By Jessica Connor
GREENVILLE—A small United Methodist Church in the Upstate has become the first reconciling congregation in South Carolina, embracing full inclusion of all God's children regardless of sexual orientation.
Dunean UMC, Greenville, has joined the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus of United Methodists who support full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians. This means Dunean has revised its mission statement so members and visitors are fully aware that the tiny mill church accepts gays and lesbians along with anyone else into their congregation, whether man or woman, black or white, rich or poor.
Its members hope the change brands Dunean as a Christ-centered, non-judgmental UMC where the will of God is at work.
We are a small church with a big heart that treats everyone as a part of the family of God, Dunean s website now reads. We are called by God to embrace all people, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family or socio-economic status, physical or mental ability, or faith history. All persons are of sacred worth and dignity.
Dunean UMC has always been a church with an accepting reputation. This latest step, in joining the RMN movement, is only to make that reputation clear to the community as a whole. Mobilizing for inclusion since 1982, the RMN works for the full participation of all people in the UMC.
It was really not a radical departure from what our church is known for doing anyway in the community, which is accepting and loving everybody who comes in the door, said Rusty Godfrey, Dunean lay leader, noting that the revision merely affirms Dunean s basic core mission statement to accept all people in the name of Jesus Christ. We just had to be more specific about the many categories of people we are accepting.
Renee Clardy, church council chair, agreed: It wasn t really much of a change. We already had gays in our church, and we wanted to let people know we accept anyone of any race, sexuality, anything.
Dunean is the first actual church in the state to join the RMN. The first group that joined RMN was the Grace Sunday school class at Washington Street UMC, Columbia. To date, those are the only two RMN communities in S.C.
Always been an inclusive congregation
When the Rev. Andria Cantrell first came to Dunean three years ago, she knew the church was an open and welcoming congregation generally. In addition to gays and lesbians, the church has African-American and white members, along with a good number of children, which is unusual for a tiny mill church.
But on her first day at Dunean, a young man approached her.
He said, ˜I need to talk to you, need tell you something. My partner and I are gay, and I need to know if you have a problem with that, if we need to leave, Cantrell said. I said, ˜Of course not! But it bothered me that he needed to ask the question.
After all, she said, the church is supposed to be a place that welcomes all people.
Dunean s gay membership continued to increase after that. But as talk began to grow in the UMC over the denomination s stance on homosexuality, Cantrell realized she wasn t really sure about how the UMC feels about gays and lesbians in worship “ not to mention whether they can serve in church leadership positions.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline was not very clear to me, so I ended up reading the whole Discipline trying to figure out what is our position, cause he thought he couldn t serve in a leadership position, and I couldn t find anything in the Discipline that said he couldn t, Cantrell said, noting the member ended up becoming the chair of Dunean s finance committee.
The Discipline calls homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and bars a practicing homosexual from ordained ministry, though it does not bar gays and lesbians from worship or church membership and encourages churches to support and not condemn gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
Dunean itself has always been an inclusive congregation.
Betty Snyder, who has been in a lesbian lifetime partnership for more than 25 years, said Dunean accepted her completely when she moved to Greenville from New Jersey more than a decade ago. When she and her partner, Helen, first moved to the Upstate, Snyder worried they would not be accepted. But Dunean welcomed the couple with open arms.
Knowing that my church would accept me right from the beginning, knowing that the church was not something that we d have to tackle, was great, Snyder said. There s such a loving feeling going on in that church that we ve never had a problem not being accepted.
Snyder said she and her partner are very open about their relationship.
It s not like I sit on one side of the pew and Helen on the other, she said, and fellow members had no problems with it.
Needed to be up front and clear
But last spring, the church had a difficult experience that made them realize their reputation as an open church wasn t enough. They needed to be crystal clear about their inclusiveness.
Cantrell said a young couple joined Dunean, and about two months later, they found out there were gay people in the church.
It upset them, and I tried to talk to them about it, and finally I got this nasty letter naming all the gay people in the church, condemning me as pastor for not only letting them join the church but allowing them to be officers, and withdrawing their membership, Cantrell said.
What made matters worse was the couple then posted this letter on Facebook listing all the gay members by name. Facebook quickly removed the letter as hate speech, but Cantrell was horrified.
People do not realize that gay people sometimes lose their jobs, if it becomes known, especially if they work for religious organizations, she said. We felt the need to protect everybody.
Cantrell learned about RMN from one of her professors at Duke Theological Seminary, and Dunean s church council voted unanimously to become a reconciling church.
It opened our eyes that we needed to get the word out a little more than just knowing ourselves to be open loving and caring ¦ to go one step further and let everybody know, not just anyone who walks in the door, Snyder said; in January, members will decide how to promote their inclusivity to the neighborhood. Hopefully that will make it highly unlikely that we ll ever get these types of letters again.
Following God s will for the church
Joining the RMN has not been without some conflict. Cantrell said two members left, though they have also gained some new members.
But beyond numbers, the decision has mobilized the congregation to fully embrace their call as true Christians, and that is a good thing, Cantrell said. Members agree.
I m married and straight, and my husband and I have been married 20 years and have three children. To me, it s not a matter of if you are gay or you re straight; it s the love of God, Clardy said. We re all God s children, and it shouldn t matter. We re there to serve God, and you can leave your personal things out. ¦ We are open and we do love people for who they are.
Godfrey, who is also married and straight, said Dunean sees every individual who comes through the church door as having self-worth and dignity, and if they want to worship God and Jesus with the rest of the congregation, then they are welcome.
We did this to follow what we sincerely believe to be God s will for the church, Godfrey said. I don t understand why we as Christians think we should judge other people when the Bible is very clear we should not judge. The church is the lighthouse, and if we don t accept people as they are, then we are not doing what we are called to do. The Jesus I know loved and accepted everyone. He came for everyone, not just some people.
For her part, Snyder said she and her partner couldn t be prouder to be members of Dunean.
Knowing that I m a member of the first Reconciling Ministries Network church in South Carolina is an honor that I really take a lot of pride in, Snyder said. It s even more exciting for members like me “ people that are gay and have been looking for this kind of recognition for a long time.