Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Open Letter to the Music Ministry of Decatur First

To the Music Ministry of Decatur First.

I shared this story with the youth choir shortly before our youth choir retreat.  I want to share it with you now.

I almost died.  Literally.

I was in elementary school, and I was on a camping trip with the boys' choir I was singing in.  We were camped by the side of some rapids, and during the day we would swim in the river and float down the rapids.

I was not a great swimmer, and I can't tell you why I decided to float down those rapids without a life jacket on.  Like many prepubescent boys, maybe I just wasn't thinking at all.  The current carried me into a deeper river channel, and having exhausted myself in the rapids, I was spent such that I could not escape.

I panicked.  I flailed.  I yelled for help between gasps of air and water.  My choir director, Charlie, did not hesitate.  He jumped in the river and swam to me.  He endured the headlock I put on him in my terror.  He carried me to shallower waters and safety.  He held me there until I was calm and safe.  Charlie saved my life.  By which I mean if it weren't for Charlie, I would not be typing this email.

Charlie was one of my favorite people, and in fact I was in his choir room the very first time I said I would like to be a church music director (though I would lose sight of that and change my mind until after college when I came back to it).  Charlie instilled a love of music in me and gave me opportunities to express it.  The Celebration of Emmanuel Christmas concert/service we offer annually is influenced, in large part, by my musical experiences with Charlie.  So in addition to saving my life, Charlie also gave it direction in a very real way.

Charlie ran a choir camp in the summer, and it was one of my favorite things.  One year it fell in my "dad's half" of the summer.  He would not let me go, and when I pressed for why he wouldn't, he said it was because Charlie is gay.

I was devastated.  I went to my room and collapsed on my bed. I didn't understand.  I couldn't understand.  That day on my bed, hurt by hate, I said to myself it made no sense.  Being gay had not stopped Charlie from jumping into a river to save me.  Why should it stop me from going to Choir Camp?

I don't understand.  I can't understand.

I'm not saying this to present myself as a victim.  I am a white cis male, and I have all the privilege that goes with that.  What I experienced wasn't even a drop in the bucket of what LGBTQ+ people endure.  That one experience is seared in my memory.  I can't imagine what it would be like to have so many of those memories that I couldn't count or distinguish them...or if I was still having those experiences every day.

Before I took the job at Decatur First, I asked the pastor if Decatur First was a place I could invite everyone.  He answered honestly, that this had not always been that kind of place, but hard battles had been fought, progress was being made, and he believed I could invite anyone and they would indeed be welcome.  It was important to me because I determined when I began ministry that I would not be a part of a place that claimed to be church but excluded and hurt people because of who they loved.

In my eleven years here, it has seemed to me that we have become more and more welcoming and affirming.  I do feel like I can invite anyone, and I feel like everyone is welcome.  Not just welcome.  I feel like everyone is loved here.  And I feel like we, as a church (a people, not just a building), have built a community around sharing God's love with each other and with the community beyond.

Now the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has taken a vote predicated on hate.  I don't understand.  I can't understand.

But...we don't have to be that church, and we aren't that church.

We can be a music ministry that connects people to God by enhancing meaningful worship on a weekly basis.  We can be a music ministry that connects people to each other offering choirs where everybody has a place.  We can be a music ministry that reaches into the world outside and shares the love of Christ rather than the bitterness and evil that has been sewn in Saint Louis.

Actually, we are that music ministry.  And we will be that music ministry.

When I parked at the church today and walked in the door, I didn't walk into a different church building, and I don't serve a different church.  If you are reading this, I serve you, and I serve with you.  I love you enough to let you go if you are so hurt you feel like that's what you need to do.  But our church will be what our church is.  Welcoming.  Loving.  We will not exclude.  We will actively include.  If Decatur First ever stops being that, I will walk out the door with you.

We have just changed the church sign this morning it now reads:

Side 1: In this UMC there is no ban on anyone for any reason.
Side 2: LGBTQ+ people deserve full rights in church and society.

This Sunday and every Sunday, our bulletin will carry these words:

"No matter who you are, where you have been, what you have been up to, or who you love, you are loved and welcome here."

I promise you these are not hollow words.  I promise you I will work to live up to the commitment these words demand.  They will know we are Christians by our love because that is the only way to know a Christian.

Love in Christ,
John

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