By Rev. Richenda Fairhurst
May 17, 2016 | Portland, Oregon
If anyone ever belonged at the Oregon Convention Center, it is me. I have had the opportunity of attending General Conference simply by getting in my car and dodging traffic for about 43 minutes. I drive a Volt, of course. And I fight the oil and coal trains that roll through my small town. I am by all accounts the perfect citizen of the Pacific Northwest.
As a pastor who serves just outside Portland during the first week of conference I participated in the Climate Vigil, the Immigration Vigil, walked the prayer room labyrinth, and partook of Queer Communion. But, even as I sought out gluten free food and avoided complex math problems such as whether 500 delegates can elect 6 candidates—because “500 x 6 equals 3000” somehow—I did not feel at all at home.
I am an interloper. I do not serve on any committee, have no clique, and have no say in the legislative process. I am not yet ordained. I came because I could, because I wanted to see things for myself. I wanted to know how my African and my LGBTQI siblings would be treated. I wanted to know that our military chaplains and Latino neighbors were equally loved. I watched for slogans and listened to speeches. Perhaps I had no clue as to the legislative process, I told myself, but all the same I wanted to show up and I wanted to listen. I wanted to belong.
I learned that belonging is a really big deal. For everyone. From the most ardent anti-gay speakers who spoke in threat of schism, to the protesters on the floor who shut their mouths with rainbow tape to witness to their forced silence and exclusion. All demanded the right to exist, the right to belong, the right to be let in. All protested the pain from the threat or the reality of being forced out.
As I watched in my own awkwardness, I worried as the ‘middle way’ died in committee after committee and the idea of belonging itself took on the binary of ‘either-or.’ But even as I emerged in tears and sobbing from hours in prayer for Faith and Order—a committee that came so close—I learned that I could love people even through the harsh testimonies of intolerance. And I held the screaming middle and I thought my heart would burst.
I am just a regular pastor who leads a regular UM church. We, too, within our own local church family, are not united on every issue. And I worry, what will I tell my beloved folk on Sunday?
I came to conference expecting that my distance from the players at the top would protect my heart from being broken, but it did not. How do I face the young people of my church? How do I wrap my arms around those struggling to know that they are wanted and they are loved?
Who gets to belong?
Rev. Richenda Fairhurst has a passion for renewing churches at the local level. She understands that the relevance and vitality of the local church is directly relational to the ability of that church to live its call to discipleship by loving and serving its neighbors locally, intergenerationally, and cross culturally. She serves in southwest Washington state at the Camas United Methodist Church. Follow her at @pastorrichenda