Reconciling narrow minds with open hearts
A church’s struggle for universal respect and inclusion.
by Kristen Campbell
photography by Cameron Barr
Pastor Susan Boyer is disappointed in the Church she calls home. Boyer’s lineage goes back to the near beginning of the Church of the Brethren, a historic peace church that founded the University of La Verne. But she knows that the Church does not offer women or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community the respect they deserve. Even though the La Verne Church of the Brethren is not in alliance with the national opinion to exclude members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the membership continues to feel committed to inclusion and the rights of the LGBT within the denominational structure. This is a conflict situation with the national denomination because it holds to a 2011 Annual Conference decision of intolerance.
Intolerance. It has been cast out of many major denominations, but still many others are not as willing to move forward with the ever-changing times. The Church of the Brethren denomination only accepts LGBT members in positions of leadership in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” style. Yet, the La Verne Church of the Brethren’s mission is to create a “Christian community” that is “open, inclusive, caring and peace-minded.” The Church welcomes all, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender or even sexual orientation, despite the national Church of the Brethren’s official stand on exclusivity.
The struggle for change
“I’ve had a lifetime love affair with the Church of the Brethren,” Charles L. Boyer wrote in a September 2010 issue of Messenger Magazine, published a few weeks after his death. “But as I grew in this Church that I love, I became aware of polarities developing.” Charles, more fondly known as Chuck, served as the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference moderator from July 1992 to June 1993 and was a former pastor at the La Verne congregation. During his time as moderator, an article published in the February 1993 issue of Messenger quoted him on his philosophy of engaging inclusive leadership in the denomination. In the article, Chuck indicated that he was ready to accept homosexual and bisexual people in positions of church leadership. “I knew my stance would be controversial, but I did not expect the furor it aroused,” Chuck wrote. After he was quoted, and it was published, Chuck received four form letters on which several hundred Brethren signed their names, calling for his resignation. Many personal cards were mailed to his home, detailing how he was the “tool of satan” and should stop believing what he preached. “Chuck was the last prophetic voice in leadership. He was completely honest regardless of the consequences,” Eric Bishop, 2011 La Verne Church of the Brethren moderator, says.
Valerie Beltran, Chuck’s daughter and associate professor of education at the University of La Verne, says her father realized early on that leaders of the denomination were not willing to stand up for what was right, in the name of holding the denomination’s beliefs strong. Looking off, picturing her father, Valerie says, “I apologize for crying, but my dad fought his hardest, but he did it in a way that was respectful. As Carol Wise [former associate pastor of the La Verne Church] says, ‘he was a peacemaker and a disturber of the peace.’ He would stand his ground, but he would do so peacefully and calmly.” Valerie says her mother would get phone calls asking how it felt to “be married to a fag” or telling her to “rot in hell.” “Yet, despite this hate mail and calls for his resignation, my father responded to every letter and every phone call with upmost respect,” Valerie says.
Conference brings hardship to fighters
The Church of the Brethren holds an Annual Conference, which determines denominational business. High level policy decisions are voted on, workshops are offered, and the exhibits are plentiful. Queries, or questions to be discussed, are brought to the delegates for voting. The spirit is intended to harmonious, consensual and team building as the delegates hammer out denominational issues.
But this past year was different. Members of the La Verne Church of the Brethren congregation left the 2011 Annual Conference, held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a sour taste. “Annual Conference was a painful, heartbreaking experience this year,” Susan Boyer wrote in the La Verne Church of the Brethren Intercom in the September 2011 issue. These reactions were anchored in the Intercom by other La Verne delegates in attendance and then relayed to the congregation following the crucial and altering Annual Conference decision: a vote to affirm a 1983 statement, titled, “Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective.” The vote adopted all amendments made within the past 28 years. “In essence, the delegates approved a recommendation to return both items of business to the sending bodies, reaffirm the 1983 paper and keep talking with each other about human sexuality outside of the formal process,” Stan Noffsinger, Church of the Brethren general secretary, says. The document itemizes how the Brethren feel about homosexuality and backs up these opinions with Biblical verses and guidelines. In essence, it says homosexual love and covenantal relationships are immoral and should not be made public nor permanent. This Annual Conference statement was adopted in its entirety, and the decision was made to continue conversations about the issue without the query process. The La Verne Church of the Brethren delegates, along with delegates who represent other welcome and loving Church of the Brethren communities of worship, were furious. Their attempts to sway and to convey their emotions were met with hostility and not accepted by the Church at large, culminating to the point of a death threat made to a lesbian leader. “Many of us are aware of the level of hostility toward LGBT people and the level of fear,” says Wise. “So while it was very disturbing, on some level, it was not surprising.” Wise is currently executive director of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interest. Not coincidentally, she is a leading woman in a struggle against the grain. “Are we practicing love and hospitality, or are we practicing exclusion and fear? I think it is a struggle for the soul of the denomination in terms of the type of people we will be,” says Wise.
The theme of the 2011 Conference was “Gifted with Promise: Expanding Jesus’ Table,” which was met with differing opinions, especially with the issue of inclusion at hand. “It was ironic that as we are excluding groups of people, our theme is designed to expand and include others,” Randy Miller, Messenger editor and La Verne Church of the Brethren member, says. “I feel that everybody should have—and has a place at the table. We too easily point the finger and too quickly rush to judge. If I were to err, I’d rather err on the side of compassion than judgment.”
“In 2009, the process to discuss the inclusion of the 1983 document started,” says Tim Harvey, the current Church of the Brethren moderator. “It began with a query that was brought to the floor about covenant relationships between two persons of the same sex. This year, the decision was to leave the 1983 human sexuality paper unchanged, and it reaffirmed the business position of the Church of the Brethren in regards to homosexuality.” Harvey wishes that the Church of the Brethren members could do a better job at taking their conversations deeper. He says the conversations are only at ground-level and are not thinking about those involved. “These people are ones that we care about, no matter which side we are on. I hope the Church can find a better way to talk this over,” Harvey says. “I am willing to work with all who walk in my Church, but it is too easy for the Church to fracture over such topics.”
How the other side feels
The September 2011 Messenger issue was met with furious and passionate letters to the editor. The magazine reported what had occurred at the Annual Conference and included an article written by moderator-elect Robert Krause explaining why he said “yes” to a nomination from the floor, instead of allowing a Standing Committee approved all-woman ballot slate to go forward to the delegates. The October 2011 issue presented the strong and differing opinions of the Messenger readers, totaling five pages of copy, representing an equal balance of views. Publisher Wendy McFadden felt it necessary to write a forward saying that “the opinions expressed in letters to the editor are not necessarily the opinions of Messenger. And that the opinions in the letters published are roughly proportional to those received.”
Benjamin Haldeman from Greencastle, Pa., writes in his letter to the editor, “After reading the September Messenger letters to the editor, a reader could conclude that many in our denomination have chosen to follow the god [sic] of this world instead of the God of heaven. Woe to us if we reject the law of God and Yeshua, our Savior.” The opening of Haldeman’s letter details that Church of the Brethren members need to follow the God who saved them, not the one who says everyone is loved by one another. Writes P.V. Lee Smith from Mount Pleasant, Pa., “I am hurt and deeply troubled at seeing people place emotions or psychology as a greater authority than scripture. It grieves my heart to see the denomination treat holiness as if it is of little importance. I find myself dismayed that we spend more time debating what God has clearly said…instead of saving souls and being obedient.”
Gays as leaders in the community
The Church of the Brethren denomination’s identity statement, “Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together,” serves as guidance to the denomination but is not a creed. The Church prides itself in not having one, and its website boasts that it does not have a set of rules. “We simply try to do what Jesus did,” says the site. “At the La Verne Church of the Brethren, we’ve been open and welcoming for a while—probably long before my time at this congregation,” Bishop says. “It’s just the right thing to do.” Bishop says that the Church as a whole sees being a member of the LGBT community incompatible with being Christian, but the La Verne Church thinks otherwise. He says they are stuck in the middle of the current “lightening rod issue” because they want to allow people a place of worship where they feel safe, comfortable and fit in.
Bishop adds that the La Verne Church has it as a goal to model the denominational identity statement. “I do not understand how someone can believe in the Brethren motto and not be accepting. Injustice is the center point of our differences. We have LGBT friends, and they are whom we seek to protect from any more harm.”
“Why do so many people hate gay people?” Wise said during an October sermon at the La Verne Church of the Brethren. “It’s not really hate though. It’s more fear because people read the bible a certain way.” Said Miller, in his editorial published in the October 2011 Messenger, “It is rather presumptuous of us to assume God is finished speaking to us…Alexander Mack and the other founders of the Church of the Brethren were onto something when they claimed no creed but the New Testament. They left the door open for the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow among us, breathing new insights and understandings of God’s will. Who are we to shut that door? Who knows, if the wind blows just right, there may even be room for Jesus—should he wish to become a Christian.”
Although the La Verne congregation withheld its denomination financial commitment in the months following Annual Conference, the total sum was released to Noffsinger at year’s end, along with a conditional letter explaining the delay. The letter, drafted following a November all-Church Council meeting, details the congregation’s concerns “over the direction of the Church.” The letter cites that 2012 La Verne Church giving will hinge on changes the membership wants to see happen by June 2012 within the denomination as a whole. The General Secretary answers he is doing all he can to serve all members of the Church in order to restore and rebuild relationships across the entire denomination. Says Bishop, “We will keep doing what we normally do. The actions we asked for were not a demand, but for now, we will give our quarterly commitment until June. If the higher denomination does not have any sign of willingness to move, we would reconsider giving contributions. If we see change, we will reassess what has occurred.”
La Verne’s requests include the following: (1) acceptance of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests as a Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) project; (2) BMC’s welcomed presence at Annual Conference, symbolized with that organization’s right to host an official booth; and (3) listing of steps taken to ensure a safe and welcoming environment at all Church of the Brethren sponsored conferences. The denomination heard the message. November 2011, BMC received denominational go ahead to feature a booth at the 2012 Annual Conference, and a BVS project was offered thereafter in winter 2012. “I think we will go toward justice socially, and the Church will sadly follow rather than lead the way. There are congregations like La Verne that offer amazing leadership,” Wise says.
“If I, as a heterosexual man, received this kind of castigation during this time, think what our homosexual and bisexual brothers and sisters live with for their entire lifetimes,” wrote Chuck Boyer just before his death. “This is an example of how religion promotes hatred and exclusiveness—two things Jesus fought so hard against. As we examine options open to us, let us think about creating two denominations and encouraging both to love each other as we go our separate ways. The Church of the Brethren has split several times since 1708. These divisions were not entered into lightly, nor would this one be.”
Local couple affected
The La Verne Church of the Brethren is known for its inclusive nature and welcoming environment, no matter a person’s sexual orientation. Composer, songwriter and church accompanist Shawn Kirchner is no stranger to this welcome environment. He and his partner Ryan Harrison, who is not a member of the denomination, are well-known to the La Verne congregation and consider themselves loved with open arms by all.
Ryan says he and Shawn met while both were working for the University of La Verne. When Shawn invited him to sing in a small ensemble at the Church, he never left the scene. Ryan says he felt safe being openly gay in the La Verne congregation but would not be too sure about any other Church of the Brethren. He says he cannot remember a time when he, or his relationship, felt discriminated at the La Verne Church. Together, they regularly provide music at weddings, memorial services and other special events.
“[Conservative Brethren] cannot make me feel differently about myself or my beliefs, no matter how hard they try or pray about it,” Ryan says. “The issue for me isn’t whether or not I feel safe in the wider denomination, but whether I feel valued and accepted as equally as others. I do not feel this at the denominational level today, but it doesn’t cause me to feel fearful. Sad, yes. Angry, sometimes. But in the end, I guess I fall back on the fact that this is small stuff, certainly not the center of my world.” Ryan says that since he comes from a very diverse religious background, and is not a member of the Church, his views are not typical. But he feels like the Church is his home due to its loving, peaceful and open environment. The Annual Conference affected more than just the members wanting to see change in the inclusion of the LGBT community; it affected those who are, in fact, members of LGBT. “Shawn and I are church musicians and have led music at the denomination’s Annual Conference before. But that was several years ago, and with the recent shifting climate…I’m not sure that we would be welcome on a denominational stage anymore,” Ryan says. The two played a major musical role in the 2003 Boise, Idaho Annual Conference, and, again, in a 2004 nationally televised CBS Christmas Eve service that featured the Church of the Brethren.
According to Ryan, there have most likely been leaders in the Church who “were lesbian or gay” at the denominational level and were accepted because they were not “out” publicly. He does not believe that the denomination is ready for an LGBT community member to be in denominational leadership because it would “only add fuel to the fire. This whole thing will either burn itself out or consume and burn up everything. Nothing stays the same, but spiritually centered people, I believe, are better able to adapt to changes, whatever they look like.”