Church, Human Sexuality, Theology

United Methodist Church Bishop’s Homophobic Rhetoric

13 Comments 17 January 2017

On the day that I write this, the death of Bishop Eddie Long fills the headlines. I have mixed feelings about even mentioning his name. Like all humans, he was a complicated soul. Long pastored one of the largest predominately African American churches in Atlanta, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. In an article found in SPLC’s Intelligence Report, he was called “one of the most homophobic Black pastors in America.” In one of the great ironies of his ministry, in 2010, four men accused him of sexual coercion dating back to their teen years. I and many others wrote about those allegations and innuendos floating around the city regarding Bishop Long well before what was then being reported. Not surprisingly, the public responses are the same: highly charged, filled with pain, sorrow, respect for the family and scripture-laden cautions and rebuke. Big sigh.

I also have mixed feelings about this article. I’ve wrestled with whether to write it for days. Frankly, I don’t want to write this article. On the other hand, I believe it is best that these words come from me rather than leave this matter to someone else; someone whose words may not land on the page with as much hope, grace and loving-regard that I want to convey.

Homophobia is a debilitating bane on the Church. It shows up in our liturgy and polity. It shows up in our music, sermons and fellowship. For years I have listened to people justify their homophobic rhetoric, read articles calling for Christians to “stand up against the sin of homosexuality” and declare their words as innocent and/or “taken out of context.” Unsurprisingly, we are divided. The pain is deep, and based on recent events, I doubt healing will come to our churches anytime soon. How can it when people we love and respect tear into our hearts with words so profoundly insulting? Kim Burrell, Shirley Ceasar and now one of our own United Methodist bishops, Sharma Lewis.

Last week at the Convocation for Pastors of Black Churches, Bishop Lewis, brought a remarkable sermon entitled Called to Fresh Vision(Facebook Jan. 11th at 9pm).  Largely via manuscript but seasoned with extemporaneous moments she began with the argument that “a vision is birth out of a concern” and moved on to demonstrate for those gathered the need for vision in building vital ministries. In her final remarks ending what had been a well-received sermon, Bishop Lewis shared about her experience of tarrying before and question God after her 2012 unsuccessful run for the bishop. Speaking about that moment, Lewis revealed the pain of being personally attacked via email. She recounted how she asked God, “Why would they send an email in the middle of the night saying that I’m gay?…I’m too cute to be gay!” Bishop Lewis went on to give the audience an apology for preaching because she felt her sermon – which came after a very spirited time of worship – “got in the way of God.” Among the admonishments that followed, Lewis declared there are times when leaders are “too afraid to say when we’re wrong.”

By her admonishment, I had no reason to believe, but that Bishop Lewis would hear my response to her comment that she was “too cute to be gay” and without delay offer an apology to the LGBTQ community. Moreover, I had known Bishop Lewis for many years, had heard her preach on several occasions, even at the church I pastored in Chicago. As a queer lesbian, I knew she and I held different positions when it came to the rights and lives of LGBTQ persons within the UMC. Our theology differs but – like our relationship as colleagues and as Black women – was not hindered at all by those differences. I had never known her to say utter a homophobic comment. Until that sermon.

I was shocked when I viewed the sermon (and I watched the ENTIRE sermon). Shocked, offended, hurt and then, in denial. Because I love our church, I have always sought to do a proper collection of facts before speaking out on many issues. I prefer going to the source, as I did on this matter. I immediately began reaching out to Bishop Lewis. I wanted to hear from her, wanted her to hear from me, wanted to talk about how offensive her comment was/is and especially wanted to encourage her to make a public apology. I hoped she would be courageous; I hoped she would practice what she had preached, not to be “too afraid to say when we’re wrong.” To date, that has not happened.

So here we are, listening to yet another sermon with language that is specifically insulting to LGBTQ persons. What would have been a sermon worth seeing by a broad range of people is tainted, made particularly insulting by a homophobic and alienating comment. Ironically, just that morning I’d read the brilliant essay by Ashon Crawley entitled, Kim Burrell and Feeling Ugly. In it he writes, “To call our way of life perversion, to declare death on us. In another register, in another key, this is to call us ugly.” Bishop Lewis’ retort, “I’m too cute to be gay,” is another episode of LGBTQ persons being made to feel ugly. One need not even get into the theological implications of her statement to know it’s DOA. Its faulty logic reaches its conclusion based on two premises, one spoken, one unspoken. Minor premise: I am not ugly. Conclusion: Therefore, I am not gay. Unspoken major premise: All gay people are ugly. As a rhetorical device it would look like this:

Major premise: All gay people are ugly.
Minor premise: I am not ugly.
Conclusion: Therefore, I am not gay.

While the major premise is unspoken. It nonetheless is heard, and felt. With this one spoken sentence – frankly something that has been said by more than Bishop Lewis – we are left to wrestle with a host of questions. So, gay people are ugly? How cute do you need to be not to be gay? Is there some cosmetic secret that can resolve gayness? Theologically, how does casting gay in such a way impact what we say about the body of Christ? How do we respond theologically when children and adults lament being called “ugly”? Ought we even buy into the cultural phenomenon of beauty aesthetics? How do you minister through that pain?

I hope Bishop Lewis and others will think long about her conclusion and the ways she will respond now and in the future to emails questioning her sexual identity (so much I can say about people who launch those type horrible attacks) as well as to concerns from the LGBTQ community and its allies stemming from other homophobic comments. I can tell you; the loving response is not what Shirley Caesar advocated: take the cell phones when you want to speak to your members. Neither should it be along the lines of Kim Burrell’s justification that boils down to her basically arguing that her words were misconstrued or taken out of context. We heard what we heard. It’s not digging in like Long and declaring Christianity is being “attacked by the enemy.” The enemy being a type of homosexual Goliath. It’s not retreating into denial and deciding you’ll just be more careful about what you say (because the queers may be in the room). Silence will not resolve homophobia. This is not a demand for political correctness. It is a matter of children of God not having to sit through, over and over and over again, sermons that call us ugly, perverted, sinful, reprobate. This is not about correctness; this is about grace and love.

Right now, the United Methodist Church has entered a season of determining if our denomination will remain “united.” How do we even trust that our episcopacy can lead us forward when we hear such disparaging words? This is not a mistake in preaching. And though I do not feel that it was said to cause pain intentionally, I do know that those words and the absence of an apology reveal what we know to be true: We are not of one mind, and it’s not likely that we will get there when the episcopal leaders of our church say such things and feel no need to repent.

Both Lewis and I have our communities of accountability. My vision for the United Methodist Church is in concert with my concern for the well-being of oppressed persons. It’s not an easy work. People love you for “speaking truth to power” until it’s their sense of power you call to task or until it’s their beloved paragon whose virtue is being questioned. Now as in times past, perhaps, even more, I write as an out queer lesbian elder of the United Methodist Church disappointed by yet another hurtful statement FROM THE PULPIT.

Near the end of her sermon, Bishop Lewis gave the most prophetic words of the night: “We have the opportunity to speak new vision into our community.” I envision a Church so transformed by the power of the love of God that what we say – about Black and Brown people, about women, about the disabled, about the poor, about immigrants, about persons of other faith traditions, and about the LGBTQ community – matches the love of God that fills our hearts.

Your Comments

13 Comments so far

  1. Sherrie Lowly says:

    Thank you, Dr. Lightsey. I support your vision.

  2. Irie Session says:

    Thank you for this much needed article.

  3. Cheryl Courtney says:

    Thank you Dr. Lightsey. May I say, not only are your words beautiful…so are you!

  4. Rev Dr Moses Woodruff says:

    Whereas I disagree with many and believe in inclusion of everyone, From an observers view, it appears that you are using a comment directed at Bishop Lewis as though she owns it. It appears that you are over reaching and attaching remarks made by someone else to Bishop Lewis, which is unfair and not totally accurate. She did make the comment
    In the sermon but as a report and not her belief.

    • pamela.lightsey says:

      What “appears” to others is not always truth. Read my blog carefully. I stated Bishop Lewis responded in her sermon to an email sent her by saying, “I’m too cute to be gay.” Have you listened to the sermon? Have you spoken with Bishop Lewis. I did both.

    • LHP says:

      I was present when Bishop Lewis preached the sermon Pamela is referring to. Bishop Lewis not only report about the email that was sent to hinder her election, but she also gave her own commentary about the said email. Her response was that she was too cute to be gay, implying that the email was illogical.

  5. Darlene Hutto says:

    Thank you for speaking my sentiments that I too wrestled with writing AND you are correct the sermon was decent and then it took a turn for me. It snatched me right on out of the Spirit. My dear Sister left but I was determined to not give her what had been for me a refreshing worship experience minus the insensitive and “not well thought through rhetoric.” The gospel is good news. Who can you draw when words run amuck and go off course. Stick to the manuscript or to what “this saith the Lord” and maybe the foolishness will cease. I am not UMC. Initially I thought this Sister was a reflection of the best that ministry had to offer; and while I am able to extend grace in acknowledgement of her service to the church, I wish she and others would return that same grace and simply love. Love is kind. Dr. Lightsey your are awesome!

  6. Betty Sayner says:

    How very sad that she made that comment. I constantly feel the need to apologize for all the hurtful sentiments that come out of the UMC, as I am still part of the UMC. To those who were hurt by this, please know that you are truly God’s beloved and that you are more beautiful in God’s eyes that you realize.

  7. Scott A. Cook says:

    I know Sharma personally. Yes, I called her Sharma because that’s what I was used to before she became Bishop Lewis and once elected, I told her that I was going to continue to call her Sharma. Not out of disrespect but out of love and friendship. I am also a supporter of the Reconciling Ministries movement. I do not know what Sharma’s personal position on the issue is. But I do know that the pressures of being in a Pulpit (I am a certified lay servant and get to fill in preaching on occasion) sometimes cause you to say something that you may instantly regret. I was at Lake Junaluska when Sharma ran for Bishop the first time and I saw the hurt that she experienced from those many e-mails she received. I can’t speak for her. But based on my knowledge of her, I would be willing to bet that she was trying to “get a laugh” from the congregation and had no realization of how her words might hurt. I’m sure that there was no harm INTENDED with her comments. This is just another of the many areas where we need education rather than condemnation.

    • pamela.lightsey says:

      I know Sharma personally also – as written in the blog. She and I differ on the matter of LGBTQ rights in the UMC. As to needing education: I trust you aren’t presuming that I did not try to offer her that education. If you take the article as “condemnation” then you are misinterpreting my writing.

  8. Paula Eifler says:

    Thank you so much for your article. The United Methodist Church’s welcoming “Open Hearts, open minds, open doors” clearly says it all. We are not to judge, but to love. Regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other category, we are to love each other. Simple as that. And the business of judgement is left in our Father’s hands.

  9. Stephen says:

    When there is the deep seated disgrace of UMC doctrine (the Book of Discipline) on the issue of human sexuality,as it relates to the existence of children of God who are LGBTQ… any slip of language such as this really ought to Bebe challenged and faced into by the those who hear and those who spoke it. Let’s just hear a correction.

    Of course it’s not easy for everyone who speaks to an audience, ordained or not! But we should be respected as the children of glory we all are.

    I’m tired of the UMC attitude, it is “corporate homophobia” because it is not my experience of those I “church with”… for they do not shun me. Yet I know that I or others like me are frowned upon by the establishment of the church organization.

    I’ve struggled to give to church for months now. Instead of giving to the general fund I have to be specific. I say “the building” fund or other defined cause which cannot partake in promoting the position we take as an “official body” supposedly in all our names.

    God bless you, our LGBTQ members. They know not what they do…..

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