“The Lord be with you,” said Superintendent Carlo Rapanut to begin the second of the Alaska Conference’s “Table Talks” on Saturday, April 21st. And, being dutiful United Methodists, the twenty-five gathered participants from across the Kenai Peninsula responded, “And also with you.”
This was a beneficial way to begin a session addressing issues of LGBTQI inclusion in the United Methodist Church and the issues surrounding human sexuality that serve as the reason for a special, called General Conference Session in 2019. Perhaps recognizing that the Lord is indeed with us is a fitting reminder before discussing a topic that has taken so much of the church’s energy and left so many wounded people in its wake over the last forty year.
The Lord is with us.
The participants were then taken through a 3.5 hour process to discuss this topic which, indeed, threatens to tear the church apart. In our world today we have seemingly lost the ability to talk about this issue and so many other issues about which we disagree. Instead, we surround ourselves with those who already think like we do, amplifying our voices and perspectives, and failing to be challenged. Susie Smalley, who co-led this session with Superintendent Rapanut, said, “Civil conversation seems more difficult than it used to be.”
And so, we, the participants, were there to have civil conversation, to hear the perspective of the other, to have a safe place to share our history and thoughts and feel like we had been heard.
This was a small exercise in what is needed in the larger church, hearing concerns, noting how we disagree, and somehow finding a way to keep our United Methodist Church “United.” The conversations we were hoping to have around tables in Soldotna was a part of what is needed across the denomination. Said, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky via video: “We don’t agree about human sexuality and we don’t know how to live together with our differences.” But through these “Table Talks” it was hoped that people, both being heard and hearing from others, could see that we all belong at the table.
Holy Communion, and the image of the table, started us off. We were then reminded that, even for Jesus, not everyone agreed. There were times of great discord among the disciples. Yet they found a way to gather around a table and get food for the road ahead.
To warm up and create that safe place for sharing, the participants talked about how they have dealt with conflict; in their families growing up and now. Some bottled up their differences, never addressing the proverbial elephant in the room. Others felt that they openly talked about difficult topics. Some recounted times that they were hurt or felt like only one perspective (one of the parents, usually) was respected.
That paved the way for talking about matters related to LGBTQI inclusion, something about which there has been great conflict in the life of the church. The hope is that, after breaking bread together and after having time to share and find common ground, those in attendance would feel like they could be honest, without fearing being judged or feeling pushed from the table.
There was a variety of experience because each table had five different participants. Some groups felt very free to share. Others were more reserved and shared “enough,” just to keep the conversation going.
Clearly, some truly appreciated the chance to talk. Lavonne Currier said after it was over, “It’s a good conversation.” Janice Carlton reported, “I think this table did an amazing job being open and taking risks. It was an amazing table.” Nora Appel said, “It was nice to sit down and be able to talk with respect. I was comfortable with that. And I’m comfortable going back to our church and discuss what was said here.”
But beyond our own personal perspectives and history on concerning LGBTQI inclusion, it was the first time that many understood how the issues of inclusion are affecting the larger church. Dave Currier said, “It’s an informed conversation as I didn’t understand all that was happening in the UMC.” There are two options that are being discussed by the larger church which could change the church rather dramatically and it’s unclear what option, if either, could be adopted. Sharon Brower noted, “I’ll need to go back and look at the two different options for the churches. We discussed it, I think, as well as we could. I will discuss it more down the road, but I’m not comfortable with either choice for the church.”
This was not a gathering that has any authority to make decisions for the larger church. No votes were held. There were no protesters and no pastoral appointments were at stake. These were “Table Talks.” They were opportunities to sit around tables, in communion with one another, recognizing our differences and seeing that God was still able to keep us together in spite of that.
Perhaps that is exactly what the larger church needs.
Here is the schedule for upcoming “Table Talks” over the next few weeks. Please register on the Greater Northwest Area Website.
April 28 — Turnagain UMC, Anchorage — 9 am – 1 pm
April 29 — Christ First UMC, Wasilla — 1:30 – 5:30 pm
May 5 — First UMC, Anchorage — 9 am – 1 pm
May 5 — Aldersgate UMC, Juneau — 1:30 – 5:30 pm
May 12 — First UMC, Fairbanks — 9 am – 1 pm