Amos House Easter 2015

Amos House Easter 2015

by Autumn Dennis

It was close to midnight on December 4, 2011. I was engaging in a direct action with several other activists and organizers to publicly and prophetically reclaim an abandoned public works building. Why should buildings like this sit empty when there are over 6,000 people sleeping on Nashville’s streets? I had just begun to awaken to the power of a people mobilized, and was an active participant in Occupy Nashville. I had recently begun doing relational homeless outreach work with Open Table Nashville. A few months prior, I was converted to death penalty abolition after witnessing the execution of Troy Davis. I knew I could never stand by a death-dealing system of mass incarceration and capital punishment. Thus, I began doing organizing against the death penalty on my college campus and in the legislature. When I was asked to preach in churches, I couldn’t bear to preach on anything else other than how God’s justice and compassion looked much different than what I saw happening on the streets and in the prisons. I felt a moral obligation to be on the picket line and in the marches, if for nothing else than to bear witness to a different world that was possible. This awakening in me was fairly easy for me to stomach. However, what was not easy was how people had begun to tell me they saw a minister in me, a deacon—why wasn’t I seeking to be ordained? Friends, mentors, and pastors all encouraged me to consider that I may be called.

I was stubbornly opposed to the idea. I felt that the Church too often stripped away the power of the laity each time they wanted to throw a stole on a leader. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. I had been a member of the United Methodist Church for just a couple of years, but enough years to know that they did not ordain my kind. The United Methodist Church, which continues to reduce called, queer children of God to nothing more than “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” considered me “incompatible with Christian


Doing advocacy and protest, October 2011

teaching.” Even more, they did not ordain people who refused to lie about themselves. (Many Methodist mentors told me that I could be a Methodist minister, but only if I was celibate or chose to hide my relationships…for the rest of my life. How violent.) So, I was very firmly set that I was not going to be ordained. Nope. Not called to that. But deep down, if you peeled back the layers of church-induced denial, you would find a deacon. A young minister. I already was one, and my loved ones could see it.

As I stood shivering outside of the public works building, I talked with some of these friends and mentors on the sidewalk. Some were friends from Open Table, the group I was doing homeless outreach with. Some were from Amos House Community, the house church I had joined a few months earlier. In particular, I was talking with my friend Jeannie Alexander, one of the founders of both Open Table and Amos House, who was wearing a clerical collar. I had heard she was ordained, but I also knew she was a member of a denomination that did not ordain women. I asked her about what her journey looked like, and she explained to me that she sought out her ordination through a small community church. To my own surprise, I found myself blurting out, “Jeannie, actually I do want to be ordained. But I can’t be ordained in my church. I don’t know what to do and I haven’t told anyone about it.” After a beat of silence, she shrugged gracefully and replied nonplussed, “Amos House could ordain you.”

Well, I had never considered that.

It is now four years later. I have been discerning my call to ordained ministry ever since that moment when I first admitted it to myself and to a friend in the middle of a direct action. For about a year, I thought I would try my hand at the Methodist ordination process and see how far I got before I would get kicked out. Instead, I found I had too much integrity and tenacity to bury for the sake of a denominational ordination. All the while, Amos House Community has supported me. We have explored scripture together, broke bread together, read and written liturgy together, spread ashes on foreheads together, carried crosses together, and proclaimed liberation together. They have held me while I cried, listened to me express my fears, walked with me as I applied to divinity school, and advocated for me. They are my best friends and are nothing short of family. Now, I see nothing makes more sense than for them to ordain me. They recognized my call and supported me all along.

At a camp with friends who experience homelessness

At a camp with friends who experience homelessness

As I was thinking about what to write for this ordination statement, I went back through some journals of the past four years. I found that over and over I wrote that I was being called to the margins—the streets, the prisons, the courtrooms, the recovery homes, the hospitals, the hospice facilities. Over time, I found that I was also being called to the margins of the Church. I gathered the gall to admit that I could not fulfill my entire calling while located inside of the institutional church. I am being called to be a minister and a deacon, to be ordained to word, sacrament, service, and justice. In many traditions, not all of these things compute—“deacons don’t do sacraments, deacons aren’t as ordained as other ministers!” (However, I learned in my divinity studies that once upon a time, deacons did do sacraments!) Just as Jesus broke the Sabbath in order to serve, so I have been called to break some rules in order to fulfill my calling.

There are so many needs to meet, both physical and spiritual, that we don’t have time to split hairs and set limitations. The roots of the word deacon in Greek (diakonos) means “to kick up dust” as if one were running an errand—rushing to serve others and come to another’s aid. In my previous Methodist tradition, they speak of the deacon’s role as being that of a bridge between the church and the world. I once read a poem written by an Episcopal bishop that stated, “the work of the deacon is not finished until the trench has been dug so clearly between our pews and the margins that all can see the connection between the blood in the streets and the blood in our chalices” (my clumsy paraphrase). Ever since I learned who deacons were, I knew I identified with them most. I’ve never felt as alive, engaged, and energized as I have been when I was doing outreach on the streets, in camps, in soup kitchens, in makeshift motel hospices. These are the places where I have most been on holy ground. The friends I’ve met there have been the greatest representatives and incarnations of Christ for me. If the past few years have been a courtship with my ministry role, those I do ministry with, and those I engage in ministry with and to—consider this my proposal for marriage. My liberation is wholly bound up with yours.

Amos House

Amos House

This has been a long time coming. God began ordaining me a long time ago. In my journal entries, I recalled God’s words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). The Holy Spirit has been whispering the same words to me. Now, the time has come. I am ready. My beloved companions of Amos House Community have confirmed and echoed back to me all the ways I am called. They are recognizing in me what God has been doing all along.

My ordination event this October will be like the semicolon on a sentence that has already been written, but needs to finish its thought. When I was in college, I was a paper tutor and often had to explain that a semicolon is the connector between an incomplete thought and a complete thought. My story and work until now is a thought that needs completing and a continuation. My ordination service is that semicolon; with the help of God and my community, what follows will be a beautiful story of love, healing, and liberation.

A Time to Stay and a Time to Leave: An Open Letter to the UMC

This letter by Amos House Community member Autumn Dennis was originally posted on the Reconciling Ministries Network blog at http://www.rmnblog.org/2013/12/a-time-to-stay-and-a-time-to-leave-an-open-letter-to-the-umc.html.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”

With all due respect to Ecclesiastes 3, I feel there is one line missing that I would like to add: “There is a time to stay, and a time to leave.” I was not raised in the United Methodist Church, or in any church for that matter. My interest in the Divine emerged at the same time I was realizing I was gay, at the ripe age of twelve. My first experience with church was at a Baptist megachurch in Tennessee, where I have vivid memories of crying in the pews as I was told I was going to hell. The next few years were marked with me trying to pretend I wasn’t interested in God, because clearly this God hated people like me! These feelings drove me into an intense depression with strong suicidal thoughts. I admit that when I came to the United Methodist Church at sixteen, it was only because the girl I had a crush on invited me. However, the reason I stayed was because this particular church contained the first Christians I had ever met who didn’t immediately tell me I was going to hell. Instead, I found a safe space in their youth group where I was free to be who I was and to ask questions about God. Through my involvement in this church, I got a full scholarship to a great Methodist college.

As I was welcomed into the Methodist church, my campus ministry and local Tennessee Conference connection fostered my gifts and my budding call to homeless and prison ministry. However, I wouldn’t allow myself to consider a call to ordination, even though I felt one—I knew what the church said about people like me, so why even try? Whenever I had pastor friends affirming my gifts, graces, and fruits for ministry, I heard the institutional church say, “You are incompatible with Christian teaching” (Paragraph 161F of the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline). When my campus minister suggested I consider ordination as a deacon, I heard the institutional church say, “You will not be accepted as minister” (Paragraph 304.3). However, God’s calling soon overwhelmed the dirge of condemnation from the institutional church: “Yes, I am already ordaining you, you are not incompatible with me, and I will accept you as a minister.” When the Church reduced me to a faceless “homosexual”, I knew God saw me as more.

I decided to enroll in the candidacy process anyway. I began skating through the requirements set by my Tennessee Conference, believing that being ordained through the United Methodist Church could give me a greater voice for change in the church. I was proud to be a representative of the UMC. I felt that I was giving my church an opportunity to recognize what God was already doing in my life, ordaining me as a minister to the margins. However, over time, the pressure I felt from the UMC to hide who I was grew and grew. I began to be paranoid about who was a “safe” Methodist and who was an “unsafe” Methodist. I watched many of the Methodists that had first welcomed me into the church fight to uphold the same discriminatory passages of the Book of Discipline that were ruining my life. I watched cases like Amy DeLong’s, Mary Ann Barclay’s, and Frank Schaefer’s, wondering, “Who will rat me out?” Living a half life, I was stressed over whether or not the conference physicians and psychologists would ask me about my sexuality, worried about if I was dressing feminine enough for when I visited the Conference offices, and wondered if my voice was high-pitched enough for when I visited the head of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Pretty soon, I couldn’t focus on my call from God at all anymore; instead, I felt like I was in a perpetual den of Methodist lions.

The stress of this paranoia compared with the indescribable pain of recent events in the life of the Church became too much for me to handle: seeing the inflammatory language against me from the Book of Discipline in my candidacy guidebooks, witnessing General Conference refuse to even “agree to disagree”, observing the Council of Bishops condemn Bishop Melvin Talbert’s presiding over the marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince, having my classmates and professors speaking insensitively about “the gay issue in the UMC” as if I weren’t in the room, and others. One of the most harmful things to me was seeing the open letter from my own Bishop Bill McAlilly condemning Bishop Talbert, upholding an idolatrous clergy covenant over God’s truth of inclusion (http://bishopbillmcalilly.com/2013/10/24/please-pray-and-display-christ-like-spirit-in-midst-of-our-disagreement/). I began to think about leaving the ordination process.

I decided to postpone my decision until I attended Exploration, the biannual event for United Methodist young adults considering ordination. During this event, the Council of Bishops sent us a video with President Bishop Rosemarie Wenner saying, “The Church needs you!” In my head I finished her sentence: “…Unless you’re gay.” More than ever, I felt like the church was repeating over and over a hollow lie. I felt like the church needed me to support its broken bureaucracy, but when I needed the Church, it wasn’t there for me. It threw me the bone of “Sacred Worth” and threw me away. As soon as I returned home, I saw the Internet explode with new stories of how Rev. Frank Schaefer was given a guilty verdict for presiding over his son’s wedding to his partner of the same sex. I felt like I could no longer go on rationalizing the state of the United Methodist Church; this was the last straw.

When I began the ordination process, I figured I would “see how far I got before the church kicked me out.” Never did I expect that the church would push me out before my District Committee even had the chance to expel me from the process. It is with immense pain in my heart that I confess to you, my beloved United Methodist Church, that I have to leave the ordination process in order to follow God. I cannot represent an institution whose idol is the Book of Discipline. I cannot pledge to uphold that abusive Book which has long since stopped being a source of illumination in how we connect with each other and God, but now is a glorified bludgeoning tool. I cannot join an order of ministry that is complicit in injustice. I cannot lie my way into an abusive clergy covenant or lie my way through the Historic Questions. I cannot pretend that my church has “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” when it does not. I cannot lie about who I am or what the Church is any longer.

However, there are “Reasons I Stay.” For all the ways that the United Methodist Church is incredibly broken, you are my dysfunctional family that I cannot leave. I still believe in the Church that welcomed me when no one else did, and I believe much more in that Church than I do in the same Church that is pushing me away. I still believe that our Methodist connection is something mystical and holy—something I wouldn’t exchange for the world. If I left this church totally, I would just be a Methodist sitting in another denomination. I need to be here to see this Church change. I need to be one of the people joining hands with all the other Reconcilers as we proclaim, “Love Prevails! Draw the circle wider still!” My liberation is bound up with yours, UMC.

(Oh, and one last thing—I’m still being ordained by God and I will find another church to recognize it. If you’re serious about getting more young clergy, make this is a church where we don’t have to lie about who we are in order to serve God. You’re better than that.)

The Lord be with you, and I’ll see you at the open table.

With grace,

Autumn Dennis

Tennessee Conference