Akron Beacon Journal Article: "Gays Ready to Take a Stand. Nonviolence Advocates Help Coalition to Plan for Civil Disobedience at Methodist Meeting"

Akron Beacon Journal
May 10, 2000
Akron, Ohio
By Colette M. Jenkins, Beacon Journal staff writer

CLEVELAND: Don and Jean Presian are prepared to go to jail for what they believe. "God calls for the church to be inclusive but in the institutional church, the majority of its members don’t buy that homosexuality is a gift," said Don Presian, 72. "If we, as minority folks who recognize that it is a gift, don’t say so, the word will never get out."

The Presians, of Ravenna, were expected to meet this morning with other supporters of gay rights issues in a peaceful civil disobedience at the Cleveland Convention Center, where the United Methodist Church is holding its General Conference through Friday.

Last night, many of the same people gathered at a press conference and rally featuring civil rights speakers. Those speakers included civil rights activists Yolanda King, daughter of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi.

"Much of the discrimination against gays and lesbians is generated by the church. Religion is about reuniting people and bringing people together," said Gandhi, 66, of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis. "Religion should be concerned with taking humanity toward salvation and God, but the church is very divisive on this issue."

Gandhi and the other speakers urged people of faith to change policies that they view as discriminatory against homosexuals.

Today’s action and last night’s rally were coordinated by Soulforce, a coalition of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and heterosexuals dedicated to seeking equality and justice for sexual minorities. The organization was established in 1998, by the Rev. Mel White and his partner, Gary Nixon, on the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and King.

White said today’s plan included marching around the Convention Center and blocking the entrance, which could lead to being arrested.

He said the civil disobedience was scheduled to coincide with an ecumenical worship service inside the Convention Center, where Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was to give a sermon. Other heads of denominations with anti-gay policies in place also were expected to be in attendance, he said.

"We want to send a message to the church in general — if they are not gay friendly, they can expect us to be there," said White, 60. "They can either end these policies or lose gay and lesbian people and the spirit of Christ because if they lose us, they lose Jesus. We are not here to condemn the church. We are here to save the soul of the church. After a meeting yesterday with Soulforce leaders, Bishop William Oden, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, issued a statement saying: "We have hoped that everyone knows our doors are open, but we wanted Soulforce to be told by us personally."

But United Methodist Pastor James Lawson doesn’t believe his church will warmly accept homosexuals. Lawson, a Massillon native who pastors in Los Angeles, said he would stand with White and the other protesters. Lawson, who was a close friend and co-worker of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., also spoke at last night’s rally.

"So much of the hatred toward homosexuals is coming out of the mouth of Christians and the United Methodist Church has participated by putting language into the Discipline and teaching it," said Lawson, 71. "It is time for it to stop. The United Methodists — and the church in general — must purge itself of the language and the attitudes."

Lawson said he would welcome the United Methodists leading the way in eliminating prohibitive language against gays from its Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s rules and policies.

The nearly 1,000 delegates meeting in Cleveland through Friday make up the denomination’s top policymaking body. They are expected to address rules that prohibit the ordination of practicing homosexuals and forbid its ministers to perform same-sex unions and its facilities to be used for such ceremonies.

On Monday, the General Conference voted 705-210 to reject a proposal that would require all pastors to sign a statement professing that homosexuality is not of God’s will. It also declined to add language to the Discipline that would have made the performance of a same-sex union a chargeable offense in a state where such ceremonies are legal.

The Presians, who are members of the United Church of Christ and the parents of a gay son, said they are happy to see the United Methodist Church show sensitivity toward minority groups. But they are waiting to see how the church will respond to gays.

"This issue is more than an internal thing with the United Methodists. Gays and lesbians need to be accepted in the church and society in general," said Jean Persian, 69. "I feel God is calling us to stand up for what we believe because people need to be accepted for who they are not who we want them to be."