The Trial of Jimmy Creech: November 17, 1999 An Act of Spiritual Violence Against God’s GLBT Children

The Rev. Dr. Mel White
November 24, 1999

I will never forget the expression on Jimmy’s face as he left the Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, Nebraska, to face a wall of reporters and camera crews. Two hours earlier, a jury of his peers had found our friend, Jimmy Creech, guilty of conducting the holy union of two men in Raleigh, North Carolina. The November 17 trial had just ended with the jury’s penalty decision. I met Jimmy as he and his wife, Chris, exited the sanctuary. Blinking back tears, he smiled a brave, sad smile and hugged me. But the look in his eyes haunts me still.

Jimmy Creech had served the United Methodist Church faithfully for a quarter of a century. He had preached powerfully and pastored with distinction. And though he knew that conducting a same-sex holy union had just become a "chargeable offense" for United Methodist clergy, he had broken that "unjust law" as an act of conscience.

The jury could have decided on a token penalty, a slap on the wrist, a warning. Instead, they chose to end Jimmy’s career as a United Methodist cleric. For following his heart and doing justice for sexual minorities, the jury withdrew Jimmy’s ordination to Christian ministry and revoked his license to preach and pastor.

As Jimmy and Chris walked down the stairs into the arms of his shocked and grieving friends, our Soulforce team went into action. One hundred-fifty volunteers had spent the last twenty-four hours in Grand Island, Nebraska, to support Jimmy and to protest this act of spiritual violence against all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Carrying lighted candles and wearing our matching "Stop Spiritual Violence" sweatshirts, we formed an honor guard around the Creech family. Just behind them, Sara Sherrard, a transgendered Soulforce volunteer from Charlottesville, Virginia, carried the tall purple candle of the Holy Spirit as she led our procession away from the church where Jimmy Creech had been tried. Jimmy explained our symbolic act to the waiting media. "How can the Holy Spirit be present anyplace," he asked, "where all God’s children are not welcome?"

The day before, November 16, Soulforce volunteers from twenty states had gathered in Grand Island for advanced training in civil disobedience guided by the principles of nonviolence as taught by Gandhi and King. Because no local church in Grand Island would provide us sanctuary, the local Holiday Inn became our "Soulforce Central."

That evening before the trial began, we invited the media to see the same holy union for which Jimmy Creech was being tried. The grooms, Larry Ellis and Jim Raymer, had agreed to this "renewal of vows" as a witness to the world. A dozen television crews filmed the service. Nebraska papers carried front page, full-color photos of the grooms with Jimmy and their witnesses.

That night we gathered on the steps of Trinity United Methodist where the trial would take place for an all-night candlelight vigil. We had bought a full-page ad in the Grand Island Independent to explain why the trial was an act of spiritual violence against sexual minorities. We promised to block the doors of the church one hour before the trial began and invited bishops and jurists to join us in our act of conscience. At least a dozen UMC clergy and their families from Nebraska joined us on the steps that night.

The next morning at 7:45AM, motorcycle police escorted the bus carrying bishops and potential jurists to the door where the Soulforce delegation stood waiting. Camera crews and reporters rushed into action as we locked arms and blocked the entrance in an act of civil disobedience. Bishop William Grove approached us, thanked us for our act of conscience, then asked us to step aside so that he and the jury could "do their duty."

We didn’t move. No one said a word. Bishop Joel Martinez, the United Methodist bishop for Nebraska, looked out on a sea of determined Soulforce faces including at least twelve of his own Nebraska clergy and their wives. After several minutes of absolute silence, Captain Bill Holloway of the Grand Island police spoke his first warning. "Move away or be arrested." No one moved. No one spoke. The first sound we heard after "You are under arrest" was the sound of our Soulforce friends applauding in support as we were led away.

One week has passed since our Soulforce Journey to Grand Island. I am still stunned by the arrogance of the United Methodist Church in their mean-spirited treatment of one of their best and brightest. With almost ten million members, the United Methodists are America’s third largest Christian community (after Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists.) I had hoped that the United Methodists with their history of social concern would have realized by now that we are God’s children, too, worthy of full, unqualified membership in Christ’s church. They have not.

With every passing day I get more convinced that most of the Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant alike) are no closer to granting GLBT people full acceptance than they were twenty or thirty years ago. In many ways it’s gotten worse. Except for the United Church of Christ (who have led the way in acceptance and understanding) there is a general crackdown in most denominations on clergy and laity who support us. Investigations are under way. Charges are made. Trials are conducted. Studies are commissioned and tabled. The debate goes on endlessly. And in the process, God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered children continue to suffer the endless acts of spiritual violence against us.

When someone calls you a "fag," you are a victim of psychological violence. When he calls you a "fag" and hits you with a baseball bat, you are a victim of physical violence. But when he calls you a "fag," hits you with a baseball bat, and quotes the Bible (or the United Methodist Church) to defend his act, you are a victim of spiritual violence.

I’d rather suffer psychological or physical violence any day than be told over and over again the untruth that my sexual orientation is a sickness and a sin; that my Creator doesn’t love me as I am; and that my fifteen year relationship with Gary Nixon isn’t blessed by God so the United Methodist Church can’t bless it either.

We’ve waited decades for the churches of our childhood to end their debate about sexual orientation. They have ignored the evidence of science and history. They’ve misused the Scriptures to support their prejudice and they’ve refused to take our own stories seriously. Now they’re even putting our friends and allies on trial. We’ve been too polite and too patient for too long. Or we’ve walked away and left the struggle for others.

The Soulforce principles of relentless nonviolent resistance show us a powerful way to resist injustice. Take the Four Step (or the Seventeen Step) Journey into Soulforce. Scan our archives and our on-line resources. Get in touch. We are building an interfaith, ecumenical network of people of faith determined to do justice for sexual minorities (and for all others who suffer injustice). And in the process of working to transform our society through nonviolence, we’re finding our own spirits being renewed and restored. We would love to have you join us.

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