To church members this is a natural progression, but to others it’s a historic milestone
DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
Oak Lawn United Methodist Church voted unanimously on Sunday, Feb. 7, to affiliate with the Reconciling Ministries Network, whose goal is full inclusion of LGBT people in the church.
To the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Anna Hosemann-Butler, voting on the reconciling statement was a formality. What the church does everyday — demonstrating its welcome to the LGBT community as well as others — is what’s important.
Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade day in September is a good example. Not only does the church have a contingency that marches in the parade, it also opens its doors to parade-goers.
“It’s one of the highlights of the year for us,” Hosemann-Butler said.
The church council president, Scott Collen, who also serves as this year’s Black Tie Dinner Auction Committee chair, said about nine years ago, the church set up a water table during the parade. The next year they opened the building so parade-goers could use the bathroom.
“The third year, it became a thing,” Collen said, and the church has opened its doors and welcomed people to view the parade from its lawn and its steps ever since.
Hosemann-Butler said a group of young women always watch the parade from the lawn. After the parade, when they saw the pastor cleaning up, one said, “I’ll help you.” As they picked up trash left from the parade, the woman said, “I’m just glad you haven’t given up on us.”
That woman, who’s been back to view the parade from the same spot every year and helps clean up the lawn afterward, reinforces Hoseman-Butler’s belief that a church should open its door and meet people wherever they are.
Collen said one day a group from the church was handing out bottled water on the Katy Trail during a race.
As he was handing out bottles, he welcomed people to visit the church. One gay man asked, “Will they welcome me?”
“I [pointed to my partner, who was helping hand out water, and] said, ‘That’s my partner and I’ve felt welcome for nine years,’” Collen said. “I walked in the church two months after coming out and I’ve been welcome ever since.”
Because of an incident that happened in 1989, many people in the neighborhood don’t have such warm feelings about OLUMC.
In the fall of 1988, the church’s pastor at the time, the Rev. Milton Guttierrez, announced that church doctrine precluded gays and lesbians from serving on the local church’s administrative board. Then, in November that year, he condemned “alternate sexual relationships” in a sermon.
The final straw for many LGBT members came in June 1989. The district superintendent called a church conference after he received a petition signed by 10 percent of OLUMC’s membership. Members voted on five resolutions: One would have allowed gays and lesbians to serve on the administrative board of the church; another would have allowed the church to rent space to Affirmation, an organization for LGBT Methodists.
All five resolutions, including one that would just keep current programs in place, were voted down by a four-to-one margin.
As a result, about 80 gay and lesbian members and a number of parents with LGBT children resigned their memberships. Many of them moved to Northaven UMC. Those parents formed the Dallas area’s first chapter of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays, also known as P-FLAG.
But Guttierrez told Dallas Voice at the time, “There are no winners. Everybody loses.”
Guttierrez saw himself in an uncomfortable position. He was one of the ministers who helped craft a letter calling for Judge Jack Hampton to apologize for derogatory remarks he made in an interview with a reporter for the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald about a gay murder victim.
“Now, I’m being grouped with him as a bigot,” Guttierrez told Dallas Voice at the time. “That hurts.”
But for years the church retained that image in the LGBT community, even as its LGBT membership grew again.
That’s why the Rev. Eric Folkerth, pastor of Northaven UMC, called the vote to join Reconciling Ministries historic.
“It was a painful history I knew about from the moment I came to Northaven,” Folkerth said.
Folkerth’s church was already open and welcoming at the time of the OLUMC exodus, but didn’t have a large LGBT population. He said the unanimous vote at Oak Lawn showed “all the hard work had already been done.”
Folkerth said OLUMC members have been working very hard for years to change from the inside and took very seriously their calling to reach their neighborhood.
“For the LGBT community this comes as a big surprise,” Folkerth said. “But it’s a great moment. They put to bed the ghosts that have been around for a long time.”
For Oak Lawn’s pastors and leadership, the step was almost unnecessary, because they’ve been so busy working with the community for so long. Last summer, Collen said, the church embarked on a new initiative to improve its ministry to the underprivileged, homeless and youth, especially the area’s LGBT homeless youth.
He met with a number of people, including Resource Center CEO Cece Cox and the staff at Promise House and representatives from North Dallas High School. The church members are trying to determine how they can enhance available services without duplicating what’s already being done.
For instance, during the week, Resource Center has a weekday hot lunch program and Cathedral of Hope has a breakfast program. Collen offered the church’s weekend meal program to Resource Center and CoH clients to compliment what the community is already doing.
The Rev. Gregg Smith and Associate Pastor the Rev. Ben David Hensley are working on a program called “You Never Walk Alone” on March 6 as a response to the string of violent attacks that have taken place in Oak Lawn. He called the evening a celebration and appreciation for the city’s and the community’s response to the violence.
“We have to make sure Christ’s message of inclusive love is proclaimed,” Smith said, adding that the message must come from the church that God values every human life.
OLUMC’s congregation is also working on other ways to open the church to the community, including an upcoming facelift to the 100-year-old church building. The stone-and-brick exterior of the national historic landmark will get a cleaning, and the stained glass will be backlit so it can be seen from the outside. New exterior lighting will be added to make the building more inviting, and a new entrance will be added.
Hosemann-Butler said the updates will give the church a higher presence in the neighborhood.
In a 1989 Dallas Voice article, Ed Young, a member who left the church, described it as “a country-club church, a very unusual Methodist church that sits right where it shouldn’t be.”
Today, Hosemann-Butler disagrees with that description. “We have the best corner in the city of Dallas,” she said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 12, 2016.