sidelines doing nothing, but must act to stop injustice. Why? Because we are none of us free until all of us are free.

-- Troy Carlyle