Reinterpreting Tulsa

Dr. Michael Kinnamon was the nominee for General Minister and President at the General Assembly in Tulsa, OK, in 1991. That nomination was defeated by a mere fraction of a percent – a two-thirds vote was required and the vote failed by less than 1%. Why? Those who opposed him did so because he was honest about his membership in the GLAD Alliance as one piece of his witness to justice.

This year, at the General Assembly in Columbus, Michael shared these thoughts at an Aftersession hosted by GLAD and DJAN (Disciples Justice Action Network).

Be honest. At the Tulsa General Assembly in 1991, how many of you would have predicted that, within twenty-five years, Ireland would vote, through national referendum, to approve same sex marriage?!

At the Tulsa General Assembly, how many of you would have predicted that, within twenty-five years, the Boy Scouts would change their membership standard to exclude exclusion on the basis of sexual orientation?!

At the Tulsa General Assembly, how many of you would have predicted that, within twenty-five years, the Supreme Court, led by a Chief Justice such as John Roberts, would rule that same-sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry in all fifty states?!

Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon
Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon

At the Tulsa General Assembly, how many of you would have predicted that, within twenty-five years, openly gay and lesbian persons would be serving as ordained ministers throughout our denomination, or that nearly 150 congregations would be officially Open & Affirming–including Bethany Christian Church and East Side Christian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma– and that hundreds more would be de facto supporters?! How many of you historical prognosticators would have imagined that the Disciples of Christ Historical Society would be an Open & Affirming ministry of the church or that GLAD would be one of the Disciples most respected organizations?!

No? Well, then, behold the work of the Holy Spirit! And give thanks!

I have been told that the Tulsa assembly is often described to our younger colleagues as a horror story best forgotten. But, friends, this is a misconstrual of history. For one thing, I’ve heard that GLAD membership tripled–or, at least, swelled dramatically–in the days after the vote on my nomination–and that doesn’t sound like a horror story to me. Beyond that, at Tulsa, we Disciples added our voice to a rising North America-wide chorus, even if we couldn’t yet hear its full melody.

History is always interpreted, so let’s insist that this bit of history be interpreted with a thankful, progressive tilt. The historical headline from the 1991 assembly is not that a nominee was defeated. He has done just fine! The headline is that, in an era of overt discrimination, nearly two-thirds of the Disciples representatives were not swayed by arguments for exclusion–thereby contributing our witness to the movement of the Spirit.

It is, of course, quite audacious to speak definitively of the Holy Spirit–who, after all, has been invoked for many less-than-noble causes! But, good friends, we can find confidence for identifying signs of the Spirit from the broad pattern of scripture. To put it simply, the struggle for full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in church and society is 1 an opportunity to proclaim, in our generation, the superabundance of God’s grace. Paul faced the challenge of exclusivity, the desire to put limits on grace, over the issue of circumcision. Peter faced it over questions of what is clean and unclean. Our nineteenth-century ancestors faced it over slavery. More recent generations have faced it over questions of racial justice and the role and status of women. And now it is our turn to keep faithful witness to the One who has made us as we are, values all persons equally, and loves without limitation. Like the Spirit, the Bible has been frequently used to validate human prejudices. Let us, instead, give thanks for the way scripture repeatedly exposes the narrowness of human affections and the pettiness of human exclusions.

So, one reason for remembering history, for celebrating Tulsa, is to recognize how far, with God’s leading, we have come. There is another reason, however, and that is to call to mind the struggle involved in getting to where we are.

There is a tendency in the contemporary press to suggest that support for same sex marriage, for gay rights, has appeared almost overnight. How ludicrous! It is true that the pressure for change has gathered astonishing momentum over the past ten years. But behind this is the work and sacrifice of such early gay rights groups as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Behind recent gains is the Stonewall rebellion and the courage and suffering of people like Harvey Milk and Matthew Shepard.

Equality has come quickly?! Same sex marriage is a trendy cause?! Tell that to all those whose careers were ruined, all those who were denied the joy of adoption, all those who were shut out of their partner’s, their beloved’s, hospital room because there was no law to trump the bigotry that so often found religious sanction. Tell that to all the ministers whose employment was lost or threatened because they did what was right rather than what was approved. Tell that to all the Disciples pioneers on whose shoulders we stand, including Carol Blakely, Debra Peevey, Wayne Bennett, Judith Hoch Wray, Wayne Sparrow, Eugene Brink, Jon and Melba Lacey, Allen Harris, Laurie Rudel, Randy Palmer. Call out the names of those on whose shoulders you stand.

In this sense, remembering history correctly is a moral imperative–a way of saying thank you to those who have gone before, often when the going wasn’t easy.

Remembering history is also important because it helps us see more clearly where we go from here. To begin with, let no one think this battle is over! There is still, as you well know, a great need to extend legal protection in the areas of housing and employment, which will at least appear to pit concerns about discrimination against concerns about the denial of religious liberty.

Let no one think this battle is over! There are regions that still resist ordaining ministers who are lesbian or gay. A resolution passed at the last General Assembly says we are committed to “becoming a people of grace and welcome to all.” But, of course, no  church can legislate acceptance–certainly not a free church like ours. So let no one think this battle is over. The continuing challenges are very real.

Perhaps, however, while persisting in this struggle, it is also time to take the next step, a step symbolized by tonight’s joint gathering. GLAD members, I think you agree, are not a single issue people–unless that issue is justice for all who are demeaned! We are not just a group that favors the ordination of gay men and lesbians. We are a group that celebrates the gifts and calling God has given to every baptized disciple of Christ. We are not just a group that supports same sex marriage. We are a group that gives thanks for love wherever we see it, including the tough love of speaking truth to power. We are not just a group that defends the rights of the LGBTQ community. We are a group that cares about equality for all God’s children and protests discrimination no matter who is its victim.

The damnable truth is that, while we rightly celebrate some gains with regard to civil rights, progress has been stalled or reversed on other issues: equal pay and reproductive rights for women, equal treatment at the hands of the law for Black Americans, some modicum of equal economic opportunity for those who aren’t in the top 1 or 10 or 20 percent. Partnering with DJAN on issues it regards as priorities, just as DJAN, an Open & Affirming network, has advocated for LGBTQ issues, is surely consistent with GLAD’s vision. It reflects our awareness of what the World Council of Churches calls “the web of oppression,” in which every onerous string is attached to others.

My own nomination in 1991–to be General Minister and President of this quirky, little church–was not (how shall I say?) uniformly enjoyable for me or my family. Let me tell a story I’ve never before shared in public. My father, a life-long Disciple who had not been to a General Assembly, decided he would go to Tulsa. I told him, “You might not like everything you hear;” but he was determined. I saw him late on the first day. “There is a guy [not the word he used] out in the hall,” Dad told me, “with some ridiculous sign, telling lies about you! Next time I see him, I may knock his nose to the back of his head!” “Dad,” I said (calmly), “that’s not quite the message I’m trying to communicate here!”

My father, now deceased, was a good man; but he had the worldview of one who had lived all his life in rural Iowa; and, while I had no doubt he supported me, I wasn’t really sure what he thought about the issues involved. Part-way through the assembly, I finally got the nerve to ask him, “How do you feel about my affirmation of persons who are gay and lesbian? I realize there are lots of people in the church who don’t agree….” He cut me off. “Those people,” he said very simply, “didn’t know Jeffrey.” I smile every time I think about that conversation because my father hit it on the head! They didn’t know Jeffrey–or Nancy or Mark or Joan or Maria or Phil.

On the day of the vote, I had a speech in my left pocket to use if the decision was yes, and a speech in my right pocket to use if the decision was no–because I was certainly aware that there were many in our church who, at that time, did not see my membership in GLAD as a leadership credential, others (the ultimate cop-out) who said I was too “controversial,” and still others, including me, who thought I was probably a better nominee than I would be a GMP.

But let’s be clear: For every negative letter or derogatory public comment directed my way, I received ten or twenty that were supportive, usually beyond any deserving– including, I am sure, from some of you. I think of my nomination, above all else, as an ideal case study for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit. I had not written or spoken about gay rights before being asked to fill out a “Nominee’s Profile,” soon to be distributed throughout the church, with its question about my concern for minorities–and I wrote the fateful words, “I am a member of GLAD.”

Dear friends, we not only interpret history, we interpret the narrative of our lives. And in my case, the narrative is that God “smoked me out,” forced me to be accountable for what I believed but had never had the occasion or the courage to say in public.

So tonight, let’s say it clearly: Tulsa is not a story of individual fortitude or defeat. It is the story of a church being the church, with all the glory and pain that always mark the body of Christ. Let’s set the record straight: In 1991, in the face of strong cultural headwinds, a small North American denomination–meeting in assembly in Tulsa, Oklahoma–did something significant. It may not have said “yes” to a nominee, but it clearly said “no!” to fear.