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May 9, 2000 GC-039

United Methodist bishops meet with Soulforce

CLEVELAND (UMNS) -- In an unusual move, four United Methodist bishops met May 8 with the Rev. Mel White, co-founder of Soulforce, to discuss that group’s presence at the 2000 General Conference.

Soulforce came to the denomination’s top legislative body, meeting May 2-12, to "change the hearts and minds of the anti-homosexual delegates." White said the Soulforce team asked the bishops for two things that, if accepted, could pre-empt the group’s plan for civil disobedience this week. Also attending the May 8 meeting was Cleveland Mayor Michael White.

The two primary requests were:

Every time a homosexual issue is raised, an openly homosexual member would be allowed to speak to it.

Soulforce members would be visible on the floor during discussions about homosexuality so that delegates aren’t just talking about issues but can see the individuals affected.

Soulforce is a coalition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of faith and their heterosexual allies who are dedicated to promoting justice for sexual minorities. They adhere to rules of nonviolence as taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., including being arrested for civil disobedience, White explained.

By the evening of May 8, however, negotiations came to a halt when the group met again. "The bishops offered to take the matter (of the requests) to the delegates to suspend the rules, but it would have taken a two-thirds vote," White said. "The process would have disrupted the organization and could have been painful for us."

Instead, he added, Soulforce members will continue with their plan of nonviolent, civil disobedience on May 10 and plan to be arrested.

"This policy is killing us," White said, referring to the stand of the United Methodist Church on homosexuality. While affirming that God’s grace is available to all, the denomination’s book of law states "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." It also forbids United Methodist pastors from conducting same sex unions and conducting them in United Methodist churches, and prohibits self-avowed practicing homosexuals from being ordained.

Homosexuality has been an issue at every General Conference since 1972. "The debate is just one way to continue the suffering," White contended.

Soulforce advocates removing all restrictive language regarding homosexuality from the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The group targeted General Conference because the United Methodist Church is the third largest denomination in the United States with 8 million members in the U.S. and another 1.2 million from other parts of the world.

"The United Methodist Church has traditionally led the way on justice movements," White noted. "We are hoping and praying the United Methodist Church will reverse its anti-homosexual position and lead the entire Christian community to justice, mercy and truth for sexual minorities."

Soulforce has been observing the daily activities of General Conference. Throughout the second week, Soulforce members, donning t-shirts that say, "We are God’s children too" are conducting daily prayer vigils outside the Cleveland Convention Center, the site of the meeting of 992 delegates from around the world.

Soulforce had originally asked to be allowed on the floor where the delegates sit in order to conduct a prayer vigil in front of the altar on Wednesday morning, May 10, while the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey gives the ecumenical liturgy.

Gary Bowen, business manager of General Conference, turned down the request. Only voting delegates, a few media persons, and pages are allowed on the floor while General Conference is in session.

As a result, Soulforce has planned a "walk for justice" at the time of the worship service, during which Soulforce members and supporters would be arrested while trying to enter. "If we don’t win the hearts and minds of the anti-homosexual delegates, we are the ones who will do the redemptive suffering by being arrested," White said.

He estimated that 250 to 500 persons will participate in the act of civil disobedience, and approximately half of them will be United Methodist clergy and laity.

Soulforce first made its presence known among United Methodists in 1999 during the second trial of the Rev. Jimmy Creech in Nebraska for conducting a same sex union service in a United Methodist church. Soulforce surrounded the church where the trial was being held in Grand Island, making it difficult for the presiding bishop and others to enter.

--Barbara Nissen

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