No More Strangers at the Gate

May 2000

My Soulforce Experience at the United Methodist General Conference

On May 10, 2000, I was arrested in Cleveland because of my sexual orientation.

My heart’s desire is to be with someone I love deeply, who supports and loves me unconditionally, and with whom I choose to grow, create, and contribute to the uses and purposes of life in true partnership.

By God’s good grace I am blessed with such a partner. Our partnership is embraced by our families, our marriage is celebrated by our church, and our commitments to the world are held legal under the structures that govern our lives.

Until all God’s children can grow, create, and contribute under these same conditions, I cannot rest.

Over forty years ago, a young African-American Methodist minister from Ohio who had studied the principles of Gandhi in India was introduced to a young African-American Baptist minister from the South. The Rev. Jim Lawson taught the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., about the spirit, principles, techniques, and goals of Gandhi’s Satyagraha–"Truthforce," or "Soulforce." Always the goal is reconciliation. Always the adversary is treated with respect. Always the practitioners of Soulforce voluntarily accept suffering rather than inflict suffering on others. They never fight violence with violence. They are absolutely relentless in their pursuit of truth.

On May 9, 2000, in Cleveland, Ohio, outside the 2000 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, that same Methodist minister taught the same principles, techniques, and goals to participants in Soulforce,** a new ecumenical movement organized two years ago by the Rev. Mel White to end the oppression of sexual minorities.

The single greatest source of that oppression is the Christian churches. Creeds based on a great untruth (just as the churches once used such scriptures as Nehemiah 13.1-3 to justify slavery and segregation) are being used to kill our children or cause them to kill themselves. Half those convicted of murdering a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person say they did so to fulfill the will of God. Where did they learn that? From their Christian churches and their Christian brothers and sisters.

But not all Christian churches, brothers, or sisters. My brother John Edward Ford was formed in St. John’s United Methodist Church, loved it all his life, was nurtured by its teachers and pastors as a gay man, and chose to plan his memorial service within its holy space. How dare the governing structures of my denomination proclaim my brother’s life "incompatible with Christian doctrine"? How dare they?

Among the 191 people arrested was the Reverend Jimmy Creech. I mean Jimmy Creech. Last summer the orders of this dear man of God were removed by the legal structures of the United Methodist Church– only the third time in our history this has happened–because he dared bless the lives of two faithful and loving parishioners in holy union. Arrested with him was the Reverend Gregory Dell, currently under suspension by the United Methodist Church for the same offense. These two good men, friends and allies since their student days at Duke Divinity School, choose to walk calmly toward their arrest through screamed obscenities hand-in-hand.

I cannot fail to mention the holy hilarity that abounded throughout our days together. I used to think that humor is the secular form of grace. I now believe that humor is grace. A tee- shirt among us read: "God favors no group. Only religions do that." I at least smiled when one of my new friends concluded: "The United Methodist Book of Discipline is neither unchanging, unchangeable, or inspired by God." The Rev. Phil Lawson, the cherubic younger brother of Jim Lawson and also a reconciling United Methodist minister, said to us: "When I was born, my father put me in the lap of my oldest brother and told Jim to take care of me. I’ve had a drug problem ever since: He drug me here, and he drug me there." They are quite a team. When I was being booked, the young police officer asked me what I teach. "Latin and Greek," I said. "Oh, I’ve always wanted to learn Latin," he said. "Okay, Matt, let’s start right now: amo, amas, amat." We both laughed happily.

Before our arrest, a gentle Indian named Arun Gandhi said to us, "Grandfather used to insist that there are no enemies. The British are not our enemies. They are our friends and we need to change their attitudes."

Rev. Jim Lawson told us to make it church, to see civil disobedience as an act of prayer, practicing the presence of God. He said, "We are expressing our love for this nation. We are offering religion in this country a new day. This is an historic moment. This has never happened to the United Methodist Church before in my lifetime. Go forth with humility and confidence."

Gandhi never professed a principle that he did not himself embody, literally with the presence of his physical body. Neither did Martin Luther King, Jr. The first person I saw in the men’s holding tank when the jail door clanged shut behind us was Jim Lawson. Standing next to him was Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

I know I experienced in Cleveland the immense power of an embodied idea. I believe I experienced the presence of Jesus on the exit ramp outside the General Conference of the United Methodist Church and in the cells of the Cleveland City Jail.

Susan F. Wiltshire
Vanderbilt University
Email: susan.f.wiltshire@vanderbilt.edu