I first marched in a Pride Parade 17 years ago. I was the pastor of a Houston church that was welcoming and affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer sisters and brothers, and we had a small float in the parade. I walked most of the way, waving to the crowd and passing out colorful beads. I also rode on the float for a while, sitting on colored crepe paper in the rain. At the end of the evening, the backs of my legs were stained a dark purple. They stayed that way for a week or so. Everywhere I went, people asked me how I got the bruises. I explained they weren't really bruises, but simply leftover color from the Pride Parade. Without waiting for a response, I added that I had been there with my church.
I was remembering that first parade last week as I read the news coming from the United Methodist Church. At their general conference in St. Louis, the church's struggle for full inclusion of its LGBTQ members came into full view. I was thinking of dear Methodist friends and colleagues, including several here in Charleston, who have bravely fought for LGBTQ rights in the church. And I was heartbroken when the United Methodist Church failed to consider a measure that would have really welcomed its LGBTQ members and congregations, choosing instead to double down on a status quo that leaves many of its members to be treated as second class Christians, separate and unequal in their own communion. Yet the struggle that I saw in St. Louis wasn't simply a Methodist struggle; it is more broadly a Christian struggle. I say this because as a clergyperson I've seen it my whole working life.
I don't think I had been a pastor a month before I received my first phone call from a gay Christian. He had visited our church's website and seen that we welcomed people of all sexual orientations and identities and he was calling to ask a few questions. He shared his story over the phone, including the ways his church had shamed and ostracized him, and I listened, at the end of our conversation trying to assure him that he was loved and would be welcome in our church. That man never came to church, but he called me about once a year just to check in. Every time we spoke he asked me if God loved him and I assured him that the answer was yes. Yet I think he really wanted to know if Christians loved him. And he wasn't the only one. I've been receiving similar calls and letters for 17 years from LGBTQ people of faith who have been deeply wounded by their religious communities. I've worked with runaway kids, sat in support groups, served on the boards of nonprofits providing care, and, most urgently, been called by those for whom the pain of rejection had led them to the brink of suicide. (If you are an LGBTQ person and you have had thoughts of harming yourself, then please reach out by calling the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. There are many who care and are available help.)
It all leads me to believe that religion, in general, and Christians, in particular, have much to answer for. The harm we have caused to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers is about as far from the teachings of Jesus as I can imagine. I often think of him at the beginning of his public life. He quoted from the prophet Isaiah and said he had come to preach to the poor and captive, the bruised and brokenhearted. In other words, Jesus' people were the ones who were suffering. The movement he started ran counter to the status quo. It was not conventional. And we should probably remember that it angered religious people.
So I wasn't really surprised during that first Pride Parade, when our float came to a halting stop right beside a group of religious protestors. Their church held up hateful signs and shouted that we were all going to hell. Our church held up rainbow flags and carried a banner that said all were welcome, loved, and celebrated. We must have stayed in that place for five or ten awkward minutes before the parade lurched back into motion. It felt liberating to be on the move again, walking away from the haters toward a newer, better place. Yet all these years later we're still having the same old arguments and I'm still getting the same phone calls.
The good news is that if you attend the Pride Parade in Charleston this year, you'll find more and more congregations represented. Sure, we've been a bit bruised and broken by the struggle, but we're all the more proud for it. And we're all the more clear that if our religion really is about love, then it has to be love for everybody. Especially those who have been hurt.
This year I know there will be some Methodists in the parade. We should let them go first.
Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Church.