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.