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 http://umcconnections.org/2013/11/19/disruption-prompts-church-leaders-address-sexuality-issues/ ), 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.
We 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.
Thank you so much for being the prophetic voice for (closeted) gay UMC clergy like me and ALL LGBTQ people. I was suicidal a year ago because I couldn’t live in fear anymore. However, Love Prevails and other groups like you have given me hope. I’m so thankful to be in a healthier state and surrounded by people who love the beautiful way that God created me. I am a child of God. I am a divorced daddy of two young girls, I am a UMC Pastor. I am a beautiful gay man. Will the GC 2016 allow me to serve fully the way God created me to be as a gay man beyond 2016? It is my hope and prayer.
Amen, and amen!
I Sent the following letter to Bishop Dorff after I spoke with him at Gather at the RIver:
August 12, 2015
Bishop James E. Dorff
Rio Texas Conference
16400 Huebner Road
San Antonio, TX 78248
Dear Bishop Dorff:
Greetings to you from my home in New Hampshire. (I spend 9 or 10 months in Florida!)
It was a pleasure and a joy to be in San Antonio last weekend. Of particular joy was to see Rev. Marshall in action AND to see the wonderful ministry that Travis Park Church is doing.
As Conference Secretary for 18 years of the former Troy Conference, I have worked with many bishops, laity and clergy. I have witnessed the myriad attitudes and commitments of individuals in the United Methodist Church. Too often I have listened to empty words from the platform and the floor of conference. I have experienced conference and General Conference being held hostage by persons who are unable to listen and feel.
My comments to you, (“I hope you mean what you just said”) comes out of my many years of following the party line along with others while being aware that the “Party Line” was not the “Jesus line.” As a student of John Wesley and Methodism with two degrees in that subject, it pains me to see how far we have departed from our origins. I do not mean that we are to stay way back there, but somehow we must figure out how to bring Love, community, service, up into the 21st century without being students of every jot and tittle that does or doesn’t have any meaning for the church and people. Some years ago, I asked my friend, Rabbi Zeke Palnick who was involved with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in Tuscaloosa and Little Rock, “What he thought of the laws in Leviticus.” This brilliant man replied, “Their means have gone by the by. They are unimportant.” Zeke loved me and all he met and led many to faith, whatever their persuasion. (You can read about him in QUIET VOICES, Southern Rabbi’s and the Civil Rights Movement, University of Alabama Press)
I continue to believe that it is time for the Council of Bishops to become authentic and lead the church into this new age. As I sat through the 2012 General Conference as a spectator, I wanted to scream. “Someone stop this incivility and madness.” I texted my friend a bishop friend who was on the platform. “What is wrong? Why doesn’t the COB stop this abuse?” He replied, “I agree.” But the abuse continued.
As I said directly to you, “I hope you mean what you said,” at Gathering at the River. People of the 21st century are avoiding churches like the plague. They are not feeling the love. They are finding love outside the church. It is there they find their meaning and put their commitment.
The United Methodist Church must change now. Love must rise to the surface. Sometimes I think, we ought to listen more closely to Pope Francis and follow his example.
I celebrate Travis Park UMC and all that they are doing. What a vibrant congregation and place. They are an example of what the UMC can and needs to become.
God bless you in these difficult times for the UMC. May you discern ways to move forward that will include all God’s people.
Love and blessings
Rev. Thomas L. Shanklin
18 years Conference Secretary of Troy Conference. Retired.