At the Intersections

Friday, June 10th, 2016 2:52 pm

The following is the text of the keynote speech I was honored to give at the Iowa MFSA Awards Dinner. I can't think of a better way to transition to new work and continue to have passion for all MFSA has been, is, and will be.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to preach at Craig Chapel at Drew Theological School. Now I'm a lectionary preacher so the week following was a lovely, yet complex passage from the book of Acts.

16 years later, I can't thank Dr. Sharon Ringe enough for her map quiz in my New Testament survey class. Here we encounter Peter entering the city of Lydda as he makes his way from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean Coast. Lydda is a city at the crossroads of two roads – the first that Peter is on and a second that goes from Egypt to Babylon.

As I prepared for a sermon on raising the dead, I realized there was another truth in this nugget of Scripture.

Peter had a conscious choice to make: continue on his mission to heal in the name of Jesus; or to turn down a road that leads to places of captivity and oppression.

Friends, The United Methodist Church is like Peter in the city of Lydda.

We are at a crossroads.

For the past 4 General Conferences, progressive caucus groups in support of LGBTQ rights –Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action – worked to affect change in the denomination. At Tampa in 2012, we saw this group of three grow when racial/ethnic caucuses asked to join alongside our work, and by January of this year, we had 13 partners as part of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition.

Leadership developed around major work areas over a year before General Conference, focusing on legislation, delegate relationships, international hospitality, volunteer hospitality, witness, worship, communications and public relations, and pastoral care. The conference calls and emails were many, but by May 10, we were ready to house, feed, and support the work of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition in Portland, OR.

Before this General Conference, I always joked that this is the worst two-week vacation you'll ever take.

But in all honesty, when General Conference works, you see The United Methodist Church at our best.

Sadly, this past month has shown The United Methodist Church far from our best.

From the outset, there was discord as members of General Conference attempted to pass the rules. For a day and a half, discussion focused on Rule 44, a change that would allow for small-group engagement around difficult conversations. These debates were an important reminder that when the Church talked about “human sexuality,” we're really talking about “gay people.” When Rule 44 didn't pass, General Conference reverted to business as usual in dealing with “gay people.”

In a flash of hope, the Bishops’ Statement on A Way Forward provided a glimmer of what true Episcopal leadership could be.  But on the plenary floor, we saw consistent and continuing attempts to thwart both the process and prophetic leadership.

Over the past five years working with the Methodist Federation for Social Action, as a seminary-trained but not ordained, openly gay, leader in The United Methodist Church, I have come to the conclusion that LGBTQ people are being used as red herrings in a larger struggle for power and privilege. If queer people aren't the ones being thrown under the bus, they'll find someone else to push into the crossroads.

General Conference 2016 showed us this all too well.

Work to divest from the Israeli occupation of Palestine died in committee. Fossil fuel divestment lost on the plenary floor. Both conversations were vehemently opposed by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits who decried that their commitment to profits took precedence over moral obligations.

In an educational and meaningful presentation, General Conference engaged in an act of repentance for the role prominent Methodist leaders played in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 and the murder of indigenous people. The very next day, members of General Conference voted down a petition against sports teams with racist mascots, many of which do harm to indigenous people.

Reproductive health, rights, and justice took center stage on the final day of General Conference. Leading up to Portland, MFSA worked with United Methodist Women and the General Board of Church and Society, in consultation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. A lot of work went into legislation on responsible parenthood that was global in nature, truly progressive, and spoke to the idea that reproductive health, rights, and justice are about more than abortion – they are about the ability for families of all forms to thrive. Sadly, this legislation failed with one delegate commenting “this is too long to read” – I have to wonder if she feels the same way about the Bible.

While our social principles around abortion and reproductive rights didn’t change, one major action was taken by General Conference in which The General Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Women were forced to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). On one level, this is a great loss. The United Methodist Church was a founding member of this Coalition and our denomination has been a strong voice in their Coalition Council for many years. On another level, this action increases the importance of individual United Methodists to be engaged in the work of reproductive health, choice, and justice. Hear me loud and clear when I say that MFSA will ALWAYS be at the RCRC table. And we need your support and voices to stop the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which religious liberty is being manipulated against those who work for the rights of women, children, and families.

No mention of General Conference is complete without addressing racism, colonialism, and white privilege as it was experienced in Portland. From a base built on our colonialist, US-centric structure and assumptions, to cultural misappropriation, and “All Lives Matter” comments, General Conference was filled with micro-aggressions and white privilege.

In specific, MFSA recognizes that racism and colonialism are not limited to those with whom we might not agree, but are found in our own structures and in the hearts of those with whom we collaborate. I commend to you MFSA’s Statement on Racism, General Conference, and Progressive Movements from May 18 of this year. In our continued work, MFSA challenges our constituents to continue anti-racist, anti-privilege, anti-colonialist work in all levels of the movement for justice.

And now I return to the Bishops’ Way Forward. No anti-LGBTQ legislation advanced at General Conference. Anti-transgender language did not make its way into our Social Principles. And Judicial Council ruled that mandatory minimum penalties for chargeable offenses regarding LGBTQ people are unconstitutional.

But friends, according to our church, self-avowed, beautiful children of God can still be denied ordination and appointments.

Officiating a same-sex wedding is still a chargeable offense.

And thousands of LGBTQ members like myself, and millions more waiting outside the door, are still being told we are “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Since the close of General Conference, the Council of Bishops has once again shown it is not of one mind in regards to human sexuality (gay people). However, They- as a body- are not willing to take immediate action to curb the harm being done to LGBTQ United Methodists. So, I implore you Iowa, reach out to your bishop. Let your bishop know you want to hold him- or maybe in September, her- accountable to being a prophetic leader on the Council of Bishops. We need their leadership now more than ever.

When we take a step back and look at all the things that happened at General Conference – and all the things that have and will continue to happen between General Conferences – we begin to see a clear pattern. This isn't just about human sexuality (“gay people”). It isn't even about adherence to Scripture or theological Orthodoxy.

The work of justice-seeking people of faith is a challenge to those who have been ensconced in power in the Church for decades. Years of hard work have brought us to this moment – and it didn't begin in 1972 with the addition of “incompatibility” language. It began out of our predecessor denominations thanks to passionate leaders with names like Anna Howard Shaw, Georgia Harkness, Mary McLeod Bethune, Herbert Welch, Harry F. Ward, and Lee Ball.

In their footsteps, MFSA has worked to never be a single-issue organization. From our beginnings in 1907, we have understood that the work for peace couldn't be separated from the work of human rights, racial and gender equality, or anti-poverty initiatives. Today, our intersectional organizing principle continues to guide our work.

Indeed, intersectional organizing is an affront to the very understandings of power and privilege. Intersectional organizing means that a coordinated effort to “divide and conquer” will no longer work. We see this beginning to happen in places like North Carolina. Previously it was not common for poor whites, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and people of color to work together. But thanks to the work of the Moral Mondays movement under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William Barber, right-wing leaders have had to acknowledge they can no longer depend on false dichotomies of rich vs. poor, black vs. gay, Christian vs. immigrant.

Coalition building is tough work, especially when is done from an intersectional perspective. It can be difficult for long-standing organizations to work with newly formed groups. It can be difficult for well-funded, well-staffed agencies to give up control to smaller, volunteer-led groups. It can be difficult to herd all of the personalities for a common goal. Trust me.

Yet, with all the challenges in the work of justice-seeking, intersectional work is a challenge worth taking on.

In all this work, we have to remember that intersectional work is a challenge to the status quo. I know some of you might disagree with me, but at this point in the history of The United Methodist Church, our Bishops, our General Boards and Agencies, and yes, even our delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences, are part of the status quo. I know there's some status quo in the room tonight, and I know that comment stings.

For the past 16 years, I have heard my friends in seminary, at Annual Conferences, on Conference, Agency, and Episcopal staffs, and yes, even delegates at General Conference, say, “You know I'm with you, I just can't be public about it.”

These words are damaging, my friends, but even more so, they are damning, because they make the assumption that as a gay man, all I care about is an LGBTQ agenda.

Never mind that I grew up poor in Appalachia.

Never mind that covert racism and white privilege were taught to me at an early age.

Never mind that I've seen friends touched by the stigmas of rape, domestic violence, abortion care, and HIV.

Never mind that I've seen mountains destroyed for coal extraction, water resources destroyed by chemical leaks, and communities destroyed by greed and excessive development.

To the status quo, I can only wear a fabulous, fabulous gay hat.

But intersectionality teaches something different: that I can wear more than one hat – and I can, or rather I must, wear them all at once. And that is an affront to the status quo – because my hats don't all fit nicely and can't be contained safely in the Church’s hat box.

So when there is challenge to power and privilege, we hear phrases like “let's not disrupt things” or “be nice.” Or we say “You know we support you, we just can't say it in public.”

Intersectionality helps us all move from private friendships to public ally-ship. I don't know about you, but I want folks who have my back – and I want them to know that I have theirs.

I continue to work and pray that those who find themselves in the status quo see that the only forward movement we will make as a denomination will happen only when they allow intersectionality to bring them from a place of silent friendship to public ally-ship.

I want to speak a truth when I say that public ally-ship will look different for everyone. In remembering the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comments about pornography, “I can't describe it…but I know it when I see it.”

I saw ally-ship happening at General Conference in clear and distinct ways. I saw it when LGBTQ people listened to the stories of Filipino farmers talk about the evils of militarism and corporate mining in their homeland.  I saw it when Native Americans stood with those seeking justice for Palestinians because they know what it means to have your land taken from you. I saw it when the people of Flint, the people of The Philippines, and communities of color in Portland stood together to call for access to clean water in their respective contexts.

No longer were we silent friends – but we were public allies standing together in an intersection of life.

Over the past few months, people have asked my professional opinion as to whether or not The United Methodist Church will split.

“Who the heck knows!?”

But of one thing I am certain: the genesis of schism was born out of fear what it might mean for God’s Spirit to move amongst her people. Justice-seekers must not live out of this fear. Neither shall we live in fear of what might happen if God’s Spirit calls us out of false unity and into new life.

Yesterday afternoon, I saw a lot of silent friends become public allies when we stood during Rev. Anna Blaedel’s moving point of privilege on the floor of Annual Conference. God's Spirit moved in Anna’s words, She moved in our public support, and She moved, just as She does in each in every moment of our being and our becoming, as a witness of God’s love and grace and Justice.

At that, my Iowa friends, is what it means to live at the intersections. God is there with us, creating and calling and moving to that which is best in each situation. We may not know how to describe it, but we know it when we sing “where cross the crowded ways of life;” we know it when we wear all the hats and we can't take even one off our head; we know it when work with those the powers and principalities of our church an world would like to divide us from; and we know it when we remember the story of Peter, who when standing at the intersection in Lydda, chose the road of life and resurrection instead of the road of oppression and captivity.

Which road shall we choose?


Chett Pritchett is the outgoing executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. On June 15, he will begin serving as the Assistant Director of Alumni Engagement at Marietta College, close to his family and the hills of Appalachia.





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