Northbrook Church Takes A Stand On Sexual Orientation

Northbrook United Methodist Church joins network of "reconciling" ministries openly welcoming of gays and lesbians.

Two sets of rainbow-colored ribbons dangled from the cross above the altar at this Sunday, a visible welcome to people of all sexual orientations. 

Congregants carried orange, yellow, purple and red banners up to the altar during the service, and pastor Melissa Earley led church members in a “Hallelujah” chorus as one after another spoke about what the church’s new, official statement of welcome meant.

Two years after a group of church member began leading discussions on whether the church should be openly accepting of gay and lesbian members, Northbrook United Methodist Church (UMC) officially held its “reconciling ceremony” Sunday. The service solidified the church’s commitment to welcoming people of all sexual orientations and to joining a network of United Methodist churches that take that stance.

“Jesus’ ministry is about tearing down walls that separate people from God,” Rev. Earley told congregants in her sermon on Sunday. “Our welcoming statement isn’t a break from our tradition, but an embracing of it. This decision doesn’t make us rebellious to the church, but radically obedient to Christ.”

Change Came From Within

Along with a small group of fellow congregants, 27-year church member Alice Lonoff led the efforts to change Northbrook UMC. Lonoff said she believes that the teachings of the Bible, and in particular, the example of Jesus Christ, serve as a testament in support of full acceptance of all people.

“Christ modeled loving everyone, and he never judged,” she says.

As a whole, the United Methodist Church promotes acceptance of all people regardless of sexual orientation, but those churches who have not committed to a reconciliation do not “condone” homosexuality or affirm gay marriage, according to the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline. The church also does not ordain openly gay individuals.

Lonoff said she was inspired to work to change her own church after hearing about young gay and lesbian people around the country who had committed suicide. 

“People asked where my passion comes from,” she said. “Church, in my view, is causing these young people to question whether they’re doing something wrong.”

Given her discomfort with the church’s stance on homosexuality,  Lonoff at one point considered leaving the United Methodist Church altogether. But a young friend, who is gay, suggested she work from within.

Lonoff and others began talking about becoming a reconciling congregation five or six years ago, but efforts really began in earnest in April 2010, when a group met at her home and “decided to get serious.”

They began by getting the blessing of the pastor who preceded Earley, along with leaders on the church council. Then the group led several weeks of discussion before the church took a straw poll in May on whether or not to become a reconciling congregation. The vote came back with 84 percent of the congregation in support of the shift. Lonoff’s group continued offering discussions, and she said she made a point of reaching out to people one on one. 

“For me, the process was more important than anything else,” she said. “I didn’t want people to leave in a huff.”

On Oct. 19, members of the church held an official vote at Northbrook UMC’s annual meeting. With pews packed full of members, 100 percent voted in favor of the change.  

“I’m so happy that we worked through it,” said Lonoff.

Congregants Bear Witness To The Change 

At the reconciling ceremony Sunday, congregants from Northbrook UMC and supporters from around the area gathered to celebrate the church’s statement of official welcome. One by one, they stood up to “bear witness,” explaining what the statement meant to them.

Among the witnesses was Kiyoko Fujiu, widow of the late Rev. Victor Fujiu, who served as pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church from 1967 to 1972.  

“It was a cross-cultural, racial appointment at the time,” said Fujiu, whose husband spent time in the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. The church’s continued openness and acceptance of differences was “a joy” to see, she added. 

Northbrook UMC youth director Jon Shotwell stood up to say that as an openly gay man, he felt welcomed from the moment he was hired two months ago. 

“I come from a long background of spaces that are not safe,” said Shotwell, who grew up in Grand Rapids, MI, and was the first openly gay Bible student of his small, conservative Christian college.

“As you’re reconciling yourself to all communities, you are demonstrating and showing and communicating that you affirm all people’s callings,” he said. “So thank you.”

Parent and 10-year member of Northbrook UMC Heather McDonald said she joined the church because she believed it would provide a loving space and a good example for her children. 

“I think this reconciling statement is an absolutely critical component to the way I want to raise my children,” she said.

What It Means Going Forward

In her sermon, Rev. Earley described the church’s reconciling ceremony as “a foretaste” of heaven. 

“When the church is at its best, we experience in the here and now the reign of God,” she said. “It happened when we decided to make our welcome not just accidental but intentional.”

Going forward, Earley said the reconciliation ceremony meant that Northbrook UMC would take an officially accepting stance toward gay and lesbian members and would work to change the United Methodist Church as a whole. 

Conducting gay marriages, or “holy unions,” in church parlance, would put her at risk for suspension, she said—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would stop her. 

“I can’t imagine turning away folks,” Earley said. “My hope is that we as a congregation don’t face that kind of decision until we’re ready for it.”

Lonoff said that a reconciling committee formed to lead the process would continue to hold discussions and work to create a welcoming space for people of all sexual orientations.

“I hoped I planted a seed,” she said. 


Editor's Note: this article has been corrected to include accurate information about the percentage of church members who voted for the change in October. At the Oct. 19 all church meeting, 100 percent of church members voted to become a reconciling congregation. At a meeting of anyone who wished to vote in August, 93 percent voted for the change.

Daniel Krudop October 27, 2011 at 03:22 PM
Rev. Earley, “Jesus’ ministry is about tearing down walls that separate people from God,” Jesus did tear down that wall, reconciling us to God through His death and resurrection, and I feel sorry for those who would rebuild that wall as defined in the following passages, especially the second part of verse 32: Romans 1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Daniel Krudop October 27, 2011 at 03:33 PM
Alice Lonoff , “Christ modeled loving everyone, and he never judged,” In regard to the woman was taken in adultery, John 8:11 She said, “No man, Lord.” And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” Christ did not condemn her but he did condemn adultery. In directing her to “sin no more,” He was judging her, otherwise He wouldn't have called her actions sinful. In Matthew 12:34, speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” That sounds somewhat judgmental to me. Jesus accepts all sinners, me included, but He accepts none of our sins. He never said He accepts sinners and allows us to continue in our sins. He says to all who would accept Him for who He is, "Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more." Always, "Go and sin no more."
Samuel Ramey October 27, 2011 at 06:14 PM
Bravo Northbrook United Methodist Church. Makes me feel good to be a Methodist. Samuel Ramey, Glenview
Lee October 27, 2011 at 06:15 PM
Jeanette Nava Jackson October 29, 2011 at 06:54 PM
What a shame. Another UMC bows to the worldly culture of this very fallen world and allows this to infiltrate their church. I thank God every day for the bishops in Africa who vote against this horrible "policy" at General Conference and keep the Disciple intact for our denomination. If not for them, we'd be facing a breach like the Episcopal church has.
Samuel Ramey October 29, 2011 at 07:12 PM
A shame? To be inclusive? What a horrible policy indeed!
victor October 30, 2011 at 12:27 AM
What do you do with these scriptures?1 Corinthians 6:9-10 -"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (NIV). While the scripture may sound clear, the debate actually surrounds the use of the Greek word that this particular version of the Bible translates as "homosexual offenders." The term is "arsenokoite." Some say that it is a reference to male prostitutes rather than to two committed homosexuals. Yet, others argue that Paul, who wrote the passage, would not have repeated "male prostitutes" twice. Even others argue that the two root words in arsenokoite are the same terms used to prohibit any premarital or extramarital sexual relations, so they may not refer to homosexual relations alone. However, even if a person believes that homosexuality is a sin based upon this scripture, the next verse does say that homosexuals can inherit the kingdom if they come to the Lord,esus Christ. 1 Corinthians 6:11 -"And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (NIV)3


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