KEEPING THE FAITH

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI – Kimberly and Jen Reese have been married for three years and are passionate about their Methodist faith. When the church voted in February 2019 to continue its ban against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, they were disappointed.

Delegates voted 438-384 at the United Methodist Church General Conference to continue a 1972 policy stating that “the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching.”

The Reeses found it distressing to be raising children in a faith that is important to them but excludes them from pursuing a career in ministry or renewing their vows.

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Jen and Kimberly Reese play with their children on Friday, March 15, 2019. They have struggled with the General Conference decision to ban LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage within the church. “It makes me sad for our kids,” Kimberly said. “I want our kids to grow up in an environment that’s inclusive for everyone. Our 13-year-old [Evan] said it best when we drove past a church that said open minds, open hearts, and open doors. He said there shouldn’t be exceptions. And he’s right.”
The couple has four children: Evan, 13, Josie, 7 months, and Makenzie and Miya, 2-year-old identical twins they adopted in January after fostering them since birth.

They want them to grow up with acceptance in their hearts but understand the challenges of cultivating that acceptance while they are being partially excluded.

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A religious sign hangs in the afternoon sunlight in Jen and Kimberly Reese’s home on Friday, March 15, 2019. Their family is active in the Community United Methodist Church in Columbia, Missouri. “We were ready for that connection. We wanted our kids to be raised in a smaller church where they could be involved,” Kimberly said. “From day one we felt so welcomed.”

“Our 13-year-old said it best when we were driving by a church that said ‘Open hearts, open minds, open doors.’ ” Kimberly Reese said. “He said there shouldn’t be exceptions.”

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Kimberly Reese reads to her daughter Miya, right, while her other daughter Makenzie, left, “styles her hair” on Friday, March 15, 2019. Kimberly and her wife Jen adopted Makenzie and Miya in January after fostering them for the past two years. “Everyone loves the girls at our church,” Kimberly said. “No decision that the global church makes is going to make us walk away from where we feel loved.”

In February, the church delegates, who came from around the globe, were faced with two options: They could uphold the existing policy, called the Traditional Plan, or they could allow each church to decide whether to hire LGBTQ clergy or officiate during same-sex weddings. The second plan is called the One Church Plan.

When they voted to uphold the Traditional Plan, the delegates agreed to impose mandatory penalties on clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings.

A large number of African and Asian delegates, where homosexuality is still largely illegal, were in favor of retaining the ban. Evangelical members from Europe and the United States also supported the Traditional Plan.

The alternative plan gathered much of its support from Methodist delegates from the United States where acceptance of LGBTQ rights has gained significant traction in recent years.

Craig Stevenson, the commissioned deacon for the Hallsville United Methodist Church, said the decision made him feel sad for Christianity.

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Craig Stevenson listens to Hallsville United Methodist Church pastor Jim Voigt speak about the General Conference 2019 decision on Sunday, March 10, 2019. The hotly debated Traditional Plan was passed in a 438 to 384 vote over the course of three days, barring LGBTQ people from becoming clergy or any ordained Methodist minister to officiate same-sex weddings. “We understand each other as humans much more when we can have a conversation,” Stevenson said. “That’s what makes it so hard. There’s no way in the conference type setting to really get to know someone, and more than anything that’s what we as Christians are supposed to do.”

“It’s difficult for me,” Stevenson said. “I believe the church should be open to everyone.”

It harks back to a different era, one less open-minded about cultural change.

“It was our theology, our American missionaries that did this 75 years ago, which is very reflective of how our culture was.”

He said, however, that it is unfair to single out African delegates as scapegoats in the February decision. He spent time with African Methodists in Mozambique and found them warm and welcoming, but they were tied to a cultural experience that differs from the American experience.

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Brittney Stevenson, lay and missions leader, gathers the congregation of Hallsville United Methodist Church in prayer on Sunday, March 10, 2019. During the sermon lead by pastor Jim Voigt, the congregation addressed the severity of the General Conference 2019 decision and how the local church was going

Missouri Methodists are part of the Mozambique Initiative, a ministry that drew Stevenson to Africa where he worked with orphanages.

He said he and his wife, Brittney, felt called to foster children in Missouri as a result of that opportunity.

“I always think when we foster of the children at the orphanage in Mozambique, and that the church is walking alongside them,” he said.

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Craig and Brittney Stevenson, right, visit with a Parents as Teachers educator, Karen Smith, left, on March 8. Craig Stevenson’s faith and his family are closely knit, and he knows many LGBTQ families now feel unwelcome in the church after the General Conference decision. “I believe that if John Wesley was standing here today, he would welcome them into the church,” Stevenson said. “He would beg them not to go.”

Although many churches around the country have released public statements with their positions on the ban, Methodist churches in central Missouri seem to be waiting for the next verdict. The church’s top court, called the Judicial Council, is set to review the February decision in Evanston, Illinois, April 23-26.

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Jen Reese enters the worship area at Community United Methodist Church in Columbia, Missouri on Sunday, April 7, 2019. Both Jen and her wife Kimberly feel welcome in their congregation despite the faith’s national decision to bar LGBTQ people from becoming clergy or being married in the church. “The Bible is inspired by God,” Reese said. “But ultimately it is written by man. I just know for me, the God that I believe in is one that believes in love and to love your fellow man.”

 

According to an online forum called United Methodist Insight, the Judicial Council has been asked to review the Traditional Plan as amended, along with two “exit plans” for disaffiliation with the church.

“Most churches, including ours in Hallsville, are really just waiting to see what the final product is,” Stevenson said.

Hallsville UMC’s congregation has mixed feelings on the decision, Stevenson said, but the lead pastor, Jim Voigt, plans in May to discuss ways for Methodists to approach the subject of human sexuality.

Stevenson said he struggles, knowing people on both sides want to blame someone. His knowledge of Methodist theology allows him to understand both viewpoints.

The four pillars of the Methodist Church are Scripture, reason, experience and tradition. Traditionalists base their way of thinking on Scripture and tradition, while those who support the One Church Plan  tend to base their thinking on reason and experience.

The Reese family feels accepted and loved in their church at Community United Methodist, but they know many other families with parents or children in the LGBTQ community do not.

“Growing up being gay, you have to come to your own terms with your religion and develop your personal relationship,” Jen Reese said.

Both Jen and Kimberly say they have found a church that is accepting and shares their beliefs, but are frustrated that the denomination as a whole still has restrictions on their clergy. They know not every Methodist approves, but they say they feel loved and supported at their own church.

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Jen and Kimberly Reese sing the Lord’s Prayer with their 2-year-old daughter Josie at Community United Methodist Church in Columbia, Missouri on Sunday, April 7, 2019. The Reese’s are still committed to their faith despite the national decision to ben same-sex weddings or openly gay clergy in the church.

Jacob Paul and Madi Denton, leaders in the Missouri United Methodist Church’s college ministry program, want to promote a feeling of love and acceptance in their church community, as well.

Paul is a junior at MU and an openly gay Bible study leader at the church. He credits the recent growth in his faith to the leadership position, which Denton, the director of college ministry, encouraged him to pursue.

“Coming to Mizzou, I was searching around for a Methodist church, and at MUMC they have even more of an open-door policy than my church at home,” Paul said.

Denton said she has been challenged by the idea of the church as a symbol of faithfulness when she believes the ultimate goal is each individual’s relationship with God.

She said she feels fortunate that people at Missouri United Methodist have the freedom to interpret their faith for themselves and don’t have to all agree.

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Madi Denton and Jacob Paul chat by a fire pit at Brookside apartment complex on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Both Denton and Paul are committed to continuing ministry “with all people,” and are planning to move forward from the General Conference decision with hope. Their college ministry at Missouri United Methodist Church has started a series of “pop-up churches” at local restaurants and venues in order to move the individual growth of faith outside of a Methodist building.

“The biggest thing we came to as a church is that we are going to continue being in ministry with all people,” Denton said.

Paul and Denton both view grappling with the church’s February decision as a chance to grow and promote acceptance at the local level.

“There’s a lot of pain,” Paul said, “but I think it’s also an opportunity for us to continue to spread the message that despite the decision by the entire Methodist Church, this church here is still open and welcome.”

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