Des Moines Register Article: "Methodist Bishops Rally with Gays – Protesters at the Church Conference Say Jesus in on Their Side"

Des Moines Register
May 11, 2000
Des Moines, Iowa
By Stephen Buttry, Register Staff Writer

Cleveland, Ohio – Several United Methodist bishops joined hands Wednesday with gay activists and veterans of the civil-rights movement to protest the United Methodist Church’s policies on homosexuality.

"If Jesus were here, he’d stay outside with us," said Denver Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, one of at least 10 bishops who joined the protest march outside the Cleveland Convention Center.

Inside the convention hall, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is planning to deal this week with divisive matters such as same-sex unions and ordination of gays. The church does not ordain noncelibate gays and lesbians, forbids its clergy to officiate at same-sex unions, and bars such ceremonies in its churches. Although delegates surveyed before the conference identified homosexuality as one of the most pressing issues, hundreds of other matters came up for debate ahead of the major petitions dealing with gays and lesbians. The major debate on sexuality is expected today, though one vote was taken Wednesday.

"We just want everyone to understand that the policy is hurting other people," said Matt Kaler, one of two Grinnell College sophomores who traveled from Iowa to join the March. Kaler, a Unitarian, and Bryan Lake, a United Methodist, were among nearly 200 people arrested for blocking the driveway in front of the convention center. They were charged with aggravated disorderly conduct. Most of the bishops did not block the driveway, but Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of Northern Illinois joined the blockade and was arrested.

Iowa Bishop Charles Wesley Jordan, who has not taken a public position on whether the church should change its stances on homosexuality, didn’t join the march. Paster Len Sjogren of Sioux City, an alternate in the Iowa delegation, was among the marchers, as was Rich Eychaner of Des Moines. Eychaner, who is gay, stopped going to the United Methodist Church because of its policies regarding gays. Neither man joined in blocking the driveway.

Demonstrators began gathering before 7 a.m. in a large outdoor mall in front of the convention center. Many wore white T-shirts saying, "We are God’s children, too." Others wore clerical collars and some wore purple shirts identifying them as bishops. As Cleveland police led each group of protesters away to be booked, supporters applauded loudly and sang, "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."

The marchers were joined by Arun Gandhi, grandson of Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Yolanda King, daughter of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Soulforce, the gay civil-rights group that organized the march, teaches the nonviolent resistance tactics of Gandhi and King. Arun Gandhi, who heads the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, Tenn., said his grandfather would have joined the protest. "He didn’t like any kind of discrimination or oppression."

A small group of men shouted epithets as the group marched. "You sodomites should be stoned!" screamed Chuck Spingola of Newark, Ohio, waving two children’s action figures attached in a depiction of anal sex. Carlos Jayne, an Iowa delegate and the lobbyist for the Iowa United Methodist Conference, said he doubted delegates would be swayed by the demonstration. "I doubt it has a whole lot of effect."

Delegates are expected to start debate today on the three most divisive sexuality questions: whether to ordain noncelibate gays and lesbians, whether to allow same-sex unions and whether to change the church’s policy that same-sex relations are "incompatible with Christian teaching." After a brief debate Wednesday evening, delegates rejected a proposal to create a ministry for "those wishing to leave the homosexual lifestyle."

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