(RNS) — When Asbury Memorial Church in Savannah, Georgia, announced its disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church last year, Asbury said in a press release that it believed it was “the first church in the USA to leave the United Methodist denomination due to its unequal treatment of LGBTQ people.”
The church’s claim points to the sense of historic justice many United Methodists feel in the denomination’s proposed split over LGBTQ issues, awaiting a vote delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But United Methodists’ debate over sexuality did not begin with the ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination the denomination’s global decision-making body reaffirmed at its 2019 special session. It has been a topic at every quadrennial General Conference since 1972, when delegates edited the Book of Discipline to call homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
And Asbury Memorial isn’t the first church to disaffiliate from America’s second-largest Protestant denomination over its official stance toward its LGBTQ members. Before the current wave of churches disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church, there was Community of Hope in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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Community of Hope’s story begins before its founding pastor, the Rev. Leslie Penrose, 69, had thought much about LGBTQ issues. Or about ministry.
While traveling in Central America in the mid-1980s, Penrose met a gay man who told her he felt a call to ministry he couldn’t follow because of his sexuality, she said. His story raised so many questions for her that she enrolled at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, hoping to find answers.
A semester into her studies, a nurse at a local hospital asked if Penrose would be willing to visit a young man dying of AIDS who was scared and alone.
“Oh, don’t even bother. My church has already told me I’m going to hell,” the young man told Penrose when she stopped by, she recalled. She told the man she didn’t believe that and asked if they could talk.
She ended up visiting him almost every day until he died weeks later, then holding a memorial for him at a park at his friends’ request, she said.
After that, Penrose said, “all of a sudden, things just exploded.” A doctor working with HIV/AIDS patients invited her to do some chaplaincy work in his office. She talked with them, baptized them, made hospital calls — “anything that would help them be less anxious about what was going on in their life,” she said.
Many of them began attending the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church in Tulsa, where she had begun working as associate pastor after her ordination in 1986. There didn’t seem to be any other clergy in the area ministering to people with HIV and AIDS, she said.
The first two or three gay men were welcomed, she said, but once they began to fill a whole row of seats during services, “the church got really threatened.”
The pastor at the time allegedly sent a letter to one couple telling them they couldn’t drink out of the water fountains, go into the kitchen and children’s Sunday school classrooms or serve the homeless ministry — “just this brutal, horrible example of what it meant to be the church,” Penrose said.
(The former pastor could not be reached for comment, and messages left at Memorial Drive United Methodist Church were not returned.)
In 1993 — with a candle and chalice to their name, and the support of Bishop Dan Solomon, who headed the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church at the time — Penrose and 16 others started Community of Hope at another United Methodist church in Tulsa, an outreach from the church to “people on the margin.” About half of the congregation was LGBTQ, she said, many living with HIV or AIDS.
Solomon and Penrose drew inspiration for Community of Hope from the “base communities” each had encountered in Central and South America — small groups grounded in liberation theology that were writing their own liturgies and doing justice work.
“Across the years, we learned pretty quickly how to do liturgy that would help us survive every time we came to church, having somebody else die — that kind of just massive overwhelming grief that was happening in the early ’90s,” she said.
Sitting in a circle of folding chairs in the church basement, the fledgling congregation wrestled with what it meant to be the church, attracting scholars from the Jesus Seminar, a movement that attempted to reconstruct a historical view of Jesus.
Those scholars had became “increasingly convinced that the church was reading the gospel out of fear, instead of out of love,” according to Penrose.
Among them was Bernard Brandon Scott, who had taught Penrose in seminary. Penrose asked Scott to speak to Community of Hope about Jesus’ parables, which he had written a “rather large” book about, Scott said. He chose what he called the “mostly misunderstood” parable of the leaven, and the congregation immediately caught on that Jesus’ words “would appeal to the outcasts and the unclean.”
Scott, a Catholic, was struck by how rich the Scripture became in the context of that community. He was supposed to speak to the congregation for four weeks. He stayed for eight years, he said.
“I spent my whole life studying the New Testament and early Jesus movements, and that, to me, is what exactly went on in those communities. It’s that kind of healing that took place. And, you know, I couldn’t imagine anything happening like that in a traditional parish,” he said.
He realized, too, it was one of the few places where he — a straight white man and faculty member “used to getting my way” — was in the minority. His eyes constantly were opened to see things in new ways.
“Everything was upside-down. The values were very different,” he said.
Community of Hope started volunteering with homeless and domestic violence shelters and organizing mission trips to Nicaragua and Guatemala. Members dedicated half of their offerings to mission work.
“Being able to do something for others instead of always being the one that was in need and sick and wounded and broken was really, really important to them,” Penrose said.
As the congregation grew, it welcomed new members by laying hands on them. “At that time, AIDS was such an untouchable thing that the touch really became a sacrament to us,” Penrose said.
Brad Mulholland, part of the core that started Community of Hope, remembers how “taboo” it seemed when Community of Hope allowed him to serve Communion. Now 57, he had been diagnosed with HIV at 21 and told he had two years to live, he said.
Mulholland had grown up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and his partner, Mark Vickers, was raised Pentecostal, but even as they were losing friends every week, navigating “pain and loss and meds and doctors,” he said, they couldn’t find a faith community that would accept them — until they met Penrose.
Shortly before Vickers died of AIDS, the couple celebrated their “holy union” at Community of Hope.
“That congregation just blossomed, not only with people living with HIV and AIDS, but with people that were traditionally not welcomed in church,” Mulholland said. “It really empowered myself and many others to kind of be the church — what we always wanted to be in the church.”
But he also had been on the receiving end of that letter asking LGBTQ people not to drink from Memorial Drive’s water fountains, he said.
And the church that hosted Community of Hope in its basement asked the congregation to leave after a church member witnessed two men kissing in the parking lot, according to Penrose. The church could not be reached for comment.
Community of Hope’s practice of holy unions for same-sex couples also became “very controversial,” Penrose said. She was asked not to wear her robe during the ceremonies, then not to wear her stole, then not to pronounce couples “husband and husband” or “wife and wife” or to bless their rings.
Eventually, she said, another clergy member filed a formal complaint against her in the United Methodist Church. The Oklahoma Conference said it could not comment on confidential personnel matters.
Months later, Penrose said, “I wrote a letter and said, ‘You know, I’m tired of wasting time and energy and creative thought fighting when we could be putting that into some wholesome kind of ministry.” She left the United Methodist Church in 1999 and joined the United Church of Christ, the only denomination she said was openly affirming of LGBTQ people at the time.
Community of Hope soon followed its founding pastor to the UCC.
“We were very angry, incredibly hurt,” Mulholland said. “For so many of us that had been thrown out of the church or not welcomed to the church at all, and then to be a part of it and then asked to leave again, it just opened huge wounds.”
Solomon, now retired, said he had moved to another conference before Penrose left the denomination and doesn’t remember Community of Hope’s holy unions. But the former Oklahoma bishop remembers Penrose’s integrity and compassion for people who had been marginalized for any reason.
“If we’re faithful to the gospel, we want to live our faith in relationship to marginalized people,” Solomon said.
Community of Hope continued to thrive until Penrose’s retirement in 2007. “As a historian of religion, I would say the issue was they didn’t know how to survive a charismatic founder,” Scott said.
At its final service, Penrose returned to give the sermon, preaching about stardust. Stars give light for a long time, she said, and when they die, they don’t fade and disappear, but explode and spread stardust across the universe.
In the same way, she said, Community of Hope’s members have spread far beyond the Tulsa area. Scott still gets questions about the chapter he wrote about the ministry in his 2001 book “Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus.” Penrose now leads a nonprofit called JustHope that creates partnerships to combat systemic poverty In Nicaragua.
“It continues to live in its own little way and to give people hope and encouragement,” Penrose said.
It showed that Christianity “doesn’t work in a context of privilege. Really, it is a religion for the marginalized,” she said.
Much has changed in the decades since Community of Hope first met in a church basement.
For one, said Amy Laura Hall, associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School, in every United Methodist conference and congregation, there are more people who are openly gay or lesbian. There are more people who have children or nieces and nephews who are in same-sex relationships.
“More people are out, thank God and thank all the organizations and individuals who have been loud and proud,” Hall said.
That changes the conversation. But, the professor said, she’s not sure yet how it will impact the outcome of the denomination’s next General Conference meeting in August 2022, where United Methodist delegates from across the globe are expected to vote on a proposal to split the denomination over its disagreements about sexuality.
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When he thinks about what the denomination can learn from Community of Hope’s story, Mulholland said, it’s this: “Open your doors and find out what you can learn. It’s powerful stuff.”
Penrose is not surprised that the debate over LGBTQ Christians is still raging within the United Methodist Church — but she is appalled, she said.
“The church is supposed to be on the leading edge of these kinds of issues, not dragged kicking and screaming,” she said.
But the former pastor said she doesn’t believe Community of Hope’s efforts were wasted.
“In my more hopeful moments, I think we really did learn that we all really are all broken and made whole together, that we all have elements of brokenness, and trying to heal together is a lot more productive than trying to decide who’s too broken to be present,” she said.