Institute on Religion and Democracy
May 10, 2000
Soulforce, an ecumenical homosexual group based in Dallas, Texas, rallied at the United Methodist General Conference to push for acceptance of homosexuality by the church. They were led by the charismatic Rev. Mel White, the former Jerry Falwell aide who came out of the closet to lead a homosexual church.
Several hundred Soulforce members and supporters, about half of them United Methodist, met at the Cleveland State University to receive training in "civil disobedience," and to hear from United Methodist clergy, a daughter of Martin Luther King, and a grandson of Mohandas Gandhi. Soulforce was attempting to link homosexual rights with historic civil rights and non-violence movements led by King and Gandhi.
"Would you mind if I march with you and get arrested too?" asked Bishop Joe Sprague of the Soulforce crowd, which roared its approval. Sprague was indeed arrested the next morning outside the General Conference convention hall, along with almost 200 Soulforce supporters. Bishop Mary Ann Swenson also attended the street demonstration but was not arrested. The acts of civil disobedience attracted media attention but failed to draw the large crowd or create the disturbance that Soulforce had promised.
"These are not new issues for me," Sprague told the audience at Cleveland State. "It's part of a seamless garment, like issues of the 1960's such as racial justice, gender equality, children in India, the Killing fields in Cambodia, and land minds in Mozambique." Sprague explained that calling homosexual practice a sin "suggests some are inside and some are outside." He added: "Some bishops can't be inside when others are outside," referring to his decision to demonstrate the next morning.
Sprague was joined at the Soulforce rally by United Methodist minister Don Fado, who presided over a lesbian "wedding" ceremony in Sacramento last year. He was joined on the stage by Jeanne Knepper and Ellie Charlton, the two United Methodist lay women whom he "married." Recalling that smoking had been prohibited for clergy by the church in California when he was a young man, Fado remembered meeting in seminary a student from South Carolina. From the heart of tobacco country, that student assured Fado there was no ban on smoking for ministers in his annual conference. Fado laughingly wondered why the church could not be equally inclusive by allowing some annual conferences to perform same-sex unions.
Greg Dell, the United Methodist minister temporarily suspended from his pastorate for having conducted a same-sex union in Chicago, also spoke to the Soulforce crowd. "We believe the General Conference faces a watershed moment," he said. But even if the church fails to abandon its opposition to homosexuality this year, Dell promises that "it will not change the river of justice that God moves through history. God will find a riverbed for that spirit."
Laughingly calling him the "cute one," Dell introduced Jimmy Creech, the former United Methodist minister who was defrocked last year after conducting his second same-sex union ceremony. Creech told the Soulforce crowd: "You are beautiful!" This prompted Dell to respond, "Calling me beautiful is a chargeable offense," prompting more laughter from the audience.
"Many people have been leaning on the church to end the bigotry," Creech observed. "But now there's a new player: Soulforce." Creech reminded the crowd that the struggle was not just for the future of the United Methodist Church. It was against the "anti-gay polices" of all the churches that "spiritually violate gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
Addressing these churches, Creech declared: "The world will not allow you to do spiritual violence against God's children. "This week we speak to the United Methodist Church," Creech remarked. "Next week we go to the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Baptists."
Creech further intoned: "We will tell these churches, if you poison the air we breathe, we're coming to shut you down! He celebrated that Soulforce supporters from all these churches were present for the rally, along with some "people of no faith" who are nonetheless "spiritually strong and sound."
Mel White enthused that countless United Methodists had promised to join the marchers in acts of civil disobedience. But he was especially honored by the presence of Yolanda King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Mohandas Gandhi.
"As with racism and sexism, homophobia is unjust," King said. "I stand with you gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters," she promised. "I hope no religion can justify exclusion or ostracization. Love and compassion are what Jesus came to teach us"
Gandhi said that when he first head of "GLBT" (standing for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) he thought it was a sandwich. But he since had become a supporter of homosexual rights. He shared with the crowd that he had been raped by a homosexual man as a child. But Mel White had taught him that not all homosexual persons are "evil," and he had been able to abandon his prejudice.
"I'm here to share your pain and agony," Gandhi said. "In the Hindu tradition we have condemned millions to be untouchables. Another religion is now treating people as untouchables." He expressed confidence that "no God would ever condemn his children."
Also speaking to Soulforce was civil rights leader and retired United Methodist minister James Lawson, who injected political themes into the rally. "We're under attack from the Religious Right that would strip religious pluralism from the United States," he warned. [They] are committed to an elitest, Republican America where the few can control and manage the many."
"Can we move the United Methodist Church from its alliance with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?" he asked. "I say we can do it!" Lawson concluded the evening by promising the crowd that if they stand together, "we can transform the United Methodist Church" and gain "full access to the tree of life itself."