Diary of a Delegate: Yeah, so that happened

JoAnn, Annie, and I share communion in the midst of the Body’s brokenness. Photo from the UMNS.

Earlier this week I tweeted: just because it’s expected doesn’t make it hurt any less.

We– whoever “we” are– did not expect to win any ground on the church’s position about homosexuality this quadrennium. But I’m a believer in the resurrection promise. That sometimes means that I every so often and ever so naively hold on to hope.

I was hopeful because Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter had come to the place where they could not only support but speak for, advocate for, even write, legislation that simply said our church could not agree about sexuality. I was hopeful because I had heard delegates from Africa say that, while they could never vote for full inclusivity for persons who are GLBTQ, they did not want to stand in the way of us doing ministry with all people in the United States.

Like I said. I can be overly optimistic sometimes.

It didn’t happen that way.

And when it didn’t happen that way, when the body rejected first Adam’s petition (by about 53/47%) and then an amendment to the Global Young People’s petition (53/47), and then debated with hateful words, equating loving and faithful same gender relationships with illness, perversion, and bestiality with only mild rebuke from the chair, and then defeated all changes by over 60/40%, when that happened, we did the only thing we could do.

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

We set the communion table in the center of the room. We welcomed the visitors and supporters from outside the voting bar and delegates from the floor. We blessed bread and cup. I was the elder closest to the bread, and I lifted it in the air, breaking it as we are broken. I looked across the table and through my tears I saw my new friend and fellow laborer for justice, Gregory Gross, holding the cup.

We sent servers with (gluten free) wafers and cups of juice to serve those around the room. Some bystanders received communion with from those with whom they disagree, and some refused. I served those around me, offering them the Body of Christ as we all wept.

We stayed at the table when the session attempted to reconvene. Unable to get the delegates back to their seats and the visitors off the floor– indeed unable to even to get people to stop singing, the Bishop had no choice but to call for an early lunch.

Lifting the broken Body of Christ, tears in my eyes. Photo by UMNS

I later tweeted- Becca Clark@pastorbecca: You cannot legislate love. Grace is never out of order. The communion table has no bar. #GC12love #gc2012 #nowalls

We were told that the police were called. They never came.

For the next three hours we sat, stood, prayed, sang (okay, I didn’t), and waited. I stayed on the floor, without any intent of getting arrested, but with the full intent of protecting my friends as a human shield if need be, and with the intent that if one or two particular friends were arrested, they would not be going anywhere without me. We also had conversation with the bishops and it was decided that no further votes on human sexuality would be taken that day, in an effort to do no harm. Hey! Protest making legislative change! Awesome.

An agreement reached to shuffle human sexuality legislation to the end of the calendar and hopefully therefore do no further harm, the protestors took our seats on and off the floor, and legislation resumed. The topic was pension; an important topic, but I couldn’t focus. I called in a reserve and left the floor intending to return, but ended up seeking food and drink and long, healing conversation with a friend, and going to sleep.

Steve and Leigh Dry do the only thing one can do in the face of such brokenness. Photo by UMNS

I’m actually in an okay place about the vote on this legislation. We didn’t really expect improvement on the church’s policy here. I felt good that the response in protest was an act of love and faith rather than anger coming from the deep pain we all felt.

What is so discouraging to me is that this vote was only a symptom of the entire General Conference’s pattern, moving away from the Wesleyan principles of prevenient grace, social holiness, and commitment to hearing and honoring the voices on the margin. We are becoming more totalitarian, more Calvinist in our theology, and more exclusive of voices and people who disagree from the majority– a majority that has been using its power to assure that they will have a super-majority in four years.

That will be the subject of many a blog post to come.

Today, we wrap up business, and then Saturday I will return home to my family and to rest. Monday morning, we live into a new quadrennium, and begin building a new church.

We have built strong coalitions and allies here, people who can come together across the continent and the world, across theological and sociopolitical divides, united in our love of Christ and the Wesleyan heritage of the UMC. I told you I’m naive, but I have hope once more.

Becca Clark@pastorbecca: Also, let the record show that @RevAdamHamilton & I hugged it out. He’s a man of integrity, & was bold to try for inclusion today. #gc2012

Link love abounds

Welcome, readers of Ministry Matters as well, where my blog was linked today.

It’s great to have so many folks engaged in conversation about what keeps us together and what drives us apart. It’s different for each person, as is the balance of which force (the keeping together or the driving apart) is stronger. For me, I’m still here toughing it out. How about you?

Preparing (to go away) for General Conference

Christ is Risen! I hope Holy Week was a powerful and prayerful time for those of you who observe it. My experience, while exhausting, was rewarding and filled with Spirit.

2/3 of what I'll miss while I'm in Tampa

And now, with out much further ado, my countdown to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference 2012 begins. We’ve got two week to finish getting ready– whatever that means.

I neglected to reblog the link last week, but I was one of three people highlighted in a United Methodist Reporter article about what delegates are doing to prepare. I won’t be too miffed that they dropped my title in the article; I’m very glad that they kept what I had to say about the pressure it puts on my husband and our support network to be spending so much time away from home and family. I think that’s a real issue as we ponder why more young people don’t run as delegates.

Sermon: Point of Choice

“Point of Choice”

(Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012) The choice with which Jesus presents us, laid bare before us on Palm Sunday, is a choice between orienting our lives around violence, power, hatred, and pain, or orienting them around Love. Which do you choose? (Mark 11:1-11)

This sermon is another response to the Melissa Jenkins tragedy of this past week, and readers of this blog will notice a similarity to last week’s blog post “The Problem of Evil.” This is essentially those same reflections, but more intentionally set in the context of Holy Week.

(In the sermon, I say that Melissa was killed on Monday night of last week. She actually died on Sunday night and the public learned of her death on Monday. Sometimes when I’m all emotional I make mistakes [sometimes I just make mistakes]. Sorry for the inaccuracy.)

The Death Penalty and The United Methodist Church

In addition to being proud of my state, I am proud to be part of a denomination that takes a strong stance against the death penalty.

On the subject of capital punishment, The United Methodist Church says:

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

This powerful and prophetic stance of my denomination reflects both our deep commitment to grace– the possibility that people can be transformed and forgiven, even after the most terrible actions, and our commitment to restorative justice– the belief that healing for the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of violence comes not through punishment and perpetuating the cycles of anger, pain, and violence, but through building new life and new relationship out of the ashes of past injury. Of restorative justice, we say:

Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community. Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

Most importantly, both the opposition to capital punishment and the practice of restorative justice stand in the legacy of the biblical witness and the life and teachings of Jesus, and are echoed by the giants of non-violence (Christian and not) such as Gandhi and King. For Christians in general and United Methodists in particular, Christ’s example of radical forgiveness is a challenge and a model toward which we strive. For those who consider themselves non religious or participants in other spiritual and religious traditions, the witness of great moral teachers and the desire to live with compassion and love lead us in the same direction.

People of faith and believers in love have an opportunity to speak a powerful word of challenge to the world: it is not easy to forgive and to find healing and restoration after terrible violence, but it is the hope to which we are called.

Justice with Temperance (the Death Penalty and our Better Angels)

Melissa and Ty Jenkins, photo accessed from WCAX.com

I’m proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty. I’m a staunch pacifist, and I believe that nonviolence isn’t weakness, but requires profound strength. It is by no means easy.

Vermont State Police arrested a couple yesterday, and charged them with second degree murder in the death of Melissa Jenkins. Allen and Patricia Prue allegedly worked together to lure Miss Jenkins out of her home, calling to ask her for assistance with their vehicle. Mr. Prue confessed to strangling the young woman outside her vehicle and then the couple allegedly worked together to dispose of her body and other evidence.

What they have done is beyond belief, defies understanding. It literally disgusts me. There’s no apparent motive,  just deranged behavior, cold-blooded and brutal slaughter. It’s inhuman. On the simplest, most reactionary level of myself, I want to see them suffer for what they did to Melissa and to her son, Ty.

But wanting them to suffer and actually advocating for it, making it happen, are entirely different things. That difference, thin a line as it may be to walk, represents for me the fullness of what it means to live with compassion, temperance, justice, and love. It is what it means to be human and to yearn for the Holy.

The comments sprout up wherever the stories about Melissa Jenkins and the Prues are posted, calling for mob justice for Melissa’s killers (“string them up in the streets!”), advocating torture, hoping for them to be strangled as Miss Jenkins was strangled, and bemoaning the fact that Vermont does not have the death penalty. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone those feelings. They come from our deep sense of moral outrage at a senseless and unthinkable crime. They bubble up out of our shared humanity and the horror of how profoundly the Prues violated the injunction to care for and protect our fellow human beings.

Allen and Patricia Prue, murder suspects in the case of Melissa Jenkins, photo accessed at WCAX.com

But we cannot become the sort of monsters who act out of our most primal instincts. That accomplishes nothing. That doesn’t separate us from the alleged murders.

I categorically oppose the death penalty. My opposition falls into two main categories.

1. The death penalty does not serve any practical purpose. It does not save money to execute criminals as compared to housing them in prisons for the durations of their lives. This is because of the lengthy (and often economically and racially biased) appeals process associated with convicted inmates on death row. Furthermore, it does not deter people from committing murder, as most murders are committed by people who are either criminally insane (and therefore incapable of grasping and being deterred by consequences), or in the heat of passion (and are therefore not thinking about consequences and not deterred by them).

But more importantly in my opinion,

2. The death penalty does not enact justice, and reduces the community seeking justice to the same level as the killers.

It’s not that we are holier-than-thou. We’re not. As I said in my post earlier this week, the fact that we all have to face is that this evil we are confronting, this instinct or propensity toward violence, is in all of us. From that post: “We are the unknown killer[s] on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.” Somewhere deep in our reptilian, fight or flight brains, we all have the potential to be monsters.

What makes us human, what makes us better than our brokenness, is the choice to act not out of that base, reactionary brain. What makes us a human family, a people of faith in something other or more than our own fears and faults, is the choice to live out of love.

We think, in the moment, that vengeance is justice, that it is fair to give to others what they have dished out. Even when we can acknowledge that killing the killers cannot bring back the victims, we can’t help but think it would feel really good to see that kind of retribution served. If everybody in the Northeast Kingdom got to watch the painful execution of Allen and Patricia Prue and then dance around in a modern day Purim ritual, we think that might help us heal. But the truth is, it won’t. Time will help us heal. Compassion will help us heal. Helping Melissa’s family and her son Ty (for example, there is a trust fund set up here) will help us heal. Learning to somehow trust again enough to pull our cars over and lend a helping hand– and I tell you, that will take some time for me– will help us heal.

I said on Monday that there is something stronger than violence and death and despair: Love. Love has the power to pull us up out of the darkness, away from the worst of ourselves. But we have to let it. For people of faith, we have to ask ourselves: if our religion doesn’t make us better people, doesn’t challenge us to rise above instinct, what good is it? If God– whose nature is Love– doesn’t make us more loving, then what sort of god do we serve?

We aren’t any different from the murder suspects unless we choose to be.

Will you join me in calling for justice– seasoned with temperance– for Melissa’s killers?

Spirituality that speaks to the rest of us

I have bad days. Bad weeks, even.

Last week was one such example. I was feeling like “church” was an old, dead concept (I still think this, at least in the way most of us think about church), and that progressives/liberals like myself would have no space whatsoever in the spiritual culture of the future– I even uttered the phrase “Maybe Rick Santorum is right; there are no liberal Christians.” I contemplated entering my backup profession, tending bar, since I would still lend a listening ear, be around people, and have an excuse to mix a mean martini.

But yesterday, more than 3,700 people read a blog post of mine, more than tripling the previous record for most-active day on this blog. And this was not a post about some of the things I normally yammer on about that drum up controversy: homosexuality and abortion and racism and church metrics (hey it drums up *some* controversy).

This was a post about faith. It was a spiritual response to tragedy in my community, and I discussed evil and violence, hope and love, and the need to cling to something stronger and truer than the worst of ourselves: Love, which I name as a synonym for God. I didn’t tone down or hide what I believe and how I understand faith. These are my actual spiritual beliefs.

And apparently, I’m not alone. Like, in a big way not alone. People from my church and other churches, people from my community and other communities, self-professed atheists and agnostics and practitioners of all sorts of different spiritual beliefs read the post, shared the post, emailed and commented and said my words touched them, spoke to them.

And that touched *me.*

Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only ones who thinks faith can be something other than adhering to a set of laws, and screaming those laws at other people until they adhere to them too, that faith is not so much about what we think, but who we are and how we live, and that the things we name as sacred: God, love, the human heart, the gift of the natural world around us, the power and vastness of the cosmos– that these are all really the same thing, and we call them by different names. But in drawing together around the tragedy of Melissa Jenkins’ death, you all have shown me that none of us are alone. In my extended circle of connection, there are more than 4,000 5,000 people (between yesterday and today) who believe in the power and sacredness of love to conquer over fear and pain, like little ripples of hope spreading out. We’re a megachurch without the churchy part, a living body of heart and soul, bound by compassion and tenderness and fragile hope in the face of terror. We represent a new spirituality, one that lifts up the ways we are connected, not the ways we are apart.

You may not dig on Jesus like I do. That’s okay. It’s never been my goal to convert others to what I believe. It is my goal to build connection between hearts and other hearts, and between those hearts and what is holy and sacred and life-giving and true. It is my belief that faith in anything should inspire us to be better versions of ourselves and to live together with more tenderness and compassion and justice. In this tragedy, and in all the tragedies and triumphs to come, you all have reminded me that we are stronger because we are together, and no one who holds on to the hope in Love does so alone.

The Problem of Evil

Photo from Burlington Free Press

The community where I grew up, affectionately known as the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is reeling this morning.

33-year old Melissa Jenkins, a single mom and a high school physics teacher and basketball coach, disappeared Sunday night. Her car was found late in the evening, pulled alongside the road near her house, running, with her two year old son snug and safe in the back seat.

After a day of searching, police announced last night (press conference on WCAX news) that they believe a body found in the woods a few miles away is that of Jenkins (Burlington Free Press article).

I’m trying to place Melissa. She is less than a year older than I (I’ll be 33 in May), and she grew up in Danville, a few towns away, and taught high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, neighboring and rival high school to my own Lyndon Institute. Our sons are almost the same age. I don’t know that we ever crossed paths, but I went to school with one of her cousins.

Nothing is known or released about the circumstances of her disappearance and murder, but one suspicion that fits with a series of disappearances a few years ago in southern Vermont and New Hampshire is that she may have pulled over to help an apparent stranded motorist, leaving her son in the car to check someone or something (family are now suggesting she may have received a phone call from someone she knew, asking for help or requesting that she meet them someplace). That’s a behavior we pride ourselves on in Vermont: stopping to help a person in need. It’s just a random guess, but might explain why a devoted mom was separated from her son, a circumstance that saved the boy’s life.

A friend posted on my facebook wall late last night, asking what “Pastor Becca” would say to people in pain right now. This was my response:

I don’t speak about or preach about evil often. I don’t buy into some dude with horns and a pitchfork, and I don’t think “evil” has anything to do with political parties or contraception or who marries who. But days like today remind me that evil is real. We don’t get to blame some amorphous devil; it lives in us, in places where we thought it could never be. And the story of faith– any faith, really, not just mine– is that evil doesn’t have the last say. Death and violence and brokenness and grief and pain overwhelm us for a time, but they don’t win. They don’t get the last word. There is something more powerful, more true. I call it Love, which is just another synonym for God in my book.

Our news these past couple of weeks has been filled with violence and tragedy, and as those in the Christian faith prepare for Holy Week, we walk headlong into a story of violence and tragedy. Yes, there is hope at the end, an empty tomb, an open sky. But first there is a mob, a betrayal of trust, a denial of love, a mock trial, a beating, a gruesome execution. Before we revel in the glory of Love triumphant, we must face the darkness of evil. Not evil personified in a person or thing. Evil that lives in us.

It doesn’t matter if a person is 17 or 33, a teacher, a student, or an Afghani civilian, with a baby in the backseat, skittles in the pocket, or carrying a jug of water. No one deserves to die. And the suffering inflicted on them is not some random disaster, but is human evil, the worst of ourselves.

Yes, we are Trayvon Martin. We are Melissa Jenkins. We are the Afghani children. But we are also the soldier who cracks under pressure, firing into a group of his allies. We are the neighborhood watchman, overzealous in pursuit of his vision of justice, harboring prejudices about skin color and clothing choices. We are the unknown killer on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.

I don’t believe in a talking snake and a tempting fruit. I see all the evidence I need to of a fallen humanity, desperately in need of love, grace, and a way to start again.

This is the problem of evil. It is not God’s problem, but ours. It is not God’s creation, but ours. It lives in us; it maims and kills through us. We are a broken, brutal people, and we need a light of hope.

The story of faith– of any faith– is that there is something stronger, truer, deeper, than the darkness that lurks in our communities, our safe places, our very selves. There is something we can hold on to, to pull us back out of the pain and grief and anger and fear. There is something that has the last say over death and violence and despair.

I name that something. Its nature and name: Love.

Letter to the Editor– Associated Press

An article appeared yesterday in the Associated Press with a headline that I felt was way off. Here is my letter to the editor of the AP.

Photo of Trayvon Martin (accessed from abcnews.com)

Dear Editor,

I am writing to express my disappointment and anger over a very poorly worded headline “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or good neighbor?” article by Mike Schneider, published 3/21/2012.

It seems to me that the outrage and tremendous sorrow that this case has generated stems not from questions about the confessed shooter’s vigilantism or neighborliness, but whether or not that vigilantism tipped over into racially motivated and unprovoked killing. A vigilante, by definition, is a person who takes it upon him or herself to suppress or punish crime outside the sphere of law enforcement (Miriam-Webster). This term indicates taking the law into one’s own hands *when a crime is being committed or is about to be committed.* In the case of the slaughter of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, unfolding evidence– which was in the public eye yesterday prior to the publishing of this article– reveals that this young man neither committed nor was about to commit any crime. In fact, he expressed on the phone to a young woman moments before his death that he felt unsafe because he was being followed.

A more accurate question might have been, “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or a murderer?” or “Was Fla. shooter a good neighbor or a cold-blooded killer?” The use of two suggested motivations– fighting crime and protecting the neighborhood, neither of which are borne up by the facts (no crime was committed prior to the shooting, and the neighborhood was not in danger)– negates the other side of this conversation, denying that there is something far more sinister and fearful behind Zimmerman’s actions, be it fear, racism, megalomania, or some combination thereof.

Language is powerful, and as our society wrestles with the terrible truth of what happened to Trayvon Martin, we must be as careful as possible to be respectful of both the nuances and the strong emotions enveloping the families of both the victim and the shooter, the community in which this killing took place, and a nation that still has a lot of work to do when it comes to overcoming violence and racism. I feel that your headline yesterday missed the mark, and missed an opportunity to contribute to this national conversation in an informative and sensitive way.

Sincerely,
Reverend Rebecca Clark

I contacted the AP as suggested on their website by emailing info@ap.org. You can also take action by signing a petition at Change.org calling for prosecution of the shooter, and by sending a letter as suggested by the Open Letter Campaign to the Sanford Chief of Police calling for justice (as a tribute to Trayvon, we are asked to send an empty skittles wrapper with each letter): Chief of Police, Sanford Police Department, 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, FL 32771