‘Open wide your hearts’

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Some years ago The United Methodist Church had a welcoming slogan that was all about opening wide our hearts, to quote the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:13. The denomination paid for a number of TV spots with interesting, heart-warming vignettes of people being welcomed into the church. At the end, each TV ad would say: “The United Methodist Church: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

During this advertising campaign someone called me from UM Communications asking for information on closed-captioning for the ads. They knew I worked with a deaf- membership church (Christ UM Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, Md.), and they were looking for information about how to caption these TV ads so that people who could not hear could still see what was being said from English text appearing on screen.

I am a fan of captioning because it is so helpful for everyone, not just people with hearing loss. But in this case I told the shocked UMCom caller that this would be “false advertising.”

I explained that if they captioned the advertisement, then people who could not hear would likely think that United Methodist churches widely offer worship that is accessible to them when they come to visit. But the vast majority of our churches are not accessible to people with hearing loss. Less than 100 of our 33,000 churches in the USA have sign-language interpreters.

Some have listening devices, but they are not always effective when a person’s hearing loss is profound. Captioning is the absolute best answer for people who are deaf and don’t use sign language. But I can count on my hand the number of churches that provide that on a Sunday morning. This is unfortunate because there are approximately 35 million people with hearing loss in this country.

I advised UMCom to not caption the ads. Why welcome deaf people to visit our churches, only for most of them to find out there is no accessibility for them?

Do we welcome everyone in our churches?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline declares in many ways, in many paragraphs, that all people are to be welcomed into our churches.  Is that false advertising, too?  Do we welcome everyone in our churches in the Eastern PA Conference?

Everyone includes all races, ethnicities, genders or gender identities, sexual orientations, marital statuses, abilities, ages, theological perspectives and socio-economic classes.  That is a tall order, of course.

Among our many diverse churches, we have some that specialize in certain areas. For example, one of our churches has a ministry with deaf people who have intellectual challenges, which requires some specialized kinds of interpreting and worship adjustments. I know of another church that has a welcoming ministry with refugees.

With each step of widening the circle, the love of God gets out there to more and more people. Everyone should be welcomed in every church, and we should strive to be as inclusive and loving as possible. That is what people are hungering for, and it is what we should be planning and reaching for.

According to an article in the August 23, 2016, edition of Religion and Public Life (pewforum.org), 79 percent of people looking for a new church or house of worship seek a place where they will feel welcome.

open arms 2016 ac logoAt our annual conference’s last session, in June, we passed amended Resolution 2016-17, which states: “Therefore be it resolved that the Eastern PA Annual Conference encourages all churches to practice radical welcome to LGBTQ persons in specific and tangible ways.” Furthermore, the conference invites our churches to participate as a welcoming presence at the Philadelphia OutFest 2016 events, part of National Coming Out Day, which will be held on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.  (For more information on OutFest contact Ariel Gonzalez of St. Luke UMC at 973-985-7694 or arcanum32@gmail.com)

In its “whereas” section this resolution lifts up the fact that 43 percent of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ. Because that identification and its consequences can often be painful, between 30 and 40 percent of all LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide.

Welcome LGBTQ persons intentionally, fearlessly

What would it be like if your church’s youth group would intentionally, lovingly and fearlessly—because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:19)—welcome young persons in its community who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or gender non-conforming?

Sharing supportive community, friendship, opportunities to participate in activities and to serve as leaders could be some possibilities.  Other ideas include: speaking words of welcome to LGBTQ persons during your service, extending an invitation to your local LGBTQ community to worship with you and to attend a special welcoming breakfast or luncheon, or offering intentional words of prayer for LGBTQ persons—especially youth—during worship. Let us know if you have other ideas to share.

Our churches represent a wide spectrum of theological perspectives about sexual orientation and gender identity. But there is no law or Disciplinary paragraph that forbids us from showing love and hospitality. That is something we should all be doing, and especially among those who too often face rejection and hostility.

We are called to witness to our faith and to model ourselves after the example of Jesus. He sought out persons on the margins of life and offered them unconditional, fearless, healing love.

How could your church be more intentionally welcoming?  Many do not have a single attendee who identifies as LGBTQ currently in their midst. Sadly, the conservative and liberal “divide” in our conference and elsewhere creates an atmosphere of anxiety that sometimes keeps us preoccupied and causes timidity. Meanwhile, the hospitality and extravagant love we are called to offer is lacking in all that it can be.

I ask you, do the people of your church really have open hearts, open minds and open doors to welcome everyone? Or is this denominational slogan of which we are so fond actually “false advertising”?

Here is a recommended reading list from Dave Krueger of Arch Street UMC. It may offer valuable insights on the cross-section between our religious beliefs and human sexuality, as it relates to our amended and approved Annual Conference Resolution #2016-17: Resolution on Radical Welcome.

  • Brownson, James. Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2013.
  • Corvino, John. What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Lee, Justin. Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate. Jericho Books, 2013.
  • Vines, Matthew. God and theGay Christian. New York: Convergent Books, 2014.
  • Williams, Craig. Roman Homosexuality. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Marin, Andrew. Love is an Orientation. IVP Books 2009.
  • Recommended website with information about the high rate of suicides among LGBTQ youth: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ or http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/facts-about-suicide

Read and comment on this post on the Bishop’s Blog.

Editor’s Note:  There will be a Webinar on “Becoming a Barrier-Free Congregation” offered online Tuesday. Oct. 25, from 7 to 8 p.m. EDT. Many people with disabilities do not come to church. Can people with mobility differences get into your church? Are people with cognitive disabilities comfortable in Bible study and Sunday school? Sharon McCart, chair of the UMC’s DisAbility Ministries Committee, will offer advice for welcoming people with disabilities into the life of the church. Details