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All the Wonders

  • betharichardson

40 Years Ago - The Birth of the RMN




Around this time 40 years ago (May of 1984), the General Conference of The United Methodist Church was meeting in Baltimore, MD. On the day that the conference adopted the ban on gay clergy, I stood with members of Affirmation (United Methodist for Gay/Lesbian Concerns) at the doors of the convention center and passed out turquoise-blue pamphlets launching the Reconciling Congregation Program.


The UM Activists


My first General Conference had been four years earlier in Indianapolis, IN. I had attended my first Affirmation meeting the previous fall and, finally, had found my people. I took some vacation days, drove up to the conference from Nashville, and then ended up staying the whole two weeks. 


At that time, I fervently believed that if people would just meet me and get to know me, they would see that I was beloved of God, just the way that I was created. But being there in the halls of the convention center and meeting those who named me and my people as “incompatible with Christian teaching” was a big dose of realism. 


During those two weeks, I participated in direct action, met with other gay and lesbian activists, and became a full participant in Affirmation: United Methodists for Gay and Lesbian Concerns. During the second week of the conference, I helped represent Affirmation at press conference with the Rev. Cecil Williams. I came face to face with people who looked at me with the eyes of judgment, fear, and disgust.


A church historian among our ranks reminded us that social change takes time. “It will probably take about 50 years,” she told us. “Think about how long it took for women to obtain ordination: 50 years!” And so it seemed important to think about how, in the interim, to care for our siblings, even as we worked to change the rules of the church.


The Presbyterians had started identifying “More Light” churches -- congregations who were welcoming to LGBTQ persons. So in 1983 Affirmation began to form the program that became the Reconciling Network Program.


At those days in Affirmation, all our efforts were led by both a man and a woman (I know. How binary!!). So Mark Bowman and I volunteered to lead the fledgling Reconciling Movement and became its first staff people.



Our Roots --- Edgehill United Methodist Church


I was already a part of a church that was "reconciling." Edgehill UMC in Nashville had, in the late 70s studied the issue of homosexuality and had made their space welcoming to all people.


When we launched the Reconciling Congregation Program, we wrote the material modeled on the process of study, learning, and discernment that Edgehill had followed several years before.



Within the first month after we launched the program, two churches — one on each coast — had declared itself Reconciling. Those churches were Wesley UMC in Fresno, CA and Washington Square UMC in New York City.


At the end of the first year, there were 12 Reconciling Congregations all across the country. It was such an amazing feeling to go to the post office box in downtown Nashville and find a letter from yet another congregation that welcomed all people. (Remember, this was before the internet.) The early days of the program was all about identifying churches, congregations, individuals, and church leaders who were already on this path. We discovered that we were not alone. 



Going Forward


Today we wake up in a new church — all the harmful language in The Discipline and Social Principles has been removed. All these years of work has finally come to fruition. It has been 52 years since the first harmful language was inserted into the Social Principles.


And so we pause to offer prayers of gratitude for all the workers of justice. All the parents and grandparents, all the brave young justice-seekers, all the lay people and clergy who held on to us during those years when the institution called us incompatible. All those too wounded to continue the journey. All those who have found their freedom on another path. For all of us, we give thanks.


Personal note: I am only now, in retirement, feeling able to speak freely about my role in those early days. I chose the institution and my survival over speaking out and speaking to the injustices. For that, I beg the forgiveness of those who suffered by my silence. 



The Welcome Way 


How could we have imagined

forty years ago

What the Spirit would do through us. 


(I knew I craved a spiritual home

Where I was loved and accepted just the way I was created.

And shouldn’t we all have a place like that?)


And now. 

How beautiful it is to see what has come about. 

To see the Spirit’s work through us 

and through the work of 

so many laborers for justice and love. 


We are a vast congregation of healing and hope. 

Rainbow-clad. 

Stained with tears and sweat and, sometimes, 

a little bit (or a lot) of blood.


We are children and youth and adults, young and old. 

We are individuals and churches and campuses

and Sunday school classes and prayer groups and missional outposts. 

We love and manifest the holy one in different ways of loving and being.

We are individuals in small towns or remote rural area. 

We are in the United States and around the world. 

We are beacons of Hope. 

Of Justice. Of Love. Of Healing. 


Not all of us have made it to this day.

Some of us, discouraged and angry, found another home.

Some of us, broken and beaten in body or spirit,

were forced to find a new community in which to tend our wounds.

Some of us were forced to live in constraints of lonely or toxic silence.

Some of us died from our despair.

All of us carry wounds from these years of injustice and homophobia.


And, today, as we greet this new thing that the Holy One has created, 

We promise to continue the work for justice for all people. 


For we are welcome,

we are loved,

just the way we have been created. 


We are paving A Welcome Way 

with our tears and sweat and, 

sometimes, a little bit (or a lot) of blood. 


We are beloved, and we are not alone. 



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preisssodfarm
May 09

Dear Beth, I am using this in my sermon on Sunday. I am just a Lay Speaker, but change is affecting my church. We average 35 parishioners on a Sunday, and lost one last week due to the changes in the discipline. I will give you ALL the credit for what I say! I’m not LGBTQ, but some of my best friends are and they are not comfortable in a church. I am working to change that!! God bless💕

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betharichardson
May 09
Replying to

Thank you so much for sharing this. I will be thinking of you on Sunday. ❤️

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twila.gibbens
May 07

Thank you Beth. I think of all the loving clergy, like your parents, and many in OK conference who had gay kids who were harmed by the church. And the laity too, who loved their churches that rejected their kids. I’m crying as I write this. It is has been awful for parents. It has been awful for all who love God to be rejected by churches!

You have been courageous and faithful and I’m thankful that you can see this new day!!

I’m thankful for so many laity who continued to wait in the UMC for this day. And for those who chose another denomination so that they could worship safely. What incredible faith! I stand in awe.

Rev.…

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betharichardson
May 08
Replying to

Twila, I am so grateful to still be here to witness the change. Thank you for these thoughts. I feel very fortunate to have received affirmation from my parents who accepted me just the way I was. Their love of me and my work with RMN (my Dad was a delegate in 1988 and supported RMN) was so important.


Thank you for being one who carries the message of love for all people.


Blessings,

Beth

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jodi.tyra
May 06

Scott is rejoicing, as am I for all those that came before, all those who have worked toward this and for our future generations. Love is love. All are welcome. Thank you, Beth.

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betharichardson
May 06
Replying to

Love is love. I’m so grateful for Scott and all the allies in the company of heaven!! ❤️

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ahuntca
May 05

Thanks Beth for this post. I tried to publish a comment earlier but I think it got lost in the process of confirming me as legit commenter... I have had many emotions arise during General Conference and one of them is around the forgotten history of our early movements. A few mentions of the early days of RMN but hardly anything of Affirmation... Michael, Peggy, Joan, dearly missed friends.... Affirmation may not have been a perfect organization but it led where others feared to tread. And created the critical mass for groups with more specific goals and agendas to arise, such as RMN. And from the beginning they modeled equality of M & F leadership in an organizatio…

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betharichardson
May 06
Replying to

At the reconciling convocation last fall there was a history timeline that did pretty well at talking about the early days. I don’t know it it made it to the web. I’ll take a look around.

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imorrissey5
May 05

Where is Mark? We’ve lost track of him. My daughter was singing with the Washington. Gay and Lesbian Choir then and helped write and produce the first editions of “Mania for the Journey” in Mark ‘s basement. When Mark left to become director of RMN with you, her partner took over as director of the WG&LC.

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betharichardson
May 05
Replying to

Mark is living in Chicago, still, and working with the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network. It's a great project. You should check it out: https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/


So lovely to hear about your daughter's involvement with the Gay and Lesbian choir and then Manna for the Journey. Time sure does fly!!

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