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Sharing in faith: Jesus is love

The Rev. Jay Williams
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Ten years ago, I sat in the pews of Union United Methodist Church. Now I stand in its pulpit.

Then I worshipped as a member of the denomination’s first predominantly black American “reconciling congregation.” Today, I serve as pastor to the people who nurtured my faith as a college student.

To say that I was surprised when my bishop called two years ago would be an understatement. Never in a thousand years could I have dreamed this.

Already, I have experienced many joys and many challenges in ministry at Union — some anticipated, others completely unexpected. I knew that my first funeral would be difficult and my first baptism would be pure bliss.

But, never in a million years could I have foreseen the anguish that I would experience as a pastor because of the church’s struggles with human sexuality.

Questions

What do you really say to a woman in her twilight years who does not fully love herself because she does not embrace her sexuality?

How do you help wipe away the tears of a young man who cries himself to sleep every night because he’s in love with another man?

When does a married same-gender couple start enjoying their holy matrimony, free from the judgment of family and church?

These are questions that keep me up at night.

Still, so many times I have seen relief in the eyes of men and women, old and young, who have finally found a black church that truly welcomes them and their sexuality.

I’ve witnessed the sheer surprise when a woman introduces her wife to Union and our members don’t blink.

I’ve seen tears flow as LGBTQ folk find the spiritual home for which they’ve been searching for years.

But, I have also felt the utter disappointment — and the confusion — of a gay couple that asks about getting married in our sanctuary.

I always imagined that being a pastor would mean extending God’s blessing to those who yearn for authentic relationship. “The Lord bless you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24). But our denomination tells me to do otherwise. It’s a hard thing not to bless the same people I pray with, study the Bible with, break bread with, and fellowship with. Actually, it breaks my heart.

Faces and stories

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Sexuality is not merely an “issue” to be debated. This issue has faces and stories, disappointments and agonies, hopes and prayers.

Ministry is more about people than policies.

Although the people of Union are not all of one mind, there is something that all of us have come to know: our DNA is made up of the double helix of biblical faith and social justice. Since the congregation’s beginnings in 1796, we have been abolitionists, de-segregationists, women’s rights advocates, civil rights activists, anti-apartheid protesters and economic-equality seekers.

All these issues are tied up in Christ’s invitation for us to be reconciled and set free. So as we struggle to find our way forward as a congregation, we have covenanted to stay at the table as we seek a table for all. We gather as broken vessels around a broken loaf as one people. Because too many people have been hurt, we have decided no longer to fight over the issue. We believe there is still a “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).

A contradiction

Walking this road as Union’s pastor has been challenging, complicated and occasionally contradictory. The painfully ironic thing is that I have been appointed by the general superintendent to a “reconciling church” and then ordered by the denomination not to pastor all my people fairly. As a black man in the United States, I know that the “separate but equal” thing simply does not work.

So I’ve decided not to be a “Jim Crow” pastor. I simply do not know how. As the pastor of a historic, justice-seeking congregation in Boston’s South End — the city center of queer life — I am simply doing what I must do.

Recently, a longtime Union member revealed to me: “Pastor, I know that extending marriage equality is the right thing to do. I was raised a certain way and it is taking me longer to get where I need to be. But if someone is ‘good enough’ to serve here and tithe here, then that member should be married here too.”

Can’t discriminate

You see, I do not know how to discriminate against my own members because I vowed in my ordination “to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people.”

This is not so much the position of an activist, but rather of a pastor who answered a call. My call and my vow are “to lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ.” The folk in my pews, who sing in the choirs, and place hard-earned money in the offering, are searching for unconditional love in a world full of broken promises.

Indeed we all are.

One of Union’s favorite songs is the 1980 Commodores hit “Jesus Is Love.” Without fail, every time it’s sung, the congregation is up swaying with uplifted hands. Before long, worshippers have joined in the refrain: “Yeah, yeah, Jesus loves you… If you call Him, He will answer.” In many ways, this song reflects who we are as a radically welcoming people. And it is the foundation of how I live as a pastor. God, who is love, sends us Jesus: love’s perfect incarnation.

Our prayer remains the song’s opening lyrics: “Father, help your children.”

All of us.

The Rev. Jay Williams
Boston, Mass.

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Posted July 22, 2014