Our Time to be a Voice of Hope for the Unconditional Love, Abundant Grace and Mercy of God

Rev. Dr. Anna Crews Camphouse, Senior Pastor, Eastern Sierra Shared Ministry
I have been a United Methodist my whole life.  One of my ancestral grandfathers built the church that held the second Christmas conference. I am a ninth generation South Alabaman.  I grew up in a house that my third great grandfather got the land for from William Henry Harrison’s Homestead Act. Steeped in a culture of conservatism and sweet tea, I grew up totally immersed in the values of home, family, community, and Jesus. I am also a Californian. I am a Claremont School of Theology graduate times two. I am an ordained Elder in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. I have been active in MFSA for years. I have been a member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions three times. I am a global citizen, and interspiritual collaborator, and an intercultural communicator and appreciator.

I am a child of a living God. I believe that God is unconditional love and abundant mercy. I believe that Jesus embodied all the qualities of God’s love in perfection in human form. I believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit we can go forth and do likewise. I believe that being in love with God means living a life without fear. I believe that following God means going where God calls you and trusting that God will do amazing things through your obedience to the call.

In 2016, the week after Trump got elected, I got offered a job to go back to my native Alabama to serve on the Wesley Foundation staff at Auburn University. I led a unique leadership program called the Auburn Wesley Cooperative Parish, a student pastor program for students at Auburn to get real-life pastoring experience in three local churches that I pastored while they were still in undergrad. I mentored 8 students in my two and a half years of service in that role. I was able to mentor many other Auburn students during my time and was blessed with the experience of being a Christian presence alongside them in their learning. While there I also had many wonderful opportunities for service where God showed up in miraculous ways:  joint Bible studies with Auburn and Tuskegee Wesley students, building the Beloved Community in Auburn, expanding a food pantry ministry in Loachapoka into a community worship experience, ministering to grad students through weekly devotionals at grad lunches on campus, working to create a collaborative for rural health care in East Alabama, helping the Poor People’s Campaign, and preaching in intercultural settings to name a few.

While all this was happening, I was still a member of the California-Pacific Annual Conference on loan to Alabama-West Florida. In my ministry, I felt a passion and a conviction that compelled me to do all I could to use everything I had learned both in Alabama and California to empower people towards hope and love. However, in conference meetings the feeling was not one of faith but fear. This was something I remembered from my childhood as one of my most vivid memories of my young adulthood was the Alabama-West Florida Conference of 1999. I had just gotten off a plane from the Student Forum of the United Methodist Student Movement, where I was a member of the National Steering Committee from the Southeastern Jurisdiction.  At the Student Forum they had just used a beautiful consensus model of legislation to pass a group decision to become a Reconciling Student Movement.

Yet, at that Annual Conference at Huntingdon College in Montgomery they passed nine pieces of legislation to send to General Conference 2000 which all said the same thing about a condemnation of gay people in ministry. Only one question on the floor was even asked about the legislation, “Who wrote this line on Resolution 4?” Otherwise, the floor was silent. Fear does that to people. Individually, I found many Elders who quietly told me they disagreed. But, they knew to do so publically was professional suicide. The next year would find me leaving for California to go to Claremont for school. At the time, I couldn’t imagine going back.

Here I was again in 2017, 2018, and 2019 listening to similar conversations. Repeatedly the Bishop of their conference was asked in public about his opinions on what the West was doing in relation to “gay agendas”. Time after time, the Bishop would say something like, “The West has broken covenant with us. They are defiant in this.  They will continue to be increasingly defiant until the church is broken in two.” He would describe the pain of the broken covenant and express that the West had done harmful things to intentionally and willfully harm the connection.

Surprisingly absent in the Bishop’s assertions was the other side of the story. Absent was the pain of the communities not only of LGBTQIA+ individuals who had been trying to find their place in the church for many years. Absent were the family members of these individuals who had been condemned by the church and pushed away. Absent was the story of struggle to be able to keep the church together by giving different voices and understanding a chance to seek God in sincerity and truth, not silence and conformity to other’s expectations. Absent also were the stories of the myriad power plays of the South to make sure that more “liberal” voices had less and less power in the General Conference. The list is too long to enumerate here but some of the things to remember include the voting down of making North America its own central conference in the early 2000s, the inclusion of more local pastor votes to increase rural areas representation, and the multiple efforts to buy votes from Africa and the central conferences that have been reported from many sources. Saying the West is the problem really doesn’t elaborate the whole story. While some in the Alabama West Florida conference did provide spaces to have Courageous Conversations on the subject, the audience was generally not as diverse as those who would come to the Bishop’s called meetings. Like so many people, I have gay and lesbian people in my family, too. I will not throw them under the bus for church politics. I believe abuse of our LGBTQIA+ siblings to be wrong in the eyes of God. Love is the way.

Unfortunately for me, my job in the Alabama-West Florida Conference was heavily subsidized by the district. As the church was going through all this threat of split and heavy organizing by the Wesleyan Covenant Association in the Annual Conference, the cabinet made a decision to get the district money back and defund my position. Later, they would further make the decision to not appoint my husband either, also a United Methodist Elder from Cal-Pac. When we asked if this decision was made on a personal level or job performance, we were told that it wasn’t. I had been asked in the meeting where I was told they were defunding my position, “Are you planning on joining our Annual Conference?” I responded that it wasn’t something I could do at this time. I must say it did hurt for this ninth generation Alabaman to hear the next words from the district superintendent, “We have to take care of our own. If you are not a member of our Annual Conference, we cannot guarantee you any kind of appointment here.”  Both of us knew there was a shortage of Elders in the Annual Conference. This was not personal. It was political.  General Conference 2019 was coming and out of fear of what could happen, they didn’t want to make any commitments to Elders from out West. So, in June of this year, myself and my husband and three wonderful kids left my beloved Alabama and returned to my adopted home of California.

Many clergy while I was there told me they didn’t agree with the WCA or the traditional plan. Many worried what would happen to them and what they would have to painfully sign on to in order not to lose their jobs. Many saw the One Church Plan as a hope for the church. Yes, there are gay and lesbian clergy in the Alabama-West Florida Conference like there are in every other conference in America. One courageous clergywoman even came out on the floor of Annual Conference 2016 then left immediately for Cal-NevConference where she would be safe to continue in ministry. A number of others, beloved by their congregations, are quietly in the closet hoping for a time where they will be accepted and loved for who they are. Like 1999, they and their friends silently collaborate behind the scenes hoping that something will change for the better, some even openly envying that I had somewhere else to go in case the worst happened and the traditionalists won.

Resist harm is a statement for all of us.  One thing that 2019 has shown us is that old wounds must be debrided in order for healing to come. The ugliness in the church politic and the national politic is there for all to see. I know that standing in integrity and speaking radical love has a cost. I have lived that cost again this year. I have had to say goodbye to my native culture again, my family, and so many friends. Yet, I know that all over there are good people who will for something better to happen in the coming days and months. I have been in the most conservative place in the country and the most liberal. And, I can tell you that Star Wars is right, “We are not alone. Good people will fight if we lead them.”

This is our time to be a voice of hope for the unconditional love and abundant grace and mercy of God. We are the California-Pacific Methodist Federation for Social Action. People really are looking to us to speak. Yes, it takes courage. Yes, it requires a faith in love over fear. Children of God, let us dare to Resist Harm and empower all our brothers and sisters who live in places where fear is the norm to do it, too.

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