1:00 P.M. EST May 4, 2011
The Rev. Bill Barnard, Oretha Lawson and Dan Rutt gather under a billboard
paid for by their church, Central United Methodist in Toledo, Ohio.
A web-only photo courtesy of The Blade/Amy E. Voigt.
A small Toledo, Ohio, church has made a giant statement sure to stir debate with a billboard that declares: “Being Gay is a Gift from God.”
The digital billboard, which flashes Central United Methodist Church’s message among a rotation of ads, stands at a major intersection in the city, the Toledo Blade reports.
“What we’re saying is that (sexual orientation) is part of who God made us to be … and we need to celebrate that,” said Dan Rutt, a member of the church’s lead team. “It’s like being a man or a woman, our race or ethnicity, or whether we’re left-handed or right-handed. All of these are things God created us to be, and we should live into those, and offer all of that back to God.”
Still, church members acknowledge that the message is a controversial one within The United Methodist Church.
The Book of Discipline, the United Methodist law book, states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The denomination bars self-avowed practicing gays and lesbians from ordained ministry and prohibits clergy from blessing same-sex unions.
Lisa Streight, the spokesperson for the West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference, said the church’s decision to display publicly its support for gays has troubled many in the conference and been celebrated by others.
“Not all of our members who profess Christ as Lord and Savior see the issue of sexual orientation in the same way,” she said in a statement. “We do expect, however, that all people will be treated as children of God in every church.”
She said one of the denomination’s strengths is the ability of United Methodists to express a diversity of perspectives in open discussion. She also stressed that no one congregation speaks for the entirety of The United Methodist Church.
Central United Methodist Church decided to take action after last year’s string of suicides by teens and young adults who were gay or perceived to be gay.
The billboard campaign launched April 25. The congregation, which has a weekly attendance of about 25 straight and gay members, has paid about $1,500 to lease the billboard space for a month, Rutt said.
“A lot of times when people talk about homosexuality in the church, there is a kind of defensiveness and many people are willing to accept simple tolerance,” Rutt said. “What we’re really saying is we want equality.”
The message coincides with a four-week sermon series of the same name. The Rev. Bill Barnard, the church’s part-time pastor and a chaplain, said the series would culminate with a message that “being you is a gift from God.”
“Our goal is not to offend,” Barnard said. “But we know there are a lot of people who have been hurt and alienated by the church. We are trying to show there is another way to understand God’s love.”
Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, can speak for The United Methodist Church.
Since 1972, the subject of homosexuality has sparked discussion at each quadrennial gathering of the lawmaking assembly. Delegates consistently have voted to keep the Discipline’s stance against homosexuality.
But the longtime debate recently has heated up again as the church nears the one-year countdown to 2012 General Conference.
Thirty-six retired bishops signed a statement in February urging the denomination to end its ban on gay clergy. United Methodists on both sides of the ordination dispute have issued strong responses. Bishops are not allowed to vote at General Conference, but when they speak, church members often listen.
“With most of the groups I talk to, both sides have a love for the church,” said the Rev. Chet Harris, senior pastor of Dueber United Methodist Church in Canton, about a three-hour drive from Toledo in the East Ohio Conference.
Still, Harris and many other United Methodists are unequivocal in their belief that homosexual behavior is a sin condemned in both the Old and New testaments.
“It’s a sin among many sins, and I am not about to separate sins and have everybody hold up their hand for their individual sins on Sunday morning,” said Harris, a former board member of Good News, an unofficial evangelical renewal caucus in the denomination.
“The church has not done a good job at addressing the issue of sin among heterosexuals, and yet we try to lift up the sin of homosexuality. I think we have to approach it on an even plain so that we can begin to talk about the fact that we are all fallen, we are all sinners and we are all in need of a Savior.”
Reactions to the billboard
Central United Methodist Church, founded in 1897, is no newcomer to the debate on homosexuality.
In 1984, the congregation became one of the first six churches to join what would become the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus that advocates for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in the denomination.
Oretha Lawson, a member of Central United Methodist for more than 60 years, was on the church’s board in 1984 when the pastor at the time first broached the idea of joining the network.
“We looked at one another and said, ‘Well, don’t we always welcome everybody?’ And there was no question,” Lawson said.
The Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, said he does not know of any other United Methodist churches that have promoted support for gays on a commercial billboard. He added that many like-minded congregations will fly rainbow flags or prominently display rainbow stickers in a show of solidarity. Outside reaction typically runs the gamut from hearty “amens” to vandalism.
So far, Central United Methodist has not encountered vandals. However, since the billboard first went up a week ago, members have received reactions from across the spectrum through just about every form of communication imaginable.
Many quote Scripture to denounce the billboard. Barnard and other church members say they think many of the biblical passages cited against homosexuality should be interpreted as condemnations of prostitution or abusive behavior.
Members have been particularly touched to hear from gays and lesbians in the Toledo area who said they never felt welcomed by Christian churches, and the sign is making them rethink whether they can find a church home.
On May 1, the first Sunday after the billboard lighted up, Central United Methodist Church had five visitors.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.