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Sharing our Stories: Jay Sowell

photo 5When Rae and I moved to Dana Point four years ago, I knew that I was looking for an inclusive congregation. We searched the Reconciling Ministries Network website for United Methodist churches in the area, and were disappointed to not find any that were members of RMN. Eventually I did find my way to Laguna Beach UMC, and found a home. LBUMC feels like family, in every way that families can be defined, and in every way that family means. This is the story of why true inclusivity matters to me, and why LBUMC is where I belong:

I was born with Methodism in my DNA, the descendant of generations of southern Methodists in Mississippi, and the son of two United Methodist clergy. I have chosen to remain Methodist because our Wesleyan emphases on inclusiveness and the social gospel reflect the truth of the Christ I have come to know and seek to follow. Methodism has taught me that God calls us to do no less than to build the kingdom of God on earth, and that the church is God’s instrument for fulfilling that calling. I am committed to the idea that the church can truly change the world.

So that’s who I have always been, a true believer in the church, and especially the United Methodist Church.

But I have learned that my belief is a lie. This is my story:

Ten years ago, I attended a 6-week study at my LGBT-inclusive United Methodist church, a study about how Jesus’ teachings affirmed homosexual people. One Sunday afternoon, the men in the group began to talk about the messages they had heard from the churches that they belonged to in their youth — some Catholic, some Protestant, all teaching that it was a sin to be gay. You could see the pain that this had caused, but I took comfort in the fact that time had passed and each of these men had found a church that truly welcomed them, and had come to know a God who loves them for who they are. Looking for confirmation, I said with confidence: “but you know now that this was wrong, and so it doesn’t matter anymore.” And they said, “yes, in our minds we know that, but in our hearts we are still inferior people, rejected and condemned by God.” The hurt was too deep to heal. For many of these men, it will never heal.

I was crushed. In my fairy tale world, the church was a force for good, indeed the only force good enough to truly make the world a better place, and I loved the church for it. But I was forced to confront a real world in which the church unjustly hurts people, and wounds them so deeply that they carry the pain all the rest of their lives. And there was nothing I could do to completely repair the damage. It was untouchable.

And that’s the story of how the church broke my heart. I am heterosexual, white and male. I have never been subjected to the rejection that comes with being otherwise. But that day I saw what rejection looked like, what it felt like, the everlasting damage that it does. And that the church could be the instrument of that damage broke my heart.

The church has repented from condemning people of color for not being white and from condemning women for not being men. Why have we not learned to avoid the same sin as it leads us to condemn LGBT people for not being heterosexual? For twenty years we denied my mother her calling to be a pastor because we misunderstood what God had to say about women. How long will we repeat these mistakes? How much pain must we cause?

We say that homosexual people are of sacred worth, but we lie when we say it, because when we say that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching it crowds out everything else. We believe, and we act out, the idea that LGBT people are less, that they are inferior, perverted, damned. We do not love them as they are, and we tell them that the God who made them does not, either. Thus we hurt people. Oh God, forgive us. The church that you called to transform the world instead unjustly condemns and destroys.

The truth is that God loves and values people regardless of race, gender, age, station in life, or orientation. In truth, it is the condemnation of LGBT people that is the lie. And when we perpetuate that lie we make the church to be less. Rejection and condemnation are incompatible with Christian teaching, and that is the truth that we must proclaim and live out. When we do, we are closer to living out our calling to build the kingdom of God, to change the world. We are more. We are the church that God calls us to be, and that you and I believe in.

That is my story.

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