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May 12, 2000

Panel says Methodist gay position should not change

by Denny Sampson
and Eric Resnick

Cleveland--A key committee at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has approved petitions that recommend not changing the churchís stand on homosexuality.

The quadrennial conference, meeting here from May 2-12, is the lawmaking body of the church. Homosexuality has been an issue at every conference since 1972, when the church officially declared that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

This year, the issues of same-sex union ceremonies and gay ordinations have led to a divide between groups that want to make the church more welcoming to gays and lesbians, those that want to keep the position as it is, and those that want to adopt a more anti-gay stand.

The Faith and Order committee voted Sunday, May 7 after it spent five hours listening to testimony from 37 delegates, according to the Daily Christian Advocate, the official daily report of the conference.

However, the committee does not have the final say in the matter. Their vote is on what recommendations to make to the general conference. The final decision was to be made by all of the delegates voting on the petitions in plenary sessions, on May 10 or 11.

By keeping the anti-gay language in the churchís governing Book of Discipline--which includes a section outlining the churchís position on social issues--Methodist doctrine would still hold that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The prohibition on same-sex holy unions and on "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from being ordained or appointed would also remain.

The committee rejected approximately 121 petitions on issues dealing with homosexuality that were not in keeping with the petitions approved. For example, a petition to substitute the phrase "should not" for "shall not" in the sentence that prohibits holy unions failed.

Most of the delegates who argued in favor of keeping the anti-gay teachings cited two biblical sources: the Holiness Code in Leviticus and the letters of Paul. Delegates who were fighting to eliminate such language from the Book of Discipline contended that there were cultural biases in those prohibitions. These opposing viewpoints were recurring themes at the conference, both inside and outside business meetings.

In a newsletter distributed to delegates on Monday, May 8, the Transforming Congregations (who seek to "transform" gays and lesbians to be straight) stated: "Imagine a room of one hundred people. Ninety-nine like you, but one does not. The emotionally dependent heart yearns for the love of that one who rejects it . . . The United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church and Unitarian Universalists all open wide their doors to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" people.

The newsletter added that some gays who seek acceptance in the Methodist church are "voluntary victims," and closed with the advice: "Stop being a victim. Find the strength to move toward a situation where we can all expend our resources on ministry rather than conflict."

Representatives from Amar, a coalition of three Methodist groups including Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Concerns, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the Reconciling Congregation Program, were on hand to urge the conference to move further toward accepting gays.

"We have been working to get ready for this conference for two years," said the Rev. Chip Aldridge, board member of the Reconciling Congregation Program, a movement of congregations that promote the acceptance of the LGBT community.

"I wasnít expecting any big changes in policy," Aldridge said about the committee vote. "That kind of change happens in small increments. Now our [gay-friendly] delegates can take some of those petitions that were rejected, pick out the ones most likely to pass, and reintroduce them on the conference floor. We might still get some small, incremental changes."

In a press conference held outside the conferenceís newsroom but not part of the official program, Transforming Congregations director Jim Gentile hinted that his group was pleased with the likely stand on gays and lesbians, even though his group have not been successful in strengthening the churchís anti-gay positions.

In a 705-210 vote on May 8, delegates rejected his groupís proposal that would have required all pastors to sign a the following statement: "I do not believe that homosexuality is Godís perfect will for any person. I will not practice it. I will not promote it. I will not allow its promotion to be encouraged under my authority."

Delegates also rejected a proposal to add to the Book of Discipline language that would have made officiation at same-sex unions a chargeable offense.

But Gentile was pleased that the delegates would likely resist any change to the Book of Discipline.

"If it stays the same, it is the pro-gay side that is deeply hurt," said Gentile, who went even further, noting the possibility of the denomination splitting over the issue.

"If the shoe was on the other foot," he said, "I wouldnít stay."

Gentile reaffirmed his position that gays and lesbians can and should change through the acceptance of God in their lives.

"Successful conversion requires hard work. I prayed a long time," said Gentile, who identifies as a former homosexual. "I think the problem with [Soulforce founder] Mel White is is that he quit way too soon."

Transforming Congregations spokesperson Andrea Gancarz said that the debate is farther reaching than just the acceptance of gays and lesbians. "There are foundational issues," she said. "It is about Christian doctrine and the word of God."

Gancarz does not see how the denomination can continue to be divided on the issue.

"I donít see how it can be," she said. "These people need to quit holding out the idea of unity as a false God."

Gentile said his press conference was not about politics, even though a critic challenged his motives, asking, "why are you holding a press conference separate from the conference?"

Gentile replied, "We are here for ministry."

"There has been enough dialogue on this, said Gentile, "Itís time to stop the dialogue and go where we can minister."

Gentile and Gancarz said it was pointless to dialogue because all Methodist clergy take vows prohibiting the blessing of homosexual behavior, so it was clear to them that there was nothing to discuss.

When a questioner pointed out that clergy ordained prior to 1987, when the vows were inserted, were not sworn to any such doctrine, Gentile replied, "Yes, but they stayed here, so they need to follow the law."

Rev. Karen Oiveto of San Franciscoís Bethany United Methodist Church, a Reconciling Congregation that is half gay and lesbian, was not pleased with Gentileís comments.

"I am disturbed that the right keeps calling for an end to the dialogue," she said. "We dialogue because people that are our members are being hurt, and we will keep coming back until it changes."

Oiveto said that the anti-gay side always has been prepared to split from the denomination, and thinks a split is their ultimate goal.

"They have their own seminary," she said. "They have their own publishing company. They are in a position to break away from the rest of us."

Oiveto says she has been asked to leave the church over her positions and teachings. "I have received letters asking me to leave. I havenít sent any letters like that."

Randolph Miller, a gay member of Bethany Church, said, "What is disingenuous is that Transforming Congregations has always had a political agenda. They have actively tried to disenfranchise gays and lesbians from the church."

Miller is suspicious of Gentileís rhetoric at the press conference, in which Gentile tried to downplay the harmfulness of his groupís message.

"Much of what he is saying today is the same as the 1988 Study on Homosexuality." The general assembly received but did not approve the recommendations in that study.

"Transforming Congregations and its parent organization Good News were the leading opponents of that study," said Miller. "They organized the delegates to reject it."

Gentile responded that his group rejected the study because the committee doing the study did not have any former homosexuals on it.

"I asked to be on the committee and they refused me," he said.

Good News legislative coordinator Scott Field agreed with Gentile.

"In 1988, of the 22 members of the committee, 18 had already declared support of homosexuals and of the changes," said Fields "There was no orthodox view represented. It is clearer still that we have competing world views. After 25 years of debate, we have rejected parity," said Field. "The numbers now show that except for the 35% in Reconciling Congregations, everyone else will now be able to work to make the church more Apostolic."

Field said people are tired of debate and that is why the delegates are likely to keep things the same.

"I consider this a watershed vote," he said. "This is a vote of doctrine critical to all of Christianity. There wonít be a split," said Field. "There may be departures, but attempts to change the Methodist Church will backfire."

Proponents of change are not backing down. "There may still be incremental changes and proposals from the floor to broaden the language," said Chip Aldridge of the Reconciling Congregations Program. "African-Americans struggled for 200 years to get parity. Weíre in this for the long haul, but gays and lesbians canít assume that 30 years of discussion is going to be enough."

"But by no means are we willing to wait 200 years," said Betti Torrier of Chicago. "Our hope is that the these people in Cleveland choose to recognize justice for gays and lesbians sooner than 200 years. As the church sits and debates this issue, there are a few hundred people who have taken time from work to show support for inclusiveness and justice."

"There are 15,000 petitions of United Methodists--statements of support, saying they welcome inclusion, said Reconciling Congregations board member Chip Aldridge. "Eventually, this call for justice will not be ignored."

Reconciling Congegetions director Marilyn Alexander is optimistic that there may still be a favorable decision by the general assembly.

"Anything can happen in general session." she said. "It looks grim, but we canít give up hope. There is a spiritual factor here."

"There are still a lot of Ďmiddle delegatesí," said Alexander, referring to those not affiliated with Transforming Congregations or Reconciling Congregations.

Alexander said that even though Reconciling Congregations is "far larger" in number than Transforming Congregations, her group has been unsuccessful because delegates are "just afraid of making the change."

"Most of the delegates understand the pain the church is causing people, but there is still a disconnect in that they donít see that it is their votes that are causing the pain," said Alexander.

All agree that this conflict is likely to stay as it has been for another four years, and that the church is trying to avoid the issue altogether.|


FBI looking for funds missing from Millennium Festival

by Michelle Tomko

Washington, D.C.--The FBI is looking into the disappearance of up to $1 million from the proceeds of the Millennium Festival, a fenced-in street fair held on the weekend of the Millenium March on Washington on April 30.

Admission to the festival was $5, and each person who entered received a wristband. The number of wristbands left over after the event does not match the money collected, said Millennium March attorney Michael Boucher.

The for-profit festival was produced by Millennium Productions, which had pledged to give 65 percent of the festivalís revenue to the Millennium March. José Ucles, head of Millennium Productions, resigned from the March board to head up the festival.

March organizers have received no money from the festival. Without that money, they are unable to pay many of their creditors.

"We had some suspicions early last week that there might be some problems in terms of Millennium Festival revenue and contacted authorities as quickly as possible," said March co-chair Ann DeGroot on May 9. "Margaret Conway, Michael Armentrout, and Diane Harty Garcia met with the FBI with full knowledge of the executive committee of the board."

DeGroot spoke from Washington by telephone. She was joined on the line by fellow March co-chair Margeret Conway and co-executive director Dianne Hardy-Garcia.

"The Millennium March and the Millennium Festival are two separate entities. And the Millennium Festival is certainly pursuing this in their own way," added DeGroot.

"What we need people to understand is the Millennium Festival was a separate event, organized by a separate organization who was making a significant donation to the Millennium March on Washington," said Conway. "They were a significant source of revenue for us. They informed us that they suspected money was missing from their festival and we informed authorities, as did they."

"The investigation has just started," said Hardy-Garcia. "Weíre doing everything we can to comply with authorities. Weíre gravely concerned about this situation. So weíre doing everything we can to provide as much information to authorities as possible."

"I think it was an extremely powerful weekend. This is unfortunate. But I donít think it takes away anything from the power of that day." added Garcia.

Boucher also said that at least three people associated with the Millennium March are suspects.

"What we have done is pass any information we have to the FBI and itís really going to be up to them to make those determinations," said DeGroot.

The exact amount of the missing money is not known.

"To me the biggest question in all this is: What is the relationship between the March and the festival?" said William Dobbs of the Ad Hoc Committee for An Open Process, a gay group that opposed the march. "Months ago we were told that the two things were entirely independent. But the festival had promised to give 70 percent of its net profit to the march. If itís just a promise and somebody decides not to pay the money, itís one thing. If there is a contract, an obligation, thatís quite another thing."

Dobbs added, "March organizers and the organizers of all these events have a fiduciary responsibility to the GLBT community. Open everything up. This is community business."

191 arrested in protest of Methodist gay policy


by Eric Resnick
and Brian DeWitt

Cleveland--Nearly 200 activists were arrested on the morning of May 10 for staging an act of civil disobedience to protest the United Methodist Churchís policies on sexual orientation.

The activists were led by Soulforce, a group organized by Rev. Mel White that applies the principles of non-violence taught by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi to social justice for sexual minorities.

The decision to carry out the civil disobedience was made following a meeting the night before with four Methodist bishops and Cleveland mayor Michael White.

At the meeting, Soulforce asked the bishops for two things at the general assembly debate. If those were accepted, Soulforce would cancel the planned action.

Soulforce requested that every time an issue of sexual orientation was raised that an openly gay member be allowed to address it, and that Soulforce members be visible on the conference floor so the delegates can see the members affected by the debate.

The negotiations ended unsuccessfully when the bishops offered to take the matter of Soulforceís request to the delegates in order to suspend the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote.

Soulforce did not accept that offer, fearing that hostility toward lesbians and gays would be brought to the floor merely by addressing the requests.

Soulforce had originally asked to be allowed on the floor of the convention centerís Public Hall, where the delegates sit, to conduct a prayer vigil in front of the altar in protest of George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Carey, whose Anglican Church is considered anti-gay, delivered an ecumenical liturgy on the morning of May 10.

The conference turned down that request, prompting Soulforce to stage a "walk for justice" outside the Cleveland Convention Center at the time of the service.

Soulforce negotiated the protocol of the civil disobedience action with Cleveland city officials in the week before. Everyone participating was trained in civil disobedience the night before, and required to sign Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.ís pledge to non-violence.

Demonstrators began gathering at 6:30 am on the Mall, a large plaza adjacent to the downtown convention center. Shortly after 7 am, roughly 400 members and supporters had gathered, and had separated into circles of 16 to 20 people, singing hymns. Many in the crowd wore T-shirts that read, "Stop Spiritual Violence" and "We Are Godís Children Too."

Among the demonstrators were three Methodist bishops, Calvin McConnell, Joseph Yeakel and William Dew, Jr.

As they sang, a street preacher yelled obscene condemnations of them as he waved a pair of copulating male dolls and a turkey baster. Across Lakeside Ave. from the convention center, the Fred Phelps clan of Topeka, Kansas waved their "Methodist Fag Church" signs.

"When a church names the identity of a human being as a sin, that is blasphemy," said Rev. Greg Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago. He was suspended last year for performing a same-sex union ceremony, but said he will change nothing when he returns to the pulpit June 30. "I donít know to be a pastor halfway," he noted.

Demonstrators, of which half were Methodist clergy and laity, began the "walk for justice" as a light rain began at 8:20 am. The group marched once around the block-long convention center, returning to the Mall as the rain stopped.

A smaller group of 16 then continued on to the Lakeside Ave. driveway entrance to the center. They stood in a line across the roadway, which had already been blocked by a police cruiser and about ten officers.

Third District Police Commander James Davidson waited three minutes, then faced the group.

"I need to inform you that you are in violation of the laws of the city of Cleveland and the State of Ohio," Davidson recited. "I request that you disperse and allow access to this facility. If you do not comply, I will be forced to have you arrested. Will you comply with this request?"

Many of the demonstrators shook their heads "no."

"Again, I must ask you to comply with this request." Davidson paused. "Sergeant Williams, will you begin the arrest procedure."

Davidsonís second request increased the charges the demonstrators faced to aggravated disorderly conduct, resulting in a maximum $230 fine and a possible 30 days in jail.

Other demonstrators cheered the group as they were led down a ramp and into a parking garage. A second group took their place.

Davidson waited three minutes and began his recitation again, as the group sang hymns, the street preacher ranted, and the media rolled tape and snapped photos.

Nine groups were arrested this way, totaling 191 people. Some thanked Davidson and the police for their courtesy as they walked to the parking garage.

The demonstration was preceded by a rally at Cleveland State University the evening of May 9, calling for the end of the war on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of faith by the Methodist church.

Speakers at the rally and training included Yolanda King, the eldest daughter of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, Rev. James Lawson, a United Methodist pastor, and Methodist Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of the Northern Illinois conference.

King told the crowd she had a lot of gay and lesbian friends. "I have walked with them," she said. "There has been too much persecution and denial. Itís time to stop that. I hope people will put themselves in the place of these people."

"The United Methodist Church has a history of social concern," explained Mel White, "and yet they begin this conference in Cleveland just like most Christian denominations with anti-homosexual policies in place that lead to discrimination, suffering, and even death. Weíve waited patiently for more than three decades for truth to prevail. Itís time to take a more powerful stand against injustice and our heroes and sheroes from the past are showing us the non-violent way."

CATF director resigns, will head Alzheimerís agency

by Anthony Glassman

Columbus--After thirteen years at the helm of the Columbus AIDS Task Force, Gloria Smith, the groupís executive director, announced her resignation from the post April 26.

The announcement, made at a meeting of the board of directors, saddened many members of the organization.

Client services director Lori Yosick will serve as interim director beginning May 24.

Smith will be moving to Tampa, Florida, to helm the Alzheimerís Foundation there. She will begin her stewardship of the small group on July 1.

"The elderly community is one of those ignored populations, devalued," Smith said in an interview. She likened societyís views on Alzheimerís and those afflicted with it to the perceptions of AIDS and HIV when she started at CATF.

In her tenure in Columbus, she turned the Task Force from a small support agency into a nationally-recognized model for AIDS service organizations. Smith believes that, with what she describes as an "excellent staff" and the groupís current financial stability, now would be the time to move on.

"I know when I leave here, the agency is fine," she said. "The agency should never be identified as the person who leads it."

"They approached me several months ago," Smith said of the Alzheimerís Foundation. "There were only a few issues I could get passionate about, and Alzheimerís is one of them."

"That population is our history . . . When my father died, I thought: I never asked him that."

Smith said she was amazed at both the curiosity and acceptance of the community when she started thirteen years ago.

"The gay community totally embraced me," she said.

She gave some advice that she believes helped her be successful in her role leading the Task Force.

"Be visionary, forecast," she said. "You get so wrapped up in the crisis of the day, you need to look ahead. Ask the client what they need, donít assume you know."

"The only reason weíre here on this planet is to make someone elseís life better," she added.

Task Force board president Randall Arndt said that Yosick will serve as interim director while the board looks for a permanent one. The hunt will last for nine to twelve months, and will look at candidates from around the nation, as well as within the organization and the community, he said.

Arndt said that the search committee will look for candidates with experience in strategic planning, managing a funding base, and board leadership, all of which Smith excelled at.

However, he said, "We need to remember we are not looking for a new Gloria," a task he claimed would be even more daunting.

"She has been an outstanding leader in every way, shape, and form," said Arndt. "Sheís in the top of her field."


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