May 10, 2000
CLEVELAND (UMNS) – More than 180 people, including a United Methodist bishop, were arrested May 10 for engaging in civil disobedience as a way of protesting United Methodist policies regarding homosexuality.
The arrests followed a rally and a march around the Cleveland Convention Center, where delegates to the United Methodist General Conference are meeting through May 12 to set church policy for the next four years. Inside the building, the 992 delegates were in worship, then heard a sermon by Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.
Outside, about 300 people participated in a rally organized by Soulforce, a coalition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and heterosexuals from a variety of faith backgrounds. The group is pushing the United Methodist church and other mainline denominations to fully accept sexual minorities in the life of the church.
After the rally, the protesters marched around the building, singing "We Are Marching in the Light of God." Afterward, groups of 13 to 25 people took turns blocking the convention center driveway and were led away by police. They were charged with aggravated disorderly conduct, according to police Commander James Davidson.
Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, head of the denomination’s Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference, was among the first protesters arrested. At least nine other active or retired United Methodist bishops participated in the rally but did not appear to have been arrested.
"This is just a kick-off," said the Rev. Mel White of Laguna Beach, Calif., co-founder of Soulforce. At the 2004 General Conference, he said he plans on having 1,000 people arrested – one for every delegate. White is a member of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.
As of 1:30 p.m. Eastern time, about 185 people had been logged by the Cleveland police, and they were still being booked, said Lt. Sharon MacKay. She had no information at that point on whether some of the protesters had been released.
During the rally, he said Soulforce would encourage people to withhold their tithes and offerings, and support only churches that are reconciling (belonging to the Reconciling Congregations Program, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates full inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church), are becoming reconciling or are willing to talk to gays and lesbians.
The demonstrators included many United Methodists, among them the Rev. James Lawson, the civil rights leader who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the Rev. Greg Dell of Chicago, who was convicted in a March 1999 church trial for performing a same-sex ceremony and suspended; and Jimmy Creech, a former clergyman who lost his orders after being convicted in a November church trial of a similar charge. All three men were arrested for blocking the convention center exit.
Others participating in the rally and march included Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi; Yolanda King, the eldest daughter of the late civil rights leader; and Rodney Powell, another co-worker of Martin Luther King’s in the 1950s and ’60s.
Bishop Susan Morrison, of the church’s Albany (N.Y.) Area, described her participation in the demonstration as a "sign act of gracious hospitality." "It was a nonviolent way to be in solidarity with some of God’s children who are excluded," she said. "I feel as a person of faith and as a bishop there is a need for that presence."
She believes change is coming, she said. "It’s inevitable, but it may take a new generation to do it." It may require "people letting go of their fear" and the church taking a stand, she said. "Too often, the church is not a leader in that."
"The church is being unfaithful to its own preaching and teaching of love and hospitality," Lawson said. Language in the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuals is negative and should be removed, just as the church has tried to cleanse the book of references that are racist or sexist, he said. The book, which contains the denomination’s bylaws, states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Lawson said he wants the General Conference to declare a moratorium on the negative language regarding homosexuals in the Book of Discipline and on "any witch-hunting" of clergy members who are engaged in ministry to gays and lesbians. Pastors should be able to decide themselves how to minister to their own congregations, he said.
He described the movement for inclusion of gays and lesbians as a continuation of the civil rights struggles of other groups in the United States – African Americans, women, the elderly, Latinos, the disabled. Like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, this effort is nonviolent and rooted in faith, he said. "These are all baptized people."
He drew other parallels to the civil rights movement, noting that people on the political and religious right are demonizing gays and lesbians by calling them immoral, just as blacks were demonized. "Immorality is the charge aimed at the black community for 400 years," Lawson said.
"We have done as much as we can working within the system," said Marilyn Alexander, executive director of the Reconciling Congregations Program, an unofficial United Methodist group that supports full inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church. "Now we are at the point where it will take something out of the ordinary to jog people to see how important this is." If the 2000 General Conference doesn’t change the church’s rules, "it’s going to be another horrible four years of pain" for the gay and lesbian community, Alexander said.
Inside the convention center, before worship, a group in the balcony rose and chanted, "Extend the table." Holding a rainbow cross, they sang, "We Are Marching In The Light of God." Some delegates on the floor stood, some clapped, some sang in support. Protesters began gathering on the convention center’s mall before 7 a.m. Many of them wore shirts that said, "Stop the spiritual violence. The debate must end. We are God’s children too." They sang hymns, and prayed for the Archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders in the convention center. They also prayed for all denominations that have restrictive policies regarding gays and lesbians.
Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour event, a heckler shouted obscenities at them, and other counter-protesters held up signs with messages such as "Methodist Fag Church."
During the rally, White passed the microphone to several speakers, including King, Lawson, Gandhi, Dell, Creech, Alexander, Powell, the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell, organizer of the United Methodists of Color for Full Inclusivity, the Rev. Don Fado, who led a group of 68 California-Nevada clergy members in performing a same-sex union in 1999, and Bishops William Dew, Jesse DeWitt, Calvin McConnell and Mary Ann Swenson. "I am just here to encourage tolerance and compassion," King said. Her hope is directed at the United Methodist Church but also to denominations across the nation, she said.
"This is where we need to be," Dew said. "I was asked by a reporter, ‘Why are you here?’ And I answered, ‘Why isn’t everybody here?’ "
"We are involved in a pastoral act that is claiming the gospel for all people," Sprague said.
White led the crowd in chanting, "We love the United Methodist Church." Then, singing, the group walked around the convention center, holding a banner that proclaimed: "The spirit of Christ cannot remain where all God’s children are not welcome. Don’t make the flame go out." Some held signs that read "No exit without justice."
The marchers stopped at the building’s driveway, symbolically blocking the convention center exit. That was a way of telling the delegates, "Stay in there until you get it right," White said. The arrests were orderly. White had told the protesters that they would be fingerprinted and fined $180 after being arrested.