A Call for Action at the Trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann

On March 17, 2004, I will lock arms with other people of faith to block the entrance to Bothell United Methodist Church in a nonviolent attempt to stop the trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann.

I owe it to my friends and family, to the people of Soulforce and to our United Methodist colleagues to explain exactly why I would take such a risk in Seattle after the 1999 WTO riots heightened that area’s distrust of public protest and the even more alarming recent crack-down on public dissent enforced by the ‘Patriot Acts’ of George Bush and John Ashcroft.

The trial of Karen Dammann is not just a case of the United Methodist Church putting on trial a local lesbian pastor who has embraced her sexuality as a gift from God and in the process admitted that she is in a “partnered, covenanted, homosexual relationship.” Karen’s trial is, in fact, an unjust assault on the equality, humanity and sacred worth of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. And whether the jury finds her innocent or guilty, the trial itself will have tragic consequences on many different levels.

Headlines will announce to the world: ‘AMERICA’S THIRD LARGEST CHRISTIAN DENOMINATION PLACES A LESBIAN PASTOR ON TRIAL FOR ADMITTING PUBLICLY THAT SHE IS IN A HOMOSEXUAL RELATIONSHIP.’ How will those headlines be read?

First, the trial will remind millions of Americans that even while the Mayor of San Francisco and the Supreme Court of Massachusetts insists that same-sex relationships are worthy of public support and legal recognition, the Christian church continues to caricature and condemn the love experienced by two lesbians or two gay men as a “practice” that is “…incompatible with Christian teaching.” The ignorance and bigotry behind that statement breaks the heart of God, demeans and dehumanizes millions of sexual and gender minorities, shames the Christian Church and drives our sisters and brothers forever from its doors.

Second, the trial warns lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual persons that to be accepted by your church (and thus loved by God) is to remain safely in the closet. We who once lived in those same dark closets know that closets are places of spiritual, emotional and physical death. And the closets lived in by clergy who are forced to build their entire ministry on the lie of omission are the darkest and most dangerous closets of all. Karen Dammann has become a model to thousands of closeted clergy. Now, they are waiting to see if Karen’s courage is matched by the courage of her friends and colleagues.

Third, that Karen Dammann’s trial is even taking place is a triumph for the so-called “renewal groups” of the right wing of the United Methodist Church and for Fundamentalist leaders (inside and outside the UMC) who are in the final stages of their takeover of the UMC. Those “renewal groups” associated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy use their anti-homosexual rhetoric to divide and conquer. Whatever the verdict, this trial plays right into their hands. If Karen is found guilty and loses her ministry, the “renewal groups” will have advanced their campaign to punish pastors and bishops who dare to disobey or disregard Church law. If Karen is found guilty, but allowed to continue her ministry – or if Karen is found innocent – the “renewal groups” will respond with outrage and use the verdict to mobilize even more support for their takeover.

Fourth, the local congregation – Bothell UMC – where the trial is taking place, will never again be seen as a safe place for sexual or gender minorities, their friends and families. Since 1885, the pastor and people of Bothell UMC have demonstrated the spirit of Christ in their community. Now, they must be hoping that when this trial ends the people of Greater Seattle and the nation will forgive and forget. Unfortunately, it took just one act of physical violence for the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to become symbols forever of terrible wrong. Even if Karen Dammann is acquitted, Bothell UMC will become forever a symbol of spiritual violence, of a church making outcasts instead of welcoming them in Jesus’ name.

Fifth, whatever the verdict, this public act of spiritual violence will invariably bring more suffering to our sister Rev. Karen Dammann by those who would enforce the intolerance and bigotry now enshrined in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. For almost four years, Karen has been dehumanized and demeaned. She is willing to walk through the noisy crowds that caricature and condemn her. She is willing to take the stand and hear the tired, old accusations once again. She is willing to defend herself from charges that flow out of ignorance and prejudice. But even if the jury exonerates Pastor Dammann, we are constrained by the principles of relentless nonviolent resistance to stand between her and this judicial process that in spite of her willingness, will invariably causes her to suffer more spiritual and psychological violence.

For these and so many other reasons, we must not allow this trial to take place. And even if we fail, we must show the nation…

…that there are people of faith who believe that homosexuality is another of God’s gifts to be accepted, celebrated and lived with integrity and that lesbian and gay people in loving, committed, same-sex relationships should be recognized fully by church and state.

…that there are people of faith who honor the courage of our sisters and brothers who refuse to live in closets and that those same people of faith will match the courage of those who “come out” in our determined efforts to condemn and confront the powers that make closets necessary.

…that there are people of faith who will not be taken in by the Fundamentalist’s false claims against homosexuality and homosexuals, that we will not be frightened into helpless silence while their agenda grinds on, and that, guided by the principles of relentless nonviolent resistance, we will take our stand for truth and justice even if it threatens the ‘unity’ of the United Methodist Church.

There are at least two ways we must demonstrate our concern at Karen Dammann’s trial

If the trial takes place, we must stand outside the church in a powerful and prayerful silent vigil waiting to be there for Karen when the verdict is announced and to join her in sharing our truth with the media. Soulforce is recruiting volunteers to join the Pacific North West Reconciling Ministry Network in that powerful vigil.

But Soulforce is also committed to a serious attempt to stop the trial nonviolently before it can begin. Karen has risked everything in her courageous act of ecclesial disobedience. We can do no less. If the law that Karen has broken is an immoral and unjust law, then any trial designed to enforce that law is equally immoral and unjust whatever the final verdict.

No vigil, no press conference, no speech or sermon alone will convince the world that we are serious about our views. But if we are also willing to put our lives on the line (as Karen has done), if we are willing to lock our arms and say by our nonviolent act of civil disobedience that we will not allow this unjust and immoral trial to take place, if we are willing to face the possibility of arrest and even jail time, then we begin to change minds and hearts at last.

Jesus, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day, Bonhoeffer, and so many others have demonstrated the power of voluntary redemptive suffering. Rosa Parks just sat down and refused to move. In her act of civil disobedience, a movement was born. Until we stand up and refuse to move, no one will really take us seriously. It’s never a good time to sit down or stand up. It feels futile, embarrassing, even dangerous. Worse, our act of civil disobedience might go unnoticed (and we might end up with time in jail for our trouble), but one day, in the spirit of Rosa Parks, someone will sit down or stand up and give birth to a movement of millions of people of faith who will overturn the anti-homosexual teachings and actions of their churches and throw open the doors of their churches to all God’s children at last.

On March 17, 2004, I will lock arms with other people of faith to block the entrance to Bothell United Methodist Church in a nonviolent attempt to stop the trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann. By this simple act, we say to our Fundamentalist adversaries, “No more suffering! We condemn your false and inflammatory anti-homosexual rhetoric. We condemn your determination to maintain and enforce the ignorance and intolerance now enshrined in the UMC Book of Discipline. And we condemn your very personal attack on our sister Karen Dammann and on the others who stand with us, homosexual and heterosexual alike.”

On December 18, 1999, I locked arms with other people of faith to block the entrance of the United Methodist Church in Grand Island, Nebraska, to prevent the trial of our friend, the Rev. Jimmy Creech. We thought Soulforce volunteers would stand alone in blocking Bishop Grove and the jury pool from entering the sanctuary but at the last very last moment Methodist pastors and their husbands and wives from all across Nebraska stood with us (and choose to be arrested with us) as well.

Imagine the powerful witness of Pastor Jackson and the people of Bothell UMC if they decide at the very last minute to block those who would desecrate their church building with this public act of spiritual violence.

Imagine the powerful witness of Bishops Galvan and Grove and the jury pool of Methodist pastors if they refused to enter the church themselves and stood in solidarity and support of Karen Dammann.

Imagine the powerful witness of Methodist and other Christian and Jewish clergy and laity from the Pacific Northwest and across America if they stood in solidarity with us.

Imagine the powerful witness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from the Greater Seattle area and across the nation if they spent just one day, March 17,demanding justice for one of our own.

Four years ago, at the trial of Jimmy Creech, I watched the same Bishop Grove who will convene Karen Dammann’s trial and a jury of Jimmy’s peers demean, dehumanize, and defrock one of their most accomplished pastor/preachers for performing a holy union for a gay couple in his church. Soulforce volunteers lined the steps leading down from that desecrated sanctuary as Jimmy and his wife, Chris, walked away sadly from the United Methodist denomination they had loved and served so well. When will the suffering end if we don’t take steps to end it now? How can we even risk seeing this tragedy happen again?

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