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Neither Religion Nor Freedom: Why the RFRA is Dangerous

It was less than twenty-four hours after attending an inspirational multi-faith meeting of local Ohio leaders about coordinating a response to the upcoming Supreme Court of the United States decision when I heard the news of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. My optimism felt momentarily shattered; my Facebook feed filled with posts by friends who were angry, confused, outraged, despondent, and a whole host of other emotions. I quipped that the Act is filled with Orwellian doublespeak, as religious freedom has neither been lost nor restored. But sarcasm will only salve the savaged soul for so long.

Governor Pence continues to insist that the legislation is not discriminatory, but it is clearly aimed at LGBTQ persons. No reasonable person can deny this; however, Indiana has now embarked upon a very slippery slope. The language is vague; it is unclear what constitutes a “religious act or belief” or what an “undue burden” might be, the threshold for acting or refusing to act in accordance to one’s faith. While some people might have no issues will allowing citizens to deny services to members of the GLBT community, a Pandora’s Box awaits. Think about this: A person could deny service to a man who has shaved (Leviticus 19:27); a man could claim the right to ask a woman if she is menstruating lest he be rendered unclean by touching her or sitting where she sits (Leviticus 15:19-30); or demand that a person who has been shot but is tattooed be denied medical attention because he is an abomination (Leviticus 19:28). It does not matter that these requirements will have been ripped from their original context; there is no mandate that a person be a religion scholar and be able to defend his or her belief. All the person need do is say, “It is part of my religion” and is therefore free to make decisions that can literally have a life or death impact on another person.

After years of activism, which sometimes includes pushback even within congregations that I pastor or belong, I understand that some have decided that homosexuality is a sin and their opinions will not change. In my Facebook feed, I have friends who post about how marriage equality is leading to the normalization of pedophilia; I wholeheartedly disagree, and find the position offensive, but I remain friends with them. I sincerely believe that once we are in the Body of Christ together, we are commanded by God to continue to come to the table together in love and compassion, even when our disagreements are passionate. I find it odd that some want to invoke Christ to deny services and basic compassion to fellow human beings, but I also don’t want to descend into calling someone unChristian. We simply regard the Scriptures differently.

I write today to illustrate how dangerous a precedent has been set.There have been legislative efforts prohibiting the implementation of Sharia Law (an asinine undertaking in the opinion of this author), yet what we see in Indiana is a lived example of religious extremism masking as “freedom.” An individual now seemingly has the right to invoke religion within the public sphere to justify just about anything. And as most of us are not lawyers or legal experts, it does not matter if there are nuances in the law; think about how many people get their ideas about the Constitution from episodes of Law and Order. This legislation arms anyone to simply cry “Religious Freedom!” in their best William Wallace voice, and then watch as tragedy unfolds. What is a trans* person is beaten half to death in small town Indiana, and the only available doctor is a person who believes that transgender persons are sinful and that touching them will render him or her unclean? He or she now has the right to withhold services, even if the trans* person dies.

This is not hyperbole. This is where we are heading. As a pastor, a religious person, and an American, this legislation terrifies me. I’m asking all citizens of the country to pay attention to what is going on in their own legislatures. Similar efforts have been made in my own state of Ohio, and I fear that the recent signing by Gov. Pence might embolden lawmakers here. I plan to redouble my efforts to make it clear that religious freedom does not involve violating the civil rights of other citizens. In a social contract, we all have to make compromises.But no one should be forced to compromise his or her basic safety and pursuit of happiness because someone else is able to use religion as a justification for prejudice.

Nothing Has Changed, But the Change is Not Nothing

I keep telling people that nothing has changed.

Don’t get me wrong. When the news of the vote regarding Amendment 14-f began blowing up my Facebook news feed and emails streamed in from colleagues and congregants alike, I went into prayer and praise. I left comments on threads, liked posts, and fielded phone calls celebrating the decision. I was called by Why Marriage Matters Ohio to be a media spokesperson, and I happily agreed. But I stopped short when I read one (resurrected) headline:

PC (USA) Redefines Biblical Marriage 

In one regard, I guess it is true. There are no fewer than eight types of biblical marriage. But this vote, while historic, has done nothing to change what marriage means or what the Bible says. It has levied no requirements upon Teaching Elders or Sessions; it has not set forth a draconian or hegemonic policy that violates the conscience of our well-meaning brothers and sisters who object to same-gender and same-sex marriage. To be sure, it lifts the specter of denominational charges being levied against a pastor who sanctified such a union. This is reason enough to express joy, but marriages do not suddenly have God in them because of a human vote.

        I will boldly say that God was long ago sanctifying these unions. Our recognition of what God has already done does not shift anything in the cosmos; contrary to what objectors might contend, we who voted in favor have not cast the PC (USA) into the depths of hell. It gets dangerous when any of us claim that we have God on our side and others do not (I believe that there is a distinction to be made between claiming that God is “on our side” and proclaiming that God sanctifies marriages between two persons; reasonable people can disagree), the fact is I do not believe that those who oppose the sanctifying of marriage between two persons to be devilish, unChristian, or bound for hell. I passionately disagree with their position, but I remain just as willing to work together on myriad other issues as I was the day before the final vote came down. And God remains God, spreading love like leaven in dough or weeds in a garden.

        I have shared in a previous blog the thoughts I expressed when my own Presbytery voted, and now that the final decision is in nothing has really changed. I expect those who spoke against the amendment to remain against it; and I expect that those who were then willing to send couples to me will remain willing. I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to not only lovingly accept these couples, but to lovingly thank the pastors and Sessions that send them to First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs. But no damage has been done to the Gospel. And I will say–perhaps to the chagrin of those who share my opinion–no victory was won for the Gospel. It remains the same. The vote simply allows us, in full accord with our polity and roots as Calvinists–to interpret Scripture in accordance with our consciences. With that said, changes in the PC (USA) Constitution and the Book of Order can be regarded as big; for some, it is an affront to tradition; to others, like myself, it is a change a long time in coming and something to laud. Regardless, let none of us argue that somehow the Gospel is on our side and not on the side of others. Let us continue to respect one another in God’s love, not denying our fellow Christians their identities as members of the Body of Christ.

I write this post not to dampen the celebrations or to downplay the significance. What has happened is most certainly important, but I think that when we step back and look at the scope of things, we’ll see that the needs of people remain the same, and the call of the Gospel continues. We have work to do for justice, to increase people’s access to food and housing, to shine light where there is darkness, and we remain a people committed to being God’s hands and feet in the world.

Nothing has changed, but the change is not nothing.

What Marriage Means to LGBTQ Youth

I work with LGBTQ youth so, on the whole, I don’t hear a lot about marriage equality – at least, not at work. It’s not that marriage isn’t important to LGBTQ youth; it’s that marriage isn’t really a topic that’s important to teenagers. Getting a date for prom? Yes, that comes up (just came up today, actually). Being able to use the bathroom without being harassed? Yes, quite frequently. But, marriage? Not so much. It’s just not yet in their direct line of vision.

If marriage does come up, particularly marriage equality, most of the youth recognize that things are changing. There is a general understanding that things are changing – they are (thankfully) able to rest on the fact that, should they desire to marry someone of the same gender one day down the line, they will be able to do so without restrictions from the law.

One topic that does come up frequently, if not directly, is religion. When youth talk about religion,  it is often couched in a sentence like: “well, you know, they are religious, so they didn’t really want me around,” or: “you see, my family is really Christian, so they’re not ok with me being gay/trans/queer.”  In one of our weekly support groups last week, after hearing sentiments like this from several youth, I paused the discussion to ask if any of the youth have ever had a religious person unconditionally affirm their LGBTQ identity. The confused looks the youth gave me were answer enough. The silence that followed was deafening.

Just as many of the youth assume that they will one day be able to marry a person regardless of their gender identity, many of them still assume that Christians – especially straight Christians – who affirm the identities of LGBTQ people are a bit like Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street: though someone may assure them of their existence, most youth still believe them to be imaginary. Though the Church has come a long way with regard to acceptance of LGBTQ people, the experiences many LGBTQ youth have had in faith communities, particularly mainline Christian denomination communities, have been traumatic. I can count on one hand the number of youth I’ve met in the last year-and-a-half who’ve been part of a church that wholeheartedly affirmed their identity.

When I got news of 14-F passing on Tuesday night, I was in the middle of a group meeting. We were on a break and I stepped into my office to quickly check my phone and had texts from people delightfully sharing the news. I excitedly came out of my office and shared that my denomination had just ratified an amendment changing the definition of marriage. Again, I got confused looks – one youth asked if it had been changed to solidify that marriage is “between a man and a woman.” “No,” I said, “It’s been changed to define marriage as between two people! Just people! That means that folks all over the country – churchy folks – voted to recognize that marriage isn’t just between a man and a woman.”

“Wow.” They replied. “That’s pretty cool.”

The passing of 14-F is a really big deal. And not just for people who want to marry someone regardless of gender. It’s a big deal because it is evidence of a large-scale movement toward a new understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ identities. It shows people who’ve been hurt by their experiences in the Church that not all churches are the same. It is a huge affirmation that there are Christians who are open to new understandings of how we can be in relationship; and, by extension, how we can live into being God’s beloved children.

I recently asked a couple of youth how they would feel if I became a pastor.

“Would that mean that you could marry people?” they asked.

“Yes,” I said, “it would.”

“Yeah. That’d be really cool.”

So, maybe they don’t talk about it much, but I like knowing that if they are thinking about it one day, their marriage could happen and would be recognized in a Presbyterian church.

Semper Reformanda

Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.   F-2.02

In 2005 I attended a small and beautiful state-sanctioned wedding of two women in Massachusetts. Though not the first same-gender wedding in that state, it may have been the first officiated by a Presbyterian Teaching Elder. This was a moment of risk and of prophecy. Acting with the power vested in him by the state of Massachusetts, the Teaching Elder professed that God’s gift of marriage was for these two women,  and the community gathered that day joined in witness and committed to support the couple in their life together.

This was a private moment for the couple, their pastor, their family, and their community. It was not meant to be a challenge or a test case, and did not become one. It was at best unclear at the time how the Book of Order language that “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man” would ultimately be interpreted, given that in Massachusetts, marriage had in fact become a civil contract between two people.

Less than a decade later the Presbyterian Book of Order now affirms that “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people….”

After decades of slow changes in the hearts and minds of Presbyterians regarding welcome and affirmation of LGBTQ people, it is in many ways remarkable that the PC (USA) has chosen to ratify these much-needed changes to the Book of Order, not only correcting statements of fact (marriage as a civil contract has changed in most states to allow two people to enter the contract regardless of their gender) , but also affirming marriage as God’s gift for the benefit of all humankind, not just heterosexual, gender-conforming couples.

Some look upon these changes and remark on how fast they are occurring in both church and society. However, this is the culmination of a much longer and hard-fought struggle for recognition of LGBTQ people and our relationships. Before Jane Spahr and the couples she married put so much on the line in their judicial cases; before this Massachusetts couple and their pastor took unknown risks to claim the full richness of their relationship,  there were the struggles of prior General Assemblies over civil unions, holy unions, domestic partnerships, and commitment ceremonies; and before that the struggle to keep body and soul together with a Christian sexual ethics based in justice-love. And well before General Assemblies would even talk about any of this there was the love, one person for another, a constant steady stream of what God had joined together, queering our understanding of ourselves and each other, of who God is and what church can and should be.

Today we celebrate all of this; it is not just in the victory, but also in this journey of struggle that we learn what it means to be Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda: the church reformed, always being reformed.

Where do we go from here? Our movement has witnessed extraordinary policy change for Ordination Equality and Marriage Equality in the span of five years. We know from our involvement with other social justice movements that policy changes are seismic shifts in communities that call us to live into the hope they produce. So we continue now as we began, in our local congregations and communities of faith, striving to be the church we wish to see in the world, striving to live into the ideals we have affirmed as a denomination, and striving to realize the promise of the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life, work, and ministry of the Presbyterian Church.

Walking in Grace – Affirming Marriage for All Loving Couples

Presbyteries have now voted YES! The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (USA) now includes all loving and committed couples. Amendment 14F was ratified by 51% of our Presbyteries. Marriage is now between “two people.”


More Light Presbyterians embarked on this journey decades ago. One man stood up at General Assembly with a sign, “Is anyone else out there Gay?” For decades we struggled, we debated, and then we began to focus on sacred conversations and changed hearts. As we told our stories to each other and to people who had baptized us, the Holy Spirit changed all of us.


At first there were a few who were willing to speak out and affirm our blessing as full children of God. As time passed and hearts opened, many people began to walk the path of grace with us as we understood ourselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Christians. Today, hundreds of thousands of Presbyterians walk side-by-side with us in the full diversity of God’s good creation—and we are ready for the next chapter of our lives together.


MLP meme 2Ratification of 14F is not the end of the sacred conversation around marriage and the diversity of humankind, it is part of the journey as we live together as faithful believers in God’s generosity and expansive love.


We read scripture and know that God persistently calls people to freedom. God broke the chains of slavery in Exodus. God cried out for generous justice through the prophets. Jesus, walked this earth with an unceasing message of abundance for all God’s beloved. God continues to break through our fears, so we now expect and treasure diversity in our congregations.


The words of Galatians 3:28 continue to gain meaning: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If we but look around, we see that God is not simplistic nor uncreative. Humanity is wonderfully diverse and all of us are a wonderful mix of what we think of as masculine and feminine. We are all a reflection of the image of God. Thanks be to God!


Let us move forward together, exalting in the beautiful creations of God that each of us is. Today, we celebrate the church as it moves toward abundance, freedom, and appreciation of God’s creativity. As we celebrate that now all loving couples may marry in the Presbyterian Church (USA).


We have not “won” a battle by ratifying 14F; we are simply taking the next step on this amazing journey with our beloved family we call the church. We are walking in grace.


14F Passes!

MORE LIGHT PRESBYTERIANS Building a Church that reflects God’s heart

MEDIA RELEASE: March 17, 2015

Media Contact: Ann Craig, 917-280-2968,

Washington, DC – Today, Presbyterians approved marriages for same-sex couples in the first ever nationwide, grassroots vote on marriage equality by a faith tradition. The Presbyterian Church, USA now holds that marriage is between “two persons” rather than “a man and a woman.”

“Today, we can bring our whole selves to church,” said Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians. “Ratification is not the end; it is the continuation of ongoing sacred conversations. This is the next step in our long journey to minister to all of our people.”

Last summer, the PC(USA) governing body voted by a 71% vote to change the description of marriage, from between “a man and a woman” to “two persons.” However, the amendment required 51% of the 171 regional bodies called presbyteries to affirm the change. That threshold was crossed as 86 presbyteries voted yes, as of today. The tipping point vote was cast by Palisades Presbytery. The voting will continue through June until every presbytery meets.

“More Light Presbyterians led this nationwide campaign to ratify Amendment 14F in the middle of a conservative push to make religious discrimination a civil right,” McNeill said. “Presbyterians know that love of God and neighbor is, by definition, a call to love and serve people who are different. Faithfulness does not include discrimination in the name of God.”

“This vote is the culmination of decades of selfless service by so many people. More Light empowered courageous Presbyterians to host honest conversations about marriage within their local Presbyteries,” said the Rev. Robin White, Co-Moderator of More Light Presbyterians. “Today we are rejoicing! So many families headed by LGBTQ couples have been waiting for decades to enter this space created for their families within their church communities.”

“After the church’s ruling body first affirmed marriage equality this summer, I finally married my partner in our home church,” said co-moderator, and Ruling Elder Nathan Sobers. “It was a dream deferred for 28 years! I wept when it came true. With this historic vote, the Presbyterian Church welcomes not just our wedding, but our whole family into the church community. I know so many families of LGBTQ people and church members are shedding tears of joy on this historic day!”


More Light Presbyterians is a national network of Presbyterians working for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.

Yours on the journey,

Alex Patchin McNeill
Executive Director

Mission Accomplished?

There are moments that mark a movement, just as there are moments that mark a life. For me, so many of those moments in the More Light Movement seem intimately embedded in the moments of my own life.

The moment of my birth, for example.

Occurring almost exactly the same time that David Sindt first held up a sign at the Presbyterian General Assembly asking, ‘Is anyone else out there gay?’ A question that launched the lgbt equality movement within the Presbyterian Church. Meaning that my entire life has been marked by the struggle of the More Light movement for justice and equality.

The moment of beginning my ministry within the Presbyterian denomination, for example.

Occurring just two months after the ‘fidelity and chastity’ clause prohibiting lgbt ordination was ratified in our Book of Order. And leading to an agonizing decade of national church ministry with my integrity and my job constantly on the line. And a commitment once I left the national church that I would never again put myself in a professional situation that required me to ‘toe the line’ when it comes to lgbt justice.

The beginning of an interim parish ministry with a congregation of nearly 40% lgbt parishioners, for example.

Occurring just two months after the ‘fidelity and chastity’ clause was removed from the Book of Order. And receiving the prayerful request of my parishioners to officiate their marriages. Which I did with great joy, no matter what the consequences might be.

And now in my fortieth year, beginning a long-term parish ministry with one of the early congregations to join the More Light Movement, with the ratification of marriage equality in our Book of Order, pending this very week.

I almost do not know what to do with myself, now that the final institutional barrier is falling. Now that we demonstrate God’s inclusive love as a movement ‘in compliance’ with our denomination’s policies, rather than ‘in defiance’ of them.

I honestly do not know how to adjust.

I want to celebrate, of course.

To shout ‘alleluia’ from the rooftops, even though it is the Season of Lent.

But I also want to cry for a really long time.

I want to show the world the wounds that have hurt so deeply in this struggle. Yes, for me as an ‘ally,’ but so much more for those for whom this struggle has been personal. For those we have lost. For those we never had the chance to welcome because our very name as a religion spelled ‘do not enter.’

For those I hurt when I was still living ‘in limbo’ as denominational staff with an unethical assignment to ‘represent’ the policies of our church.

And I want to pray.

For guidance as to what to do next. And how to ‘be’ next. And how to love, beyond measure, the church that has finally caught up with Christ’s commandment to ‘love one another, as I have loved you.’

Because if ‘love matters,’ the way we in the More Light Movement have said it does—and I believe it does—we will have to forgive the church for being ‘the church,’ in so much of its messy, mixed-up hurtful ways

And we will have to continue to help it become ‘The Body of Christ.’

So let’s get to work.

gustiWritten by Gusti Linnea Newquist, one of our Regional Coordinators

Advocating for LGBT Equality in the PC(USA)

It was ten years ago that I became an advocate for LGBTQ equality in the PCUSA. I was Clerk of Session at Govans Presbyterian in Baltimore, Maryland, which had been a More Light Church for several decades. Our beloved pastor of 27 years, Jack Sharp, had retired and we had been through a very difficult interim period of two years before calling a new pastor.

At our first session meeting with our new pastor, Tom Harris, he told us that if the Maryland State Legislature approved marriage equality he would be willing to perform weddings for LGBTQ couples and that we needed to know what that meant for our church. He went on to explain about the possibilities of judicial action, losing control of our church and him losing his ordination and I thought “Oh, no, no. We just got this guy. We are not going to lose him” and I said “All we have to do is change the words in the Directory of Worship from ‘man and woman’ to ‘two people’” and that launched my journey.

Rev. Don Stroud of That All May Freely Serve did the work of adapting the parts of the Directory of Worship about marriage from ‘man and woman’ to ‘two people’. This was to be an overture to General Assembly. Tom wrote the rationale. It was approved by our Session, which led to a process of discernment in the Baltimore Presbytery and, happily, the Overture was approved.

I attended my first PCUSA General Assembly in San Jose, CA in 2008. I was the overture advocate for what was called the ‘Baltimore Overture’. I presented before the Committee on Polity. They voted not to approve the overture but they developed a statement saying that the PCUSA needed to study the issue of equal marriage. There was a motion to approve my overture on the plenary floor and it was very exciting to watch the number of people that spoke in support of our overture. However, it did not pass.

I have attended every GA since then. I was an overture advocate for marriage equality in 2010 and 2012. By 2014, my responsibilities as a member of the Executive Board of More Light Presbyterians kept me from serving as an OA but what a thrill it was to be at the Plenary Session and watch those amazing votes happen, all in support of LGBTQ equality and marriage!!!

Working as a regional coordinator to support the ratification of Amendment 14F is the culmination of a journey I began ten years ago. Throughout this journey, I have meant brilliant, amazing people and learned so much from all of them. My passion for LGBTQ equality has become stronger every year. It has been wonderful to share that passion with so many others as we work for the ratification of this historic amendment.

I am no longer a member of the Baltimore Presbytery but am now at Shenandoah, a Presbytery that has been known for its’ conservative views. I was thrilled when Shenandoah voted to support 14F with a total of 99 yes to 79 no! My pastor at Shepherdstown PC is also a passionate supporter of LGBTQ equality. I would like to close this blog with his testimony from the Presbytery gathering which I am sure helped win the vote:

Randy Tremba (Pastor)
In the late 19th century infant baptism was a divisive issue among Christians. Many argued that only believer baptism was valid. Mark Twain, an erstwhile Presbyterian, was once asked if he believed in infant baptism. To which he replied: Believe in it? Hell! I’ve seen it.

When I’m asked if I believe in same sex marriage I can make the same reply. Not only have I seen it but in accordance with the laws of West bygod Virginia (of all places) and by the authority of the GA of PCUSA, I have witnessed and blessed two such marriages in the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church this past December.

Even without the sanction of the state or the blessing of the church those couples lived faithfully together in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow for years, in one case 25 years—and I can guess there are such people in most of our churches. Over my 40 years of ministry with the Shepherdstown Church I have officiated some 200 weddings—none more joyous, beautiful or holy than those two. The blessings continue to rebound in the larger Shepherdstown community as a testimony to a welcoming church.
I am so grateful the GA authoritative interpretation ruling allowed me to officiate those marriages. I wish all ministers in our beloved church might have the same choice to say YES.

So, onward and upward, faithful Presbyterians who welcome everyone in all aspects of the church! You are making my and many, many others dreams come true!

Written by Jeananne Stine, Regional Coordinatorjeananne

Reflection of Wabash Valley by Marcia Smith-Wood

We’re working hard to enact change in every presbytery and allow the Spirit of God to move in distinct ways.  Here’s one example of just that!

Twenty years ago the Presbytery of Wabash Valley often shed spiritual blood with many sharp and bitter words on issues like inclusion of GLBTQ people.  But most of these angry churches, over the years, have left the PC(USA).

20 years later: this presbytery is very different because of what we have been through.  Nobody wants bloodshed anymore.  We are learning to love each other with Christ’s grace-filled love, no matter how we may disagree on any other issues.  At least we have all hoped this was what was happening in us, as Amendment 14-F came before us.

On February 10, 2015, the Presbytery of Wabash Valley invited all of its churches and all teaching elders to gather for a not-called presbytery assembly, to create a day of exploring the meaning of Amendment 14-F.  About 50 people came, representing the full range of theological perspectives.  Our General Assembly Vice-Moderator also graced this gathering with her presence.  What unfolded was a tone of respectful, prayerful listening to information, a tone of openness to learning, and a tone of speaking honestly and gracefully without a defensive or combative attitude.
Grace was the operative word here.

On this thoughtfully organized and prayerful foundation, the Presbytery of Wabash Valley then gathered for their regularly scheduled called assembly two weeks later, on February 24, to vote on all the Proposed Amendments to the Constitution.   We began the assembly, seated at round tables as usual at our Geneva Center Camp and Conference Center that also houses our presbytery’s offices.  We started with a Bible Study, created by one of our pastors, on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20-25.)  At each table, theological and spiritual discussion happened, facilitated by a thoughtful handout.   We got to know those sitting alongside to us, delighting in sharing and listening deeply as we each were gracefully and spiritually stretched by the printed discussion questions.  One of the thoughtful questions was, “Is there anyone the father would not run to embrace?”  The closing question was, “If you were to describe how God celebrates you, how would you express it?”  Humbling territory, challenging us each to try to give and accept God’s grace in a world that lives more by fear and by earning love.  Grace-filled bonds happened with this Bible study.  We ended in prayer, and then presbytery business resumed.

It was after lunch, that the Amendments were voted on.  14-F was last.  The amendment was read.  Then the moderator opened the floor for discussion.
No one came to the microphones.
No one!

We waited.  Amazed.  Stunned.  Feeling a breathless, grace-filled spirit moving… so different than it was even a few years ago.  So different from our presbytery 20 years ago!  Finally one young man, a ruling elder, went to the microphone and made a poignant but not divisive speech in favor of Amendment 14-F, then quietly sat down.  No one else stood up to speak.
Ruling Elder Jill Kitowski, the moderator, called for the vote to be taken by written ballot, but first firmly warned us that no matter what the vote turned out to be, no one was to clap or cheer.  We understood.
The written ballot was taken.

While the ballots were  being counted, it was planned for the Rev. Carol McDonald to fill the time of suspense by playing the piano, leading us in a hymn sing to join our voices and our hearts by singing our shared love of God.  Powerful words were sung/prayed with one voice.  Grace-filled, joyful love kept spreading among us, no matter what the results.

Then the count was brought to the moderator.
A hush settled over us:
78 votes yes.  26 votes no.  1 abstention.
14-F had passed.

No cheers.  No clapping.  We were immediately gathered in prayer.  Grace, healing grace, permeated the room.  Then a Commissioned Ruling Elder, a dear friend of mine, stepped to the microphone.  He gracefully shared that he had not supported the amendment.  But he was standing to publicly and graciously thank our moderator, Jill Kitowski (who had been one of our G.A. commissioners).  He thanked her for coming to his little theologically conservative church at their invitation in order to worship with them, to explain about Amendment 14-F, and to let discussion happen.  This CRE pastor shared how one elder after listening to her, actually changed his mind to agree with Amendment 14-F.  Now my friend just wanted to thank Jill for her gracious presence.
Grace.  Radical grace.
Amendment 14-F passed… but this also happened: deep healing grace and love tangibly passed into all of us.  May it be so for our denomination.


Organizing for Change at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

I am thrilled to belong to Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, a warm and welcoming beacon of light in the very conservative Shenandoah Presbytery. I knew that SPC supported LGBTQ rights when I joined. My pastor, Randy Tremba, is the author of The Tremba Letter, which was used in an ad to help achieve ordination for LGBTQ people in 2012. I knew that SPC had spent many hours prayerfully discussing equality for LBTQ members and that the process was respectful and educational for all. Plus, we sing a lot! It is my kind of church!

As an advocate for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in all aspects of the PCUSA for the past ten years, I had left my work in the Baltimore Presbytery and was ready to start working for equality in Shenandoah. I was told that Shenandoah Presbytery had never voted to support LGBTQ rights and that it would be shocking if they ever did. I was also told it would not happen in my lifetime.

When the session at SPC appointed me the designated commissioner to attend the stated meetings, I was thrilled. I contacted the Interim Executive Presbyter in ShenPres, Roy Martin, and was delighted to find that he was a respectful and interested listener as we discussed Amendment 14F. His plan was to have two people on either side of the issue have a discussion about the amendment at the stated meeting that would occur before the meeting where we would actually vote on the amendment.

He found two teaching elders who were friends and who share a meal together once a week. They enjoy and respect each other’s company but they were on completely opposite sides of the issue of LGBTQ equality. As I watched these two men discuss and share their views and then answer questions at the meeting, I noted many heads nodding in agreement to a lot of what the minister who supported equal rights was saying. I also talked with many members of the presbytery who were supportive. I was told that many of them were afraid to share their support because they did not want to lose their jobs.

On the day that Shenandoah Presbytery was scheduled to vote on Amendment 14 F, I was sick with the flu. I called my pastor and suggested a fellow parishioner who I knew was supportive and a thoughtful speaker to go in my place. She was able to attend along with my pastor and an honorably retired minister. She was moved to speak at the gathering and here is what she said:

Judy York (Fellow Parishioner)
On Tuesday, my partner of 20 years, Sheila, and I have our first meeting with a wedding planner. No one is more excited about this than our three children.

We have been recognized as a family three times by the State of WV through second parent adoptions. And we have been recognized as a family before God and our community three times through the Sacrament of Baptism. But Sheila and I have waited to get married until we could do it in our State, in our church, with our pastor and the support and blessing of our church community.

Our uncle’s Caucasian grandfather fell in love with an African-American woman over 150 years ago. After the Civil War they slinked off to the northern tip of New York State to get married and live out their days amongst strangers. Sheila and I never wanted this for our life and our marriage.

On the way to school yesterday I told my kids why I would be missing my Valentine’s Day plans with the family to come here. My nine-year old lit up. “Momma,” he said, “Can I come? I want to vote too!” I smiled and patted his leg.   But my eye was drawn to the rear view mirror, where I caught my seven-year-

old daughter in the back seat, head bowed and lip out. Her sadness began to get mixed into a sort of confused rage. “Why is this happening? Does this mean you are not going to have a wedding? I don’t understand.”

I am grateful for this event because it helped me open a deeper discussion with my kids over discrimination, why it happens, and what we can do about it. We had to cut the conversation short because they needed to get to school. Before she shut the car door, my daughter turned to me and said, “Can we talk about this more later? I would really like that.”

In December she saw her beloved Sunday school teacher marry his partner of over 30 years. She wants this for her two moms and for our family .I assured her our wedding would go on as planned. Our local church has spent the past decade

challenging ourselves to become more welcoming. The growth of our congregation, including young families, shows this.

This vote is not about our wedding, but about helping ensure that the people we commune with throughout the national church are afforded the same opportunity as us for years to come – to marry the person they love. To marry each other by exchanging mutual promises, witnessed by a teaching elder

who pronounces God’s blessing upon their union, in front of their community of faith who pledges to support the couple in upholding these promises.

I can tell you this… after twenty years in faithful relationship with Sheila I know we could not be as strong as a couple without our church community. This support makes our family stronger, our community stronger, and our world stronger.

I am so grateful to Judy for attending the meeting in my place and for being brave enough to stand up and share her personal story. There were many commissioners, including my pastor and the honorably retired pastor from our church, who spoke in support of equality. While there were some people who spoke against the amendment, when the vote was taken, the amendment was approved 99-79!

Shenandoah is now one of the presbyteries that have “flipped” from no to yes! I am very happy to be a part of this presbytery.

jeananneWritten by Jeananne Stine, one of MLP’s Regional Coordinators for Ratifying 14f.