Me & Bishop Dorff

Below are reflections on disrupting Bishop Dorff at Gather at the River by Rev. Dr. Julie Todd

Bishop Dorff and I know each other. We don’t have a close relationship, but we have a special one.  He serves on the UMC Connectional Table (CT). At the first CT meeting Love Prevails attended (see ), I disrupted the meeting by singing a list of the names of leaders the UMC has lost as a result of our denomination’s anti-LGBTQ policies. In a time of public conversation after the disruption, Bishop Dorff shared his experience of my disruptive singing. I invite you to listen all the way to the end. Here’s what he said:

At that time, Bishop Dorff was about to make an official episcopal ruling on the matter of the candidacy of queer-identified M Barclay (formerly known as Mary Ann Barclay) for ordained ministry. He had previously refused to rule when the Rio Texas Conference Board of Ordained Ministry denied the District Committee on Ministry’s decision to recommend M to move forward with their candidacy for ministry, but had been ordered by the Judicial Council to reconsider his own decision. So after Bishop Dorff’s comments at the break, I spoke with him about his words and his coming decision. He told me that I had been an agent of the Spirit to him that morning and he asked me to pray for him, which I agreed to do.

Ever since that time, at every CT and Council of Bishops meeting that Love Prevails has disrupted over the past two years, I have made a point of greeting Bishop Dorff and reminding him of our connection. He is always exceedingly warm and gracious, and he gives me big, Southern hugs, which I actually do not mind. I don’t mistake our connection for anything like real knowledge of one another, but we do have a connection.

When I heard that Bishop Dorff was coming to bring greetings to Gather at the River 2015, held in San Antonio at Travis Park UMC on August 6-9, I wasn’t surprised. It is customary to invite the bishop of the resident area where these progressive UMC conferences are held. It is common knowledge that Bishop Dorff has not been a supporter of LGBTQ people, but is a supporter of the Disciplinary status quo that inflicts harm on queer folk. Some of those present at Gather at the River thought it particularly good of Bishop Dorff to come, even brave, considering his known stance. I thought it was presumptuous.

In the past two years of deeply disturbing contact with the highest levels of our denomination through the work of Love Prevails, I have seen the very ugly sides of the episcopal imaginings of their benevolent power. And their stated lack of power to make change. The leaders of our denomination do not see themselves as perpetuators of injustice against LGBTQ people in the midst of their maintenance of the institution, and yet they very much are. So I imagined that Bishop Dorff thought it would be really good and welcoming of himself to say something kind to queer people, something that would not be considered controversial by anyone else.

I didn’t want to let that happen without a marking of protest.

Some might think that the protest that developed during Bishop Dorff’s remarks was highly coordinated. On the contrary. The night before, I understood that some Love Prevails members and a few other people would hold signs within the sanctuary while he spoke. Nothing major, just a few pointed messages. I wanted to position myself somewhere where Bishop Dorff could really see me, because of our connection. I wasn’t sure how it would play out, but I knew I wanted to look him in the eyes and speak to him, because we have history. When I walked into the sanctuary late that Saturday morning, it seemed a few more people had become interested in the witness, and now there was talk of kneeling at the altar, preparing material to create gags, and hanging signs and messages to the bishop from the balcony.

I quickly made two signs that read, “FRIENDS LAY DOWN THEIR LIVES FOR THEIR FRIENDS” and “BISHOP DORFF IS NOT A FRIEND TO LGBTQ PEOPLE.” I didn’t hang my signs from the balcony. I took them with me. And when it was time, I knelt at the altar rail.

Conference leaders began to introduce the bishop. The next thing I knew, he passed by me and headed up the stairs. I didn’t think about it. I followed him up there with my signs. He saw me. I said, “Hi, Bishop,” and motioned for him to read my signs. He said, “Oh, thanks.”

While our leaders continued to explain the creative and important tension of the moment, I spoke to the bishop. I said things like:

“We’ve shared a Holy Spirit moment in the past, Bishop, haven’t we? I wonder if this is going to be one of those moments again.”

“I’m going to be really interested to hear what you are going to say to gay people here today. You know there are a lot of gay people here today, right?”

“There are a lot of people who have suffered an awful lot out there today. I wonder if you are going to say something meaningful to them.”

“I wonder if this is going to be a Holy Spirit moment. I wonder if the Spirit is going to use you right now.”

Except for acknowledging that we had shared a Pentecost moment in the past, he mostly nodded and smiled. I don’t think he was shaking me off; I think he was quite nervous and unprepared for what was transpiring.

Here is a video of his remarks:

For those of you interested in seeing the full length of the events that unfolded, here is the video:

Once it was Bishop’s Dorff’s time to speak, there was some shouting at the bishop on occasion. There was anger in the room and weeping at the altar rail. He finished his remarks, walked off stage, and returned to his seat. I followed him and sat down right next to him. He didn’t notice me right away. When he did, I said, “Hey.”

He smiled, shook his head at me and said, “You know I love you, Julie.” Which was a little gross, but I honestly didn’t take his words as insincere.

Then he hugged me, a hug that I somewhat returned while squirming and saying, “Don’t try to make this better.”

I continued, “I’m sure this wasn’t pleasant for you, but I could not let you come here today,  deliver your episcopal pleasantries, and then walk away with credit for being the good guy for coming. You have caused a lot of pain to a lot of queer people and you need to know that. I’m not sure it was right for you to come today, but the Spirit is using the moment again. Do you see that?”

To which he said, “Yes, I see that. The Spirit is working within me, too, Julie, right now.”

My response was, “The problem with you bishops is even when you have these Holy Spirit moments, when you go back into your powerful church world, the spirit of the institution overcomes the work of the Spirit within you. That’s what happens to you bishops.”

He took some umbrage with that and said, “You don’t know what my experience is.”

I conceded that point, saying, “You’re right. I don’t know what your experience is. I take it back. But that is my experience of you guys. Seriously. But I take it back.”

During all of this there was ongoing kneeling, praying, weeping, singing and speaking by others in attendance.

Clearly the Holy Spirit was moving in the moment and even Bishop Dorff knew it. He said so.

Though this witness took place as a result of far more than the actions of Love Prevails members alone, what resulted felt like a classic Love Prevails experience. We #Showup prepared to seize prophetic moments of Spirit guidance. We #Disrupt. We are often perceived and described, as in this case, as disrespectful and bullies. We stand firm in the knowledge of ourselves as utterly authentic in responding to the Spirit as She reveals injustice and violence towards LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church. We understand that the expressed embodiment of our truths is difficult and uncomfortable for some people. As the saying goes, the truth hurts.

protest2We are often accused of “hurting our cause.” This is a clear reversal of who and what the problem is.

When Bishop Dorff saw me later again in the hallway, before we both left the building,  he again hugged me and said, “I love you, Julie.”

My reply was, “I know. I am yours in Christ whether we like it or not.”

To which he answered, “Amen.”

I did not disrespect Bishop Dorff, and neither did the witness disrespect him. He himself admitted to the working of the Spirit in the moments of protest and afterwards. Ask him yourself. Nonetheless, injustice does not deserve our respect.  All United Methodist bishops must be held accountable to whom and how they are agents of injustice in the ongoing perpetration of discrimination and oppression against gay folks in our church. Not one of them, including Bishop Dorff, can presume that their role or status as a bishop gives them the right to say a few words about inclusivity to gloss over the pain that they the bishops have caused by direct action or inaction, to a multitude of our LGBTQ family in Christ.

We need our bishops to stop throwing us breadcrumbs in the form of welcoming-sounding words, expecting us to keep waiting and praying for an end to discrimination within our church, when the power to end the pain and the hurt lies in their hands.  Bishop Dorff said he believes that the UMC should be fully inclusive, so let’s see him bring full inclusion to the Rio Texas Annual Conference and work toward full inclusion in the connection.  My sign said that Bishop Dorff is not a friend to LGBT people, because friends lay down their lives for their friends. Friends don’t let their friends get hurt when they can stop the harm.


Coalition Interview: Native American International Caucus, Ms. Cynthia Kent

This is the second in a series of interview reports that Love Prevails is conducting with representatives of every member group of the LYNC as a part of preparing for General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. We share what each group brings to the Coalition, their particular emphases and concerns for GC2016, and the challenges and benefits of working across various kinds of differences related to identity, opinion and action.

Ms. Cynthia Kent hopes that the Native American International Caucus (NAIC) brings a voice to the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC) that otherwise would not be represented. The presence of the NAIC at the Coalition table influences its members to consider when the native voice is not present elsewhere. She said, “The numbers of Native Americans are so low in so many venues – clergy, bishops, superintendents, churches – we have to become conscious, to ask, ‘How can we consider the voices who are not here?’” LYNC is one way Native Americans bring voice and awareness to United Methodist tables.

The Native American perspective “is very different from the way most of the church values people and processes.” The perspective includes respect for and centering the presence of elders, a focus on a relationship with the natural environment, and a communal orientation. Kent reports that many of the ethnic caucus members of the denomination – Asian, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and African Americans – share similar commitments to elders and a communitarian ethic. Yet among the ethnic caucuses, she noted, “there are many things we also do very differently in terms of our different cultures. Just because we are all people of color doesn’t mean we know anything about one another. Places like the Coalition are learning modes for us as well.”

According to Kent, in order for groups like the Coalition to work better, “The listening component is most important.” For all people learning to work across differences, “everybody has to learn how to listen. Don’t be ready to jump in too fast. People don’t want anyone to solve their problems, but they want to be heard.” As a Native American, she said, “I don’t want you to take care of me, but to hear why something is an issue for me. What can be done about it so that it doesn’t happen again? And people will say, ‘But we don’t want history, we want to go to now.’ People don’t understand, we need to know our history. We need to listen to elders and how historically we have been able get things done.”

Besides the listening component, understanding and respect are necessary to working across real differences of opinion and practice. We have to find out, Kent said, “where we are together and where we are not together. We may not be together on some things. We may not be able to work on certain things together. That’s okay. At least we can speak that and know that. We spend too much time trying to be together on everything.” Respect means respecting that there may be real differences among us. This includes the matter of how to work towards the inclusion of LGBTQ folks.

Kent talked about the challenges of getting the church to move to full acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people. She noted that just like population at large, Native American people hold a multiple viewpoints on gender and same-gender sexual orientation. The intersections of what it means to be native, gendered and queer depends on the tribe and particular community. In some indigenous cultures, “where folks understood the wholeness of male and female in their full selves, they were the counselors. In other tribes, women were warriors and the men took care of women.” There may be other tribes where such differences and practices are shunned, she said, “But again, every tribe is different, so I can’t speak on every tribe’s views. Plus, tribal members would also have their own views.” For herself, she explained that she has relatives and friends who are gay and lesbian. “It has been in my community since I was born. I came up with it. We did not judge at all. We were taught that these are our relations. The personality of a person is a gift of the Creator. Differences are gifts of the Creator.”

She described her own experience and theology. “The church told me I could be Native and Christian at the same time. I can live as a whole person. Christ says, ‘I call you, the whole person, you, into the church.’ There is nothing we leave at the door. It hurts me. People just don’t realize that this is not our church, it is God’s church. I don’t want to be there on judgment day hearing, ‘You judged people.’ I cannot tolerate when people judge people. That’s my sadness to see the church as God’s church and people taking it as their own.”

Specific to General Conference 2016, the NAIC is preparing one comprehensive resolution of critical Native American matters that distills seventeen resolutions previously passed by the General Conference. This one resolution focuses on history, contemporary issues and the future of Native Americans within and outside of the church. There will be a one-page list of recommendations that accompany the overarching resolution. Coalition members can be informed of the content of this resolution when it is ready, and work to ensure its passage.

Cynthia Kent is the chairperson of the Native American International Caucus (NAIC), one of the United Methodist Church’s five ethnic caucuses. All of the five ethnic caucuses have representatives to the LYNC. Kent retired from the General Board of Global Ministries after over 20 years as the Executive Secretary for Native American and Indigenous Ministries. She continues to hold many other leadership positions throughout her annual conference (Greater New Jersey), the Northeast Jurisdiction and General Church (including the Connectional Table). Her tribal heritage is Southern Ute. While Ms. Kent represents the NAIC to LYNC, the opinions expressed in this interview report are entirely her own.