On October 1998 Clifton United Methodist Church came out of the closet. Long an inclusive faith community with a history of working for social justice, CUMC has been, even prior to 1998, a place where GLBT persons could worship and fellowship in a truly accepting community. The congregation’s belief that ALL persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are beloved children of God who have a place in the church, was a stance taken by almost 150 other United Methodist congregations at the time.
The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) was at that time known as the Reconciling Congregation Program (RCP), a coalition of United Methodist congregations called to make a statement that their hearts, minds, and doors were truly open to all. Clifton had long been called to be a beacon of inclusiveness and social justice in Clifton and the greater Cincinnati area, and as such, was known for being a progressive church in the area. Under the leadership of Rev. Jerry K. Hill, the church embarked on a journey toward formally affiliating with the RCP and making public its calling to be a sanctuary for those whom the larger church may not have always truly welcomed.
Sometime around 1995, Jerry met with a group of GLBT parishioners to discuss the possibility of the church offering a study on the “issue” of homosexuality and the church. Jerry was very clear that, while this is not a “gay” issue exclusively but rather a human rights/social justice concern, the GLBT members of the congregation might be thrust somewhat into the spotlight. He wanted to ensure that we, both as an overall congregation as well as the out GLBT members, were ready for the risk involved with such an endeavor. All involved agreed that this seemed to be the direction God was leading the church, and thus we began what became a three year journey toward officially becoming a reconciling congregation.
During this time, we engaged in studies of what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, hosted many speakers on the subject, and prayerfully joined in discussion and dialogue among our membership. While it seemed that all were in agreement that we as a congregation should be a truly open and inclusive community, there was disagreement as to exactly how we should go about being that community and what being an “out” congregation would look like. There were many, many meeting about this, and thanks largely to Jerry’s compassionate insistence that everyone’s voice be heard, all persons who wished had input into the process and grew tremendously in so doing.
Friends from other churches would often ask how our older members were responding to all this change, the perception being that older members would be resistant to such a shift. On the contrary, we would not be the publicly welcoming and progressive church we are today without the passionate guidance of our elders. They were at the forefront of moving us into a place where we could publicly be who we are. We have always been blessed to have many retired Methodist pastors among us, such as Tony and Ruth Drake and Paul and Nancy Stopenhagen, and these long-time crusaders for social justice helped us see who we are and move in the direction God was leading us.
Around the table at these many meetings sat a wide spectrum of God’s people, called together to be witnesses for a broader vision of God’s world. This was never an initiative spearheaded solely by our GLBT members, but was embraced by all. As Dr, King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” thus our discussions often considered that the exclusion of GLBT persons from the church is not a “gay problem” anymore than racism is a “black problem”; rather, both are human rights problems and we as God’s church are called to help right these societal wrongs.
One member who usually sat quietly at the meetings said one evening that, “We know who we are. Why are we afraid to say it out loud?” This question was the spark that ultimately led to another member calling for a vote. We had discussed and studied and prayed and finally the time had come to join the ranks of other congregations whom God had called to be beacons of God’s shalom. On that October evening in 1998, Clifton UMC decided to become a Reconciling Congregation.
We were officially the 150th reconciling congregation (St. John’s UMC in Lubbock, Iris Hamrick’s home church, was #149). There are now hundreds of reconciling churches and communities. At the time, we were only the second RC in the West Ohio Conference; now there are over a dozen, and although we are still the only RC in the Cincinnati area, there is a growing interest in the Reconciling Movement here as evidenced by the number of members from other Cincinnati area United Methodist churches who attended our ten year anniversary conference and celebration in the fall of 2008. We have long been actively involved with other “open” churches of many denominations in the city and region to help share God’s Word with GLBT persons in our larger community.
Our decision to become reconciling has not been without risk and hardship. Six or seven long time members decided to move to other churches after we officially affiliated with the RCP. This phenomenon is not an unusual occurrence in churches who “go public” with their welcome. The members who left will always be loved and welcomed at CUMC and their input was an important part of the “coming out” process. Extending God’s invitation to be “radically inclusive” is a risk that CUMC has been blessed to accept.
Over a decade has passed since we took the step to proclaim our calling to be a church for ALL God’s people, and we continue to grow and thrive. Our local and national communities continue to move in the direction of full inclusiveness, and we continue to be a voice for that needed change both in Cincinnati and the West Ohio Conference. Small but mighty, our voice is heard in many minds and hearts.
Much prayerful time and energy was spent on crafting our welcoming statement and it serves as a constant and very public reminder of who God has called us to be:
We, the people of Clifton United Methodist Church, believe that God’s love is expansive and unconditional and that through Christ, God has called us to love one another as God loves us. We welcome all people, regardless of gender, race, age, culture, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, economic circumstances, family configuration, or difference of faith perspective. We celebrate the worth, dignity and gifts of every person as a child of God.