by Stephen Cheyney, UNC Charlotte Campus Ministry
Niner United is UNC Charlotte’s Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist campus ministry. Today I want to talk with you about the United Methodist part. Niner United was founded in 1965 by the Methodist pastor and New Testament scholar, the Rev. Dr. Loy Witherspoon. To say that his service to UNC Charlotte was significant is an understatement. To my knowledge, Witherspoon Hall is the only building at a public university in North Carolina named after a Methodist pastor. He was a scholar, teacher, friend, and pastor. He started this ministry as an open, affirming, and accepting campus ministry. Today, fifty-four years later, Niner United still remains UNC Charlotte’s only campus ministry that affirms and welcomes the LGBTQIA+ community.
Niner United is a large dynamic, comprehensive, and fruitful campus ministry. I am sending this email to all 3,903 students on our eNews, and the 5,412 alumni, supporters, and friends of our ministry. Why? Because this week in St. Louis, the worldwide network of the people called United Methodists met, and what took place saddens me. At this gathering, clergy and lay members from the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies were hurt and sent away empty-handed. This community was supported and backed by hundreds of thousands of people who were not delegates to the United Methodist general conference, even so, this multitude of good, loving, compassionate, and Christ-like people were treated shamefully. I grieve, as malicious, destructive, and nasty words were said from the conference floor.
What happened in St. Louis wasn’t representative of the church that ordained me in 1996. The church that ordained me was far from perfect but seemed to work through its issues more generatively. Good people were in St. Louis, and kind words were also said, but the United Methodist Church has changed. Strikingly, two-thirds of the delegates from the United States voted in favor of a more imaginative church. Unfortunately, delegates from the global south (outside the U.S.A.) were in favor of what was called the “Traditional Plan.” Against the recommendation of the Council of Bishops, this plan passed, and church legislation now is more than ever restrictive of LGBTQIA+ community.
Yesterday, friends of mine who were in St. Louis were texting me. It was a whirlwind to keep up with the ups and downs of the day. One delegate from the Philippines said some incredibly prejudicial things which sparked a vast protest where hundreds of delegates rushed the stage, and the bishops called for a time of prayer. At another point in the day, an amendment was passed to open an ethics committee hearing on allegations of evidence of people exchanging money for votes. The church that I loved was becoming a circus. The church that I loved, in many ways has died.
Christians have many tasks. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves. We fail a lot at this task. But no matter what any church body says, Niner United will continue to love and welcome everyone! Tonight, at worship, we will feast at God’s holy table, and after confessing our own failures, we will give thanks that all people are welcome to the feast Jesus offers. When we say “this body was broken for you” and “this cup shed for you,” it is a very inclusive you. If only the people called United Methodists across the globe would read again that very welcoming communion liturgy.
When we take communion, we are reminded that wine comes from a vineyard and the Bible compares the wellbeing of a vineyard to the condition of Israel’s faithfulness. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that a man planted a vineyard. At harvest, the planter of the vineyard sent his servants to gather the fruit. They went with hopes and expectations that the fruit they would harvest would be refreshing and life-giving, but instead, all hell broke loose. The vineyard servants were hurt and sent away empty-handed. Others were treated shamefully. Some were killed. The vineyard was a mess, so Jesus explained that the planter of the vineyard had one more option. This option would be respected because this time the cultivator of the vineyard would send his “beloved son.” If you’ve read Mark, this “beloved son” is starting to sound familiar. Perhaps as to be expected the plan was far from respected. They “seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.”
From my viewpoint, it seems the vineyard has been getting worse and worse. Right now, it is a tough time to be a tenant in this vineyard. We have hurt too many and thrown out too many servants of Jesus. I’m afraid that it sort of feels like the United Methodist Church threw the beloved son out of St. Louis this week. But this is nothing new. We’ve been seizing him, and killing him since the days he walked in Jerusalem. Fundamentalism in any form is devoid of morality. Its method is to crush the opponent because it knows its opponent will not strike back with the same tactics. And this is precisely why the violence of our hearts isn’t comparable to the grace found in the heart of God. Typically, God uses the tactics of grace and mercy, peace and forgiveness.
In due time, I am pretty sure that the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (yes it has a court system) will rule what passed in St. Louis as unconstitutional. But we know, harm has already been done. In due time, I suspect that the American Methodists may pull away from this global thing called the United Methodist Church. But we know, harm has already been done. In due time, I suspect that the people called Methodists will welcome and accept the LGBTQIA+ community like Niner United campus ministry has for fifty-four years. But we know, harm has already been done. For all of this, I am sorry. If this hurts you personally, I am here for you. Talk to me. Write, text, or call me. We are all here for you, with love. The Methodist Church may not be united, but there are still good Methodists who love and welcome all. I know it’s hard, but hold tight. God will do something with the United Methodist Church. The vineyard just needs some new tenants, some new life, and some new hope. That is God’s amazing tactic of regeneration and resurrection. What has been destroyed will see a new day. What has been killed, will rise again. And our work is to preach and live just that by welcoming all, loving all, and praying for the vineyard’s new day. In due time, Jesus will bring new wine.