Article: "Gay Activists Plan Protest at General Assembly"

May 25, 2000

Soulforce group demands equal recognition for homosexuals in PC(USA)
by Evan Silverstein

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As Presbyterian commissioners and guests gather for opening worship at next month’s 212th General Assembly (GA) in Long Beach, Calif., members of an ecumenical gay-rights organization will assemble outside to protest Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) policies on homosexuality.

The non-violent demonstration outside the Long Beach Convention Center, scheduled for June 25, is being organized by Soulforce, a coalition of gay, lesbian and transgendered people and heterosexuals from a variety of faith backgrounds, including Presbyterians. The group is pushing the PC(USA) and other mainline denominations to fully accept sexual minorities in the life of the church.

"We are there to say, ‘There’s an injustice being done, and we’ll pay the price to show you how serious we are in getting that injustice undone,’" said the Rev. Mel White, a Soulforce co-founder and gay minister of the predominately gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church. "They have simply made us second-class citizens. They allow us to come and pay our tithe, but we’re not really welcome in the Presbyterian Church."

Current PC(USA) policy bars sexually active gay members from being ordained as church officers. Soulforce hopes to chip away at that and other church policies by blocking a convention-center entrance during services scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. Earlier this month Soulforce staged a peaceful rally during the United Methodist General Convention in Cleveland, and more than 200 of its members were arrested.

"We’re done with the debates; those aren’t working," said Jean Holsten, a Presbyterian attorney from Davis, Calif., who is co-chair of the group planning the demonstration. "The minds and hearts and souls aren’t being changed in that. So we want to be standing as a witness to the truth that we see, which is that God’s table is fully inclusive."

White said about 100 Soulforce members will assemble in front of the Convention Center at 8:30 a.m. on June 25 to invite GA delegates to attend worship at nearby First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ facility that will host services sponsored by Soulforce.

At 10:30 that morning, participants in the demonstration will march from First Congregational Church to the convention center, where White said members will "take our stand to say to the folks inside, ‘God’s spirit can’t remain where all God’s children aren’t welcome.’"

White said the activists will wear T-shirts with printed messages saying, "We are God’s children, too. This debate must end," and "Stop spiritual violence."

"This will be totally non-violent, totally silent, totally non-disruptive," he said.

The GA has been center-stage for protesters before, although most past efforts were led by dissenting Presbyterians. The most recent example is a protest two years ago, in Charlotte, N.C., by supporters of the National Network of Presbyterian College Women. In Albuquerque, N.M., in 1996, a brief demonstration followed the adoption of G-6.0106b, which requires of church officers either chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage (defined as between a man and a woman), and requires officers to repent of any self-acknowledged sin that is listed in the church’s "Book of Confessions."

"There’s been a long and kind of cherished tradition of the Presbyterian Church that people are allowed to express opinion," said the denomination’s stated clerk, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick. "There’s always folks outside the General Assembly passing out brochures expressing opinion of one sort or another. And we have had other times in which there’s been expressions even in the hall itself."

But don’t look for Soulforce members to take to the Assembly floor, despite reports that some members disrupted the Methodist proceedings in Cleveland – a charge that Soulforce officials adamantly deny.

"We don’t do interruptions. … We don’t believe in blockades," White said. "We don’t believe in noisy processions. What we do is very quiet and very symbolic. We don’t believe in disrupting. We don’t believe in going in. We’re trying to win minds and hearts. What good would that do if we disrupted?"

Soulforce officials compare their movement for inclusion of gays and lesbians to the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and say they conduct themselves in the manner of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.

Kirkpatrick said church officials have not discussed the scheduled protest or decided how they will respond, but said he hopes no added security measures will be necessary.

"We hope that if Soulforce feels it’s important to engage in civil-disobedience action … that a way can be found that enables them to express their issue of conscience through that without…disrupting the worship of the General Assembly or its life," Kirkpatrick said. "At least from the experience of the United Methodist (assembly) and others, I’m confident that can happen."

Presbyterian-related groups reaching out to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have applauded Soulforce and its agenda. More Light Presbyterians and a group named "That All May Freely Serve" said in a joint statement, "We appreciate that the ultimate goal of Soulforce is to encourage the conversion of hearts and minds, to the end that individuals and communities of faith will affirm and celebrate God’s love for all people."

Members of the two organizations, which are not sponsors of the event, said standing with Soulforce is a matter of conscience, and every person in the church must decide whether to participate and how to choose the best means of combating anti-homosexual discrimination.

"We are inviting people as a matter of their own conscience to do what they want to do," said the Rev. Jane Spahr, a minister with "That All May Freely Serve" who has acknowledged being a lesbian. "I’m hoping that this is not just about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. This is about oppression. It’s about second-class citizenship. It’s about not inviting our own children and grandchildren into leadership. For a church to have this as a rule, it’s so painful to me. It’s like, let the stones cry out."

Spahr said she plans to participate in the Soulforce protest.

One member of More Light Presbyterians said he’s undecided.

"I think the goals of Soulforce are admirable," said Scott Anderson, a co-moderator of the group. "There’s a long history in the religious community of civil disobedience on moral grounds, on non-violence. I really respect that mode, but it has not been my personal journey."

He said he believes people’s acceptance of gays and lesbians must come about through a "conversion" that grows out of "getting to know them, witnessing first-hand the integrity of their Christian faith, and … that’s been sort of my focus."

Members of conservative Presbyterian groups could not be reached for comment or did not return phone calls from the Presbyterian News Service: Joe Rightmyer, of Presbyterians for Renewal, could not be reached for comment. Two Presbyterian Coalition board members, the Rev. Mark Toone of Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church, of Gig Harbor, Washington, and the Rev. Peter Barnes of First Presbyterian Church, of Boulder, Colo., did not return calls.

As in Cleveland, Soulforce will follow a carefully scripted plan in Long Beach. Representatives are taking part in talks with local police and convention center officials. Cleveland officials said the process worked well.

"We knew what was coming," said Lt. Sharon MacKay, a public-information officer with the Cleveland police. "We had an approximate number. They were very up-front with us, very forthcoming with information, and they were no problem at the time they staged their demonstration. They were no problem during the arrests. There were essentially no problems at all. It went very, very well."