Thursday, May 11, 2000
187 Arrested Protesting Methodists
SUMMARY: Civilly disobedient l/g/b/t crusaders went to jail to make an impression on the United Methodists and their special guest the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some 187 protestors including relatives of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr were arrested on the morning of May 10 in Cleveland, Ohio outside the site of the General Assembly of the United Methodist Church (UMC), in a peaceful planned civil disobedience action seeking equal treatment from religious groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. About 100 more demonstrated inside the convention center, briefly disrupting a service led by Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. George Carey, head of the worldwide Anglican communion, in observance of the General Assembly’s "Ecumenical Day."
The General Assembly, which meets every four years, is the top policy-making body of the UMC, and on May 11 it will be voting on key l/g/b/t issues. Currently the UMC, the third-largest religious group in the U.S. with 8.4-million members, considers homosexual acts incompatible with Christian teaching; prohibits ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians; and bars its ministers from blessing "homosexual unions."
Outside the Hall
The civil disobedience was organized by Soulforce, gay Reverend Mel White’s group which seeks to confront discriminatory practices using non-violent tactics. Discussions had begun well in advance with Cleveland’s mayor’s office and police force and with UMC leaders, and all participants in the action were trained in advance to ensure a peaceful process.
First, there was a rally with about 300 participants, which climaxed with a march around the building while singing We Are Marching in the Light of God. Among the various speakers was Reverend Don Fado, who organized last year’s "ecclesiastical disobedience" in which more than ninety UMC ministers joined together in Sacramento to bless the relationship of a lesbian couple.
Then, those who chose to assume what White called the "redemptive suffering" of being arrested blocked the convention hall’s taxi ramp by linking arms in groups of one or two dozen. Police simply told them they were under arrest and ordered them to follow officers who booked them without using handcuffs. The charges were aggravated (meaning persistent) disorderly conduct, which carries a maximum penalty of $250 fine and 30 days in jail. By agreement with prosecutors, arrestees pleaded no contest to the lesser charge of disorderly conduct and were fined $100 plus $55 court costs. Arrestees still had to spend about six hours in jail while their individual case files were developed.
During the protest, about a dozen anti-gay counter-demonstrators shouted at those involved in the civil disobedience. One report identified Charles Spingola, an Ohio preacher who led the group that tore down and burned the rainbow flag outside the Statehouse during Columbus’ annual pride march in June. Another identified professional homophobe Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps of Topeka, Kansas. [Ed. note: The previous day, Phelps and some other members of his Westboro Baptist Church — most of them his relatives — demonstrated at Oberlin College in picturesque Oberlin, Ohio to protest its tolerant policies and openly gay athletics director; they were intentionally ignored by hundreds of students and local residents who were "celebrating diversity" twenty yards away with a picnic and live music from the bandstand in the town square.]
Who Was Arrested
Those arrested included some famous names in civil rights, many of whom spoke at a press conference the night before. One was Arun Gandhi, grandson of the father of India’s independence Mohandas K. Gandhi, who said that his own process in overcoming anti-gay prejudice had included dealing with being sexually assaulted by a man when he was 10 years old. Another was Yolanda King, a daughter of the late African-American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Other notable veterans of that civil rights movement who had worked closely with King included now-retired United Methodist minister Dr. James Lawson and Lutheran minister Dr. Robert Graetz, a white man whose support of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott led racists to bomb his home. Other King co-workers arrested were Dr. Rodney Powell and Dr. Gloria Johnson-Powell, leaders of student movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The largest number of those arrested were ordinary citizens — gay and non-gay — who came from all over the U.S. in response to Soulforce’s call.
In addition to Dr. Lawson, another UMC leader arrested included Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of the denomination’s Northern Illinois region. Reportedly he was not the only UMC bishop to participate; Bishop Susan Morrison of the UMC’s Albany Area was not arrested but participated in the rally as what she called "a sign act of gracious hospitality… a nonviolent way to be in solidarity with some of God’s children who are excluded."
Also arrested were leaders of three gay-supportive networks within the UMC: the Reconciling Churches Program’s interim executive director Marilyn Alexander; the Methodist Federation for Social Action executive director Kathryn Johnson; and United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church convenor/founder Reverend Gilbert H. Caldwell. Along with Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns, these groups form the AMAR coalition, which has been working to advance equal treatment of gays and lesbians within the UMC. At least four other UMC ministers and 26 other UMC laypeople were arrested, plus Jimmy Creech, the Omaha, Nebraska minister whose credentials were withdrawn this year after he was found guilty of disobedience in his second trial for presiding at same-gender couples’ commitment ceremonies.
Reverend Gregory Dell of Chicago’s Broadway United Methodist Church, now finishing a suspension of one year after being convicted of disobedience for presiding at a same-gender couple’s commitment ceremony, spoke with the Associated Press after his release. He said that if the General Assembly votes May 11 to retain its anti-gay policies — as a legislative committee has recommended — there will be further protest actions designed to "interrupt the general conference." Soulforce had asked to be allowed to be present during plenary votes and UMC bishops were willing to take that request to the floor, but it would have required the approval of 2/3 of the 992 delegates, which White said would have been disruptive for the General Assembly and painful for his own group.
White is already looking ahead to the 2004 General Assembly, when he hopes to gather 1,000 people for non-violent action.
Inside the Hall
While the civil disobedience was going on outside, about 100 members of the gay-supportive AMAR coalition carried out a brief "Action of Alliance" inside during Archbishop Carey’s ecumenical morning worship service. Divided between the balcony and the floor, they sang out a call-and-response litany whose refrain was, "Wide is God’s welcome – Extend the table!"
Archbishop Carey, who has weathered numerous protests back home in Britain including disruption of his annual Easter sermon by the direct action group OutRage!, continued calmly with the service. In his sermon, which revolved around the theme of unity between the churches, he said he had "abandoned a long time ago a theology of unity that assumes it means uniformity and sameness." Citing South Africa, the Sudan and Northern Ireland as examples, Carey said that "the best demonstrations of unity have been prophetic situations of witness when churches have stood together for people and the gospel." However the closest he came to mentioning the subject of the demonstrations inside and outside the conference hall was a brief reference to "issues to do with personal freedom and its limits," including homosexuality and abortion.
As White had explained earlier, "We are not in Cleveland to protest the presence of these Christian leaders [Carey and others present for Ecumenical Day]. They are our sisters and brothers. We are marching on the Convention Center to protest their policies against God’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered children and to help them understand the tragic consequences of those policies."
[Ed. note: Soulforce recently estimated the total cost of its week long campaign at the UMC General Assembly at $60,000, even though participants paid for their own travel and lodging. The group has put out a desperate call for funds, and those who wish to help can make a tax-deductible contribution with a credit card online or by check to Soulforce, PO Box 4467, Laguna Beach, CA 92652. Donations of airline mileage points are also welcomed.]