Decoding DEI: Boundary-breaking love

United Methodist Conference votes to approve social justice principles, include LGBTQ community

Sophia Scarnecchia poses for a photo, Friday, March 15th, at Wesley Church.

With a landslide vote, the United Methodist Conference approved a slate of social justice principles at their first general conference in eight years. One of those principles was long contested: inclusion of the LGBTQ community.  

For the last five years, individual churches have had to face the decision of whether to stay in the UMC and become inclusive of the LGBTQ community or vote to become a separate entity. 

For Wesley at Central Michigan University, a United Methodist Church on CMU’s campus, the choice to remain part of the UMC was easy. The pastor, Audra Hudson-Stone, said inclusion of the LGBTQ community is part of the church’s identity.  

“A lot of our identity has been focused on really engaging young adults in faith, but also justice,” she said.  

On the fifth day of the 2024 general conference, running April 23 through May 3, 92% affirmed support “for the equal rights, liberties, and protections of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to United Methodist News. 

What is the UMC?

The broader UMC is a global organization and denomination of Christianity.  

“A United Methodist is someone who joins that mission by putting faith and love into action,” according to the UMC website. “We believe that God loves all people, and we share in expressing that love.” 

Hudson-Stone said that love can be defined differently from church to church, and that may be why not every UMC is inclusive.  

“For some, love means that you put up boundaries,” she said. “(Wesley) defines love … as something that’s boundary-breaking and invites us to prioritize marginalized communities to see them as full members of our community.”  

She explained that when love means putting up boundaries, it sets narrow expectations for people to be.  

But how does that happen if everyone is reading the same Bible?  

“There’s a lot we know, and there’s not one way to read the Bible,” she said, describing it as “a collection of many different genres of stories from ancient people that need to be read with context.”  

According to an article from the History website, the actual authors of the Bible and when they were writing it are still somewhat debated. Because the whole book is a collection of smaller books from what is probably a long list of authors, the article said, pieces were written even hundreds of years after the proposed time when Jesus Christ lived.  

Hudson-Stone said different types of Christianity will interpret the Bible differently, based on experience and various ways of holding “diversity of thought.”  

The structure of the UMC resembles the U.S. Government because they formed around the same time. The UMC has executive, legislative and judicial branches guided by a constitution (the Book of Discipline) just like the U.S., according to the Garden Church

It also operates on a few different levels, like federalism, according to the Garden Church: 

  • The General Conference with global delegates 
  • The Jurisdictional conference, with representatives from the five jurisdictions in the U.S. 
  • The Annual Conference, with 54 zones in the U.S. making 54 different annual conferences 
  • The Districts, or groups of local churches within annual conferences 
  • Local churches

Why vote now? 

The original Book of Discipline (BOD) was written in 1784, but the section that would exclude members of the LGBTQ community was written in the 1970s, according to UM News. 

“We were supposed to make a decision around LGBTQ inclusion a few years ago, but COVID happened, and it got delayed,” Hudson-Stone said. “The church moves really slowly in how it addresses these types of issues. The cultural conversation has progressed so quickly for the last 20 years that it’s become unavoidable.” 

At the last point when a decision was on the table, in 2016, over 100 active ministers came out as gay in the U.S. and Philippines, according to UM News.  

Hudson-Stone pointed out that the younger generations are more aware of the social positions of the organizations they interact with, which can influence whether they attend a church. So, if they’re aware that the BOD is not inclusive, it could push young people away from the UMC. 

But Hudson-Stone said there’s a difference between what’s in the BOD and what happens in reality. She said a lot of churches are inclusive, it just hadn’t been formally adopted by the larger organization.  

“The church is recognizing that some of its issues on membership decline are due to its stances on these issues,” she said.  

In a video introduction to the current conference, UM Reporter Heather Hahn explained that at the last conference in 2016, there was legislation on the table to amend the BOD to include an acceptance statement for diverse “human sexualities.” 

Rather than adopt an overarching acceptance statement, the conference approved the plan to delegate the decision to lower-level jurisdictions and individual churches, Hahn said in the video. At this stage, local United Methodist churches can vote to stay in the inclusive General Conference or separate from the UMC.  

Their deadline to vote on the original initiative has passed, and over 7,600 UM Churches in the U.S. voted to leave between 2019 and 2023. According to UM News, the total number of active churches in the U.S. in 2022 was almost 30,000. 

What’s happening at CMU?  

Sophia Scarnecchia is a CMU student, member of Wesley at CMU and president of Spectrum: a student organization dedicated to the LGBTQ community.  

She said Spectrum hasn’t had the same turnout it did when she was a freshman just a few years ago. 

“This has never happened before, Spectrum has really been struggling with attendance, and a good analysis that someone brought to me is maybe people are afraid to go,” Scarnecchia said.  

She also noticed an increase in homophobic incidents at CMU, including negative responses to event postings on social media.  

“People are more afraid to be themselves than (they were) freshman year,” Scarnecchia said. She added that the Registered Student Organization (RSO) Transcend, which is dedicated to the transgender community, doesn’t have an email list or publicly share the locations of their meetings.  

“They keep them private because of how much hate happens on campus,” she said.  

Scarnecchia added that the increase in incidents since the pandemic may have been because the university isn’t taking action against violations of its core values.  

“They are very much being gone against, and nothing is really being done about it,” she said.  

Before she was a member of Wesley, Scarnecchia said she and her family went to a Catholic church in Ann Arbor. While the Ann Arbor area was generally accepting of her queer identity, the Catholic church was not. 

But after coming to CMU, she still had to face the misconception that to be Christian means to also be homophobic.  

“I definitely did feel a little bit of fear towards coming back into a church, not just because of my history with it, but my fear of admitting to people that I believe in God,” Scarnecchia said. “There’s such an association that it can be hard. A good chunk of people who come to Wesley are also people who have negative experiences through the Church.” 

She said it’s been healing to be at Wesley, though. Scarnecchia goes to a couple groups within the church, including Queer Christian Connection. 

“It’s been awesome and really, really saved me,” she said. But she added that because Wesley is the outlier as an inclusive church in Mount Pleasant, that can be scary. 

“Some people look at ‘open invitation’ and see a threat to the comfort they’ve found in (exclusion),” Scarnecchia said. “I’m thankful that no one’s come in and done anything... especially in Mount Pleasant.” 

This is something Hudson-Stone is aware of.  

“We often take in ‘spiritual refugees,’” she said. “The broader reality is that more churches are not safe places for everyone … making those safe places known is hard. While it is a lonely experience, we wouldn’t trade anything for it.” 

Ebay Merlin is the volunteer coordinator at the Mount Pleasant Pride Center. They said the tone of conversation around religion is mixed when it comes up at the MPPC.  

“There are definitely people who have religious trauma if they grew up in a church that was (unwelcoming) and left the church later,” Merlin said. “That’s obviously like a pretty big deal because church and religion in general can be pretty harsh to the LGBTQ+ community, but then there are people who have found (a) church that is really accepting, they’re able to keep their faith going that way. 

“So, it’s really, really mixed, depending on people’s experiences.”