Compassionate inclusion: Leonard shares journey in perspective with other Reconciling Christians

By Jessica Brodie

FLORENCE—South Carolina Reconciling Ministries from across the state had the chance to gather during Annual Conference at a breakfast before business on Day Three of the event.

The packed event of the group—an unofficial caucus of the UMC that works for full affirmation of all of God’s children, including LGBTQ+ persons, in the church and the world—was held at Homewood Suites by Hilton.

After a welcome from Warren Ashmore, the group joined in a litany of inclusion written by Lee Roper.

“May God give us strength to keep our voices raised in support of our sisters and brothers who have been excluded and marginalized,” the litany said in part. “May God give us compassion, a striving toward acceptance of a brother or sister even when we strongly disagree with them.”

Then the Rev. Susan Leonard, pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church, Charleston, shared her 30-year journey from what she described as “love the sinner, hate the sin” to a person today who advocates for full inclusion.

Leonard said her remarks come on what will be a significant day for the South Carolina Annual Conference—a day when many churches would be leaving the denomination over sexuality differences. (See related article here.)

“I want to acknowledge there is a lot of pain in the room and a lot of hope in the room and a lot of love for Jesus in the room,” Leonard said. “And while we are not organized to say ‘what’s next’ or ‘how do we mobilize to be lighthouse churches’ or to stay UMC ... I hope we will find ways to continue the conversation so we don’t just drift but, with intention, plan, strategize and mobilize for The United Methodist Church of tomorrow.”

Leonard shared how often, when our blood pressure is high and it comes down, or we are carrying extra weight and it comes down, perhaps we might say we are healthier, leaner or stronger.

“Today is a day we will bless and release,” Leonard said. “And I pray by God’s grace there is a healthier, leaner, stronger body of a welcoming and inclusive church.”

Leonard shared how she came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. A lifelong United Methodist raised in Memorial UMC, Greer, who went to seminary and became an ordained elder in the church, she eventually found herself at a place of disconnection over “love all” versus “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Then she was appointed to a small church in a textile community in the Greenville District where she came to know many young people at nearby Furman University—including a young man who became a friend.

When he graduated, he asked Leonard to share a walk with him, and on that walk he opened up, through tears, about his walk as a Christian while being a gay man.

He was the first of many gay Christians she would come to know, and the relationships she built and the stories shared helped her shift her perspective on sexuality and sin. For before she was influenced by a book or podcast or anything else, she was—like many of us—influenced by a person.

Today, Leonard said, “I do not believe that to be born with a same-sex attraction and be in a committed, monogamous, respectful, mutually affirming relationship falls in the category of sin.”

And to anyone who knows themself in their God-given essence to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, she said, “I honor you.”

She said three major points that shape her view on sexuality and Christianity today. First, of the entire library of Scripture, there are only six passages used to condemn homosexuality—three in the Old Testament and three in the New—and those passages don’t square with reason.

Jesus, before he ascended, said he has much more to tell us but he cannot. After all, Leonard noted, we weren’t even asking the questions back then about same-sex marriage or other sexuality-related questions that we face today.

But Jesus said he would leave behind the Holy Spirit who would remind, teach and shape us.

“I’m so thankful the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And his name is Jesus,” Leonard said. “And before there was a book, there was a person—the preexistent Jesus, who said ‘let us make humans in our image’ and ‘you are very good.’”

Second, the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 1-:25-37) is clear about where we need to veer when we do not understand. The priest and the Levite were good, law-abiding people who erred on the side of the Law, crossing the street when they encountered a bloody, broken man rather than touch him and become “unclean.” But the Samaritan who helped the wounded man chose compassion, love and mercy over the Law, and Jesus said he was more of a neighbor to the man than the others.

This parable clearly tells us, Leonard said, that “Jesus elevates not the Law but compassion.”

We must do the same.

Third, Leonard said, the ethic of love emulated by Jesus is the most important thing we need to uphold.

“Let’s stick close to that person Jesus, and I am confident with the help of the Holy Spirit we will continue to make our way to all the bruised, broken and bloody,” she concluded. “And by God’s grace, we’ll be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus. Amen.”

For more on South Carolina Reconciling Ministries, email [email protected].

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