Apocalyptic Institutionalism

By PASTOR JONATHAN E. RODRÍGUEZ-CINTRÓN

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-6-53-12-pmI am a United Methodist Candidate for Ministry serving as a pastor of a mostly white congregation. As part of my ministerial work with the church and world, I am involved in other spaces within the church that seek justice for all. I am currently working with the Hispanic National Caucus of the UMC M.A.R.C.H.A. as part of the Executive Committee. I am also a member of Love Prevails, a direct-action group whose goal is to abolish the policies in The Book of Discipline which categorically discriminate against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Christians. Love Prevails has been known in the UMC as a more radical group and is often criticized for our methods and demonstrations, or what we call Disruption.

I am true believer of the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”[1] I seek to expose in the church our tendency to avoid, table or ignore the evident tension our church is confronting and the harm we constantly do against all the minorities that are part of our connection and beyond. No unity is possible within the church while we ignore the injustices going on in our country and within the UMC.

The experience I had at the November Council of Bishops’ meeting convinces me that the tension we are experiencing as the UMC does not comes from our theological differences but from the level of insidious institutionalism and lack of leadership in our church. My mom would say: “Mijo, one cannot be okay with God and the Devil at the same time.”

I chose to be part of Love Prevails instead of other organizations that seek for the full inclusion of the LGBTIQ people in the UMC, because I found myself tired of playing politics and trying to not disturb people in power. Being apologetic about what I believe and who I am is no longer an option for me.

And so, as part of Love Prevails’ work we went to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia to attend the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting. We went to bear witness to the faithfulness not only of LGBTIQ Methodist but also Latinxs, Black and Asian Methodists. We went to negotiate with them about the make-up of The Commission On A Way Forward, which failed to include adequate representation of all of these groups.

As we entered the retreat center where our Bishops were meeting, it was really interesting to see how most of them made “you-again” faces. Some of them were welcoming, repeating like a mantra the pastoral cliché “I am so glad to see you” or “Thank you for coming.” As a pastor I know we don’t always means those words. Others expressed from the beginning their concerns about us being there, saying: “Are you planning on disrupting the meeting?”

During these meetings the Bishops have what they call “Executive Sessions.” This means that only the Bishops can be present during those meetings, so it is closed to the common people. When the Executive Session came where the COB intended to discuss the matter of the Commission, we disrupted it by staying in the room and refusing to leave. Our demands were for the COB to reconsider and reconstitute the queer and people of color representation on the Commission. They offered us a meeting with the eight Bishops that would be part of the Commission. We had the meeting and got nothing out of it, just more political responses or no response at all. We asked the President of the COB, Bruce Ough, to give an answer to our demands by 8:00a.m. the following day. We never got a response; not even the courtesy of a no.

We decided to disrupt their business again, but this time by taking the microphone. The President immediately dismissed the meeting and called everyone to put on their robes and go outside for the official episcopal group-picture. This was clearly a planned response. So while we were literally speaking our truth, the Bishops started to leave the room. Just a few of them decided to stay and listen. It was extremely disappointing to see that even some of our so-called “allies” also walked out on us.

After we expressed our demands and concerns about the Commission and called them to do something more, some of those “allies” expressed to us how damaging doing this kind of demonstration is to our cause. How we should be treating Bishops with some special respect just because they are Bishops. How we should be more patient because things are really changing. Some of them actually told us how they have been working within the Council for some changes in our favor, but this disruption or demonstration was so disrespectful that it will damage the “amazing progress” they achieved in 44 years. Others came to tell me personally: “You are not forgotten, I know your name”.

Still crying because of my anger, frustration and disappointment, watching all of them laughing and smiling while taking their pictures, the only words I could express to describe what I was witnessing was: “The level of hypocrisy and institutionalism is apocalyptic.”

People like me have to work twice as hard as any other seminarian. We have to prove ourselves and prove our call to this church twice as much, and after everything you don’t know if in fact you will get ordained. And if you do, you will always have to work twice as hard to prove you are worthy. However, we are the ones called the “issue” of the church. We are told what we are what is dividing our church. The Bishops are so worried and so focused on the schism of the church, that they have forgotten our identity as Methodists; how for us doing justice is more important that the establishment or the institution. They preach about justice. They preach about letting the Spirit work among us. But it seems that every time the Spirit breaks in, The Book of Discipline is right there to say: “No, no, sorry, Holy Spirit, but you are acting against what is typed in here”.

The level of institutionalism and the politics within the UMC is what is deeply damaging the church, not us (LGBTIQA people). That institutionalism is what moved Methodist and other clergy to write a letter to Martin Luther King in the past, to tell him his demonstrations were damaging his cause and the amazing job they as allies were doing among the white congregations. That level of institutionalism is what Jesus criticizes in the parable of the Persistent Widow, in which a judge forgets his duty as an official to always look out for the widows and the orphans as it is stated in the Law. That institutionalism and hypocrisy is what moved the Protestant Reformation into being. Because of that same institutionalism the people Wesley ministered to couldn’t find a place within the Anglican Church and created the Methodist movement. That institutionalism is a god. We have forgotten who we are as people who are moved by the Spirit.

These events followed by the racist acts against United Methodist Latinx Youth that took place in North Carolina, and the lack of action from our leadership once more has me wondering: How long am I willing to endure this?

I believe God has called me to the ministry of reconciliation and healing, but this church is so soul-sucking. Why should I keep fighting or trying so hard to create spaces in a place where evidently I am not accepted or welcome as a gay person, but also as a Latinx? My body is constantly patronized, tokenized, or demonized, whether by The Book of Discipline or by the silence of those who otherwise come to whisper in my ears: “you are not forgotten, I know your name.”

If I would like to play politics, I would’ve take the path of law school and then gone into the world of politicians not pastors. They are playing politics while our lives and careers are at stake. They hide the bigotry, the hatred, the homophobia, the racism all of these sins against our bodies behind “theological differences,” but we are the ones called incompatible with Christians teaching and sinners. Although I still believe the Spirit will break in through the persistence of the widows, and God will see we get justice and quickly (Luke 18:8); right now I am not convinced I want to be the persistent one, for the sake of my own soul.

[1] Martin Luther King. Letter From Birmingham Jail. https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

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One thought on “Apocalyptic Institutionalism

  1. What is amazing to me is that members of Love Prevails never seem to learn anything. If you want to be respected, you have to be respectful yourself. If the church overtly used the same manner of tactics you are using toward you, you would immediately cry out against it as spiritual violence. Yet, you think by using these tactics you are being non-violent. Get real. You will get nowhere if you keep DEMANDING every time you turn around. Respectfully, but firmly PETITION the COB. Don’t demand. By “demanding” you are guaranteeing push-back in kind. As you have said, allies are now walking out of the room on you. HELLO! Got any clues yet?

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