On Saturday, I visited the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home (FUMCH) for their 30th annual Day On Campus. Every year FUMCH is opened up and people from all over the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) visit the campus for a tour and for information on the work and progress of FUMCH.
The program consisted of a presentation of the work of the home, which included various testimonies of volunteers and alumni, as well as a couple of performances by the current residents of FUMCH. After the presentation of the work, we were invited to have lunch and then we were given freedom to roam the campus and tour some of the buildings and meet some of the young people who are cared for through FUMCH’s ministry. It was a fantastic day. Nine of us made the short drive from our home town to FUMCH and everyone was both impressed and inspired.
As part of the presentation of the work, a 22 year old FUMCH alumnus had been invited to share some of his story. He did so with a real sense of humility and integrity. He shared a very moving account of his background – how he had experience life and how that experience had led to him being pulled from his family and taken into FUMCH’s care. He spoke candidly about his inability to understand and process what had happened to him when it was happening, but that the mentors, therapists, staff and volunteers of FUMCH had helped him through in the years that he spent there. It was a glowing tribute to the work and ministry of FUMCH and listeners could not help but be moved as it was told.
At the end of his presentation the young man began to thank the people in his life who had helped him get where he is today. He thanked the staff and ministry of FUMCH. He thanked his house-parents at FUMCH who had helped shape his life and offered him security and love when he was not finding it anywhere else. He thanked his birth mother (to whom he had since been reconciled) and his two older sisters and his younger brother. Then he thanked his partner of three years, Michael. He said that Michael had loved him and given him a place of trust and intimacy like he had not experienced before.
It was now clear that this young man is gay. Here he was standing in a room full of United Methodists openly proclaiming his sexuality and the trust and intimacy that he had experienced in a committed relationship with Michael over the past three years.
The United Methodist Church is currently in the midst of a debate around issues of human sexuality (primarily around issues of gay marriage and the ordination of gay people) and finds itself very divided. A large population of United Methodists hold to traditional views of human sexuality and are against the church moving to a place where gay marriages can be solemnized in UM churches and by UM pastors. This large population is opposed by an equally large population who advocate the full acceptance of the LGBTQ community in terms of both marriage and ordination.
When this young man was openly referring to his sexuality in a room full of United Methodists, I have to say, my first thought was to wonder how the reference to his partner, Michael, had gone down. How did the people of this room experience hearing what this young man had to say?
Personally, I still do not know where to come down on the actual issues which are currently plaguing the UMC, and I am not going to comment or offer any kind of position on them here. I will say that in my formative years as a teenager, I would have found myself quite homophobic. However, that is no longer the case. As I have got older I have learned that my real role as a Christian man is not to judge others and point the finger at the sins of the world. Rather my role is to love all those that I encounter day and daily – to know their names and to be willing to hear their stories and walk some of their journeys with them. I also know that I am to celebrate lives that have been recovered, restored and transformed through God’s love and mercy.
As I sat there listening to this young man on Saturday morning there was a moment, just when he referred to Michael that I had an inner cringe. I think I was responding to my in built prejudices – those parts of me which i am constantly trying to address and be free from. But then, after that moment, I found myself thinking this:
“Regardless of where I face confusion on the issues of human sexuality, regardless of what I have thought or currently think; am I going to sit here and let the fact that this young man is gay take away from the wonderful redemption story that has played out in his life? Am I going to let his sexuality become the only story here and not the restoration of his life through the love, care and nurture of Godly people at FUMCH? If I am, shame on me.”
Shame on me.
Thankfully, I do not think that I am letting his sexuality define my hearing of his story (except that i am writing about it here…). Thankfully, I am instead celebrating his life as one redeemed and restored by love and care because redemption and restoration of a life is what love can do.
My prayer is that God would continue to lead me in the way of love and that I would submit all my prejudices (inherited or freely developed through ignorance and lack of thought) to Him who is able to transform my heart and mind.
Come, Holy Spirit.