A letter to the NCCUMC regarding LGBT exclusion

Barbara Zelter is a dear friend and colleague of BCM’s, who recently completed her Master’s degree in theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.  Below is a letter she recently wrote to the leadership of her statewide conference of the United Methodist Church concerning LGBT exclusion. It is another compelling testimony of a serious disciple like Laurel Dykstra’s previous post.


Date:          April 2011

From:                  Barbara Zelter (MSW, MA Theology)

To:             North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church (NCCUMC)

Re:              Our denomination’s continuing discrimination against those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender


Greetings.   I am a United Methodist woman who has served our North Carolina church for decades.  I am now with my second UMC startup in the Triangle area, and am a founding member of All Saints’ UMC in Brier Creek in Raleigh.  In my former professional role as staff for the NC Council of Churches, I worked in partnership with NCCUMC staff member Steve Taylor for over 10 years.  We have created programs and publications (Living the Word) to bring biblical animation and social ministry capacity to UMC congregations and ecumenical partners across the state.  It is because of my dedication to this ministry of transformation and witness with the UMC that I now appeal to you to join with our former NC pastor Jimmy Creech and many others of us to end the dis-grace-ful official stance of the UMC against all who were created by God as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. 


I recently read Jimmy’s newly published book (Adam’s Gift:  A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays), about his call to pastoral ministry and his subsequent punishment by the institutional UMC for extending a covenant blessing to same-gender partners.  It reignited in me a shame I have long harbored as a member of a denomination that upholds legalistic adherence to a misguided Social Principle.  I am referring to The Book of Discipline’s statement on Human Sexuality:  The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”


Every week as I go to Sunday service, I agonize over whether I can maintain my ethics and stay with a denomination that denies the inclusive love ethic of Jesus to a broad segment of our people.  Why should gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people not be able to be married in the church, and serve the church as ministers as they are called in their hearts? 


My former employer, the NC Council of Churches (NCCC), now has as Board President a wonderful man who is faithful and passionate for the gospel.  Stan is a retired IBM executive who is also a gay lay member of the Metropolitan Community Church (a NCCC member denomination).  My nephew is gay and partnered with a mate for many years.  Matt and his partner are stable community contributors; Matt and I designed the Christian funeral service together when his father suddenly died at a young age.  The former academic dean of the seminary I attended is a Harvard Divinity Ph.D. who is lesbian and now married (in Jerusalem) to a female South African Episcopal priest and nurse who was a white champion in her nation’s anti-apartheid struggle.  These women uphold the best of gospel living.  My best friend in seminary was a Baptist Texan and military man who years ago married a woman to conceal his gay reality and to try to fit with cultural norms.  After years of the agony of being not himself, he came out, and now has been partnered with another male Army veteran for the past 10 years.  Paul and Minor will soon have a Covenant service of mutual dedication through the United Church of Christ, a denomination that accepts Paul and Minor for who they are.  I have been privileged to be part of their walk on this hard-won path: from being in hiding for so long, to being rejected by their church folk, to claiming religious blessing on their true love.


Another member of my small seminary class was a man who was a Navy operative, married and a father for decades.  He finally admitted late in life that his brain and heart named him as a woman.  Heather is now a transgender Christian female pastor, who has taught me a lot about what it means to be transgender.  We who do not understand these realities of life and struggle have no right to interfere with transformations of Spirit that call people of God into deeper authenticity.  Standing on ancient literalisms to exclude humans from God’s grace is merely a means to employ ignorance about historical anthropology to buttress current prejudice.


Enough of this church-sanctioned legalistic hate and harm!  Enough of this crazy literalism based on misguided interpretation of biblical history and hermeneutics!  If we believe in a God of love, how can we continue to tolerate this particularly destructive UMC Social Principle which leaves our neighbors out of the circle of grace, including marriage and service as clergy?  The UMC wonders why people are falling away from the church.  We have church renewal efforts, and pay consultants to show us how to attract newcomers in this digital age.  Yet research confirms that young people find the institutional church hateful and exclusionary. 


Despite my deep desire to be in Christian community, and to build a new UMC congregation in the suburbs of the Triangle in NC, I struggle daily with the revulsion I feel for our Social Principle against our GLBT neighbors.  Everything I have learned through education in social work, theology, and as a mother and grassroots community organizer with folk across the state, leads me to know that our UMC stand against homosexuals is based more in prejudicial cultural tradition than in God’s grace and biblical truth.  So I appeal to you:  Let us honor God’s graceful openness and listen to Jimmy Creech, a prophet in our midst.  The biblical prophets railed against exclusionary privilege that harmed those on the margins.  We supposedly believe in a God who harbors the alien, the outsider, the beloved Other.  So let us be of good courage, and stand for love, as Jesus did when he called those who were legalistic about the law “whitened sepulchers,” holders of death (Matt 23:27).  And please read Adam’s Gift.  Pray.  See where you are led by the transformative Spirit of God.


Thank you,

Barbara Zelter