Tuesday, April 15, 2008

An Open Letter to Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the United Methodist Church (#2)

Dear Bishop Whitaker,

Again, greetings in Christ as General Conference approaches. Thank you for continuing to listen to my testimony as you prepare for this important gathering.

As I noted yesterday, today I will continue my account of my own story, as a prelude to offering some reflections on your essay “The Church and Homosexuality.” I hope that in offering these public reflections on a topic with which the church today struggles just as strenuously as it struggled in the 19th century with the issue of slavery, I can provide some light on the experiences of gay Christians—of at least one gay Christian.

In telling my story, I do not by any means intend to suggest that it is more than one person’s story. I do not intend to suggest that it is normative, or representative of the experiences of all gay Christians.

There are, however, aspects of my story and Dr. Schafer’s that, I would propose, are common to the stories of many gay believers. We who turn to the churches for welcome, for a family to embrace us and nurture our faith, for a place in which to exercise our gifts, are all too often repudiated. Where we ask for bread, we often receive a stone. The experience of gay believers in their families of faith—including the United Methodist Church—is all too often the experience of being invited to the lesser table, where crumbs are doled out, and not to the one great table around which all other believers gather.

It does not escape our attention, those of us who are gay believers, that the church’s treatment of us is premised on unexamined presupposition that we deserve no better than crumbs. From where we stand, it is clear that the churches all too often imagine that we are human in some sub-normal way that legitimates the unjust treatment we receive at the hands of the church.

Since we who are gay believers experience our own human lives and human nature differently—as fully human lives and human natures equivalent to the humanity of anyone else—we feel compelled to tell our stories. We do so in the hope that the churches will recognize that, though our humanity has been framed as sub-normal, we nonetheless bleed when cut. We experience pain when expelled from our families of origin or faith. We mourn when injustice is done to us. Like anyone dealt with unjustly, we pray for a hearing, for justice.

And so we keep speaking out. We keep telling our stories, at the risk of tiring the many who do not wish to hear these doleful stories. We keep trying to find and tell the truth in our experience of discipleship, even when the very telling of our stories often exposes us to false charges of self-concern, of being professional troublemakers, of all sorts of slanderous accusations.

I speak in the hope of articulating the experience of other gay Christians, though I am also aware that I am telling my own story, and no one else’s. I speak in the hope that, even if I am not heard now, my story will live on and Christians in an age that has recognized the cruelty the churches presently practice towards gay believers will look back to study the mechanisms of that cruelty, so as to avoid replicating it with any other social group in their own day and age.

This is, is it not, how the churches currently look back at the period of slavery—a period in which it was well-nigh impossible for dehumanized people of color, whose humanity even church members regarded as sub-normal, to have a voice? When people of color attained an education and a social space within which to speak in their own voices—something almost impossible in the period of slavery, so that miracles attended this attainment—they spoke over and over again, monotonously, about their thirst for justice. They spoke to the point of boring the churches to tears, about their hope one day to be treated as fully human.

They were often not heard. Today, however, the churches repent of their inability to hear these voices of brothers and sisters in Christ who asked for a place at the table, at the great table, but who were shoved away. Today, in looking back at the period of slavery and the churches’ complicity in that massive social system of evil, we tell ourselves that we must never again treat another human group this way. We also tell ourselves that the churches can clearly succumb to culture, can preach not the gospel of redeeming love, but a culturally shaped “gospel” of conformity to the social status quo. We remind ourselves, as we look at history, that the churches can be plainly wrong, on the wrong side of great historical moments of liberation. We remember that economic self-interest and capitulation to the wishes of powerful interest groups can cause the church to mute its proclamation of the redeeming love of Jesus for all human beings.

Perhaps there will be a day when the churches look back on our own period of history and wonder why the insights they gained in the aftermath of slavery did not fuel their imagination about the injustices they do to gay believers today. I live in hope that this will be the case. And so I tell my story.

I am also telling my story to you in particular, because I had no opportunity to do so when I worked for a college under your pastoral leadership. When the president of that college chose to terminate my employment without cause, without even providing an evaluation of my hard work, while also lying to and about me, I might easily have disappeared, as she intended for me to do—to go away silently, as if I had merited the unjust treatment accorded to me.

I cannot do so in good conscience. As a believer, I have an obligation to speak out, in the hope that, by doing so, I may make it more difficult for a United Methodist institution to treat anyone else this way again. Though, while working at two Methodist colleges, I never told anyone of my family’s own historic ties to Methodism and of how a Methodist religious sensibility informs my own life of faith, I feel compelled to do so now, to provide you with background to make sense of my theological critique of your statement on the church and homosexuality.

It is better that brothers and sisters in Christ know each other as human beings, is it not? This is what our communion in the body of Christ is all about. We are all interrelated. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. When one bleeds, we all bleed. In sharing our human stories in all their rich complexity, we find a shared humanity that makes it much harder for any of us to imagine the Other as sub-human.

I ended my chronicle yesterday with the promise to tell you today about the rich Methodist heritage of my mother’s father. The strand of his story I want to tell begins with an ancestor, Abner Winn, who was born in Virginia, grew to manhood in South Carolina and Georgia, and died in Alabama.

Two of Abner Winn’s sons, Genubath and Abner, Jr., were ordained Methodist ministers. Two others were, according to my family’s tradition, lay ministers who were not formally ordained. These include my ancestor John Alexander Winn and his brother James Russell Winn.

Among my Winn ancestors, there is a persistent strand of resistance to slavery, even while these ancestors lived within the slave states and held slaves. Family stories passed down to me, and documents I have discovered as an adult, indicate a tremendous uneasiness with the practice of slavery in which this Southern family was enmeshed, and an attempt to take the Christian witness of John Wesley seriously and end the practice of slavery.

Abner Winn’s own serious commitment to Methodism is apparent in an 1813 deed in Jackson Co., Georgia, in which he and a number of others, including his brother Lemuel, who was the father of three Methodist ministers, deeded land for the formation of a Methodist church on the Mulberry Fork of the Oconee River. This was, I believe, the first permanent Methodist church erected in that county (Jackson Co., Georgia, Deed Book F, p. 129, 13 Dec. 1813).

The decisive commitment to Methodism that pervaded the lives of these ancestors is also apparent in the obituary of Abner Winn’s wife, Lucretia Posey Winn. The obituary was published in the Methodist newspaper the Southern Christian Advocate (Nashville) on 28 May 1857. It notes that Lucretia Posey Winn had died at the residence of her son-in-law, Judge John McConnell, in Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama, on 19 April, aged 84 years, 3 months and 5 days.

Like Abner Winn, Lucretia Posey had been raised in an Episopalian home. Both became Methodist when their families moved (hers from Porttobacco, Maryland, his from Lunenburg Co., Virginia) to Abbeville Co., South Carolina. The obituary provides specific information about her shift to Methodism: it notes that in 1787, when she was some 12 years old, she heard a sermon of the famous Methodist minister Rev. Hope Hull (founder of a Methodist academy in Wilkes Co., Georgia, and president of the University of Georgia for a brief period) and joined the Methodist church. The obituary, written by her grandson Chelsea Cook, characterizes her life of deep faith as follows:

She was endowed by nature with a vigorous intellect, which was highly cultivated by judicious reading, especially of the Bible, and other religious books. She was well acquainted with the Holy Scriptures, and was able at all times to call to mind its leading doctrines and most important events. . . .Her exemplary and godly conversations showed that she regarded this world as the place to prepare for a better and a happier one; and this she endeavored to impress upon the minds and hearts of those with whom she associated; the effect of which was highly salutary. Thus lived and died one, whose examples we should follow, and whose virtues we should imitate.

Stories told to me often as a child speak of one of the sons of Abner and Lucretia Posey Winn as a Methodist minister who actively sought to ameliorate the lives of slaves in his community. These stories do not specify the son in question, and since I have found evidence that at least three of their sons were involved in such ministry, I am not certain to which of the three these stories refer.

In a 21 May 1978 letter to me, a first cousin of my mother, Lula Mae Giersch, places some of these stories into writing. Lula Mae had previously told me the stories a number of times, noting that they were told to her by her grandmother Samantha Jane Braselton, a granddaughter of Abner Winn’s son John Alexander Winn. Her letter states, "I can recall hearing her tell of incidents when she was a young lady (pertaining to the Civil War). I remember her telling of some relative keeping slaves. He was a Methodist minister. He did not want slaves, but they always came to his place when they ran away from other masters. He felt sorry for them & bought them when he could afford it.” In Lula Mae’s opinion, these stories referred to John Alexander Winn, with whom Samantha Jane Braselton and her mother, Elizabeth Ann Winn Braselton, and siblings lived in Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama, following the families’ move from Georgia.

Though I have found no historical documents to confirm this conclusion, I do find various indicators of how John A. Winn’s strong Methodist faith informed his life. Because he was known in his community in Jackson Co., Georgia, for his assistance to orphans, he was elected commissioner of the poor school, where he taught indigent children who could not otherwise afford an education (see Frary Elrod, Historical Notes on Jackson Co., Georgia [Jefferson, GA: Elrod, 1967], p. 146, citing 1834 "Poor School Report" by William Cowan). John A. Winn and wife Laodicea Horton raised at least one orphan themselves, her nephew James William Horton, who was brought up as one of their children.

A 29 April 1874 letter of John A. Winn’s sister Narcissa Byron Winn Weir to their brother James R. Winn speaks of the faith that permeated her brother’s life: "Though he left no dying testimony he has left to his children the world & the Church the influence of a long life of untireing fidelity. We can not doubt of his happiness, hope that we too will be numbered with the faithfull A few more years of toil & care & the storm of life will be over. Oh that we may be ready when Our Lord cometh."

If my family stories of a Winn ancestor who was a Methodist minister and who sought to ameliorate the conditions of slaves’ lives do not refer to John A. Winn, they may refer to his brother Rev. Abner Winn, Jr., who also lived in Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama, and who was an ordained Methodist minister. Abner Winn was a man of some note who served in the Alabama legislature.

His will indicates how his Wesleyan commitments affected his life as a slaveholder. It was written 31 Oct. 1855 and proven 20 Jan. 1858 (Tuscaloosa Co. Will Book 3, p. 35). In addition to leaving $1000 for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Conference of Alabama, the will specifies that his slave Jemy is to be permitted to purchase his freedom at a modest sum, and states explicitly, “I do this to enable him to get to Liberia and I do not wish him to be held in bondage by any man."

The will makes explicit arrangements for other slave families, as well, specifying that they are not to be separated or sold at public auction. Regarding one member of these families, a young man named Newton, Rev. Abner Winn notes that, if he so desired, he might accompany Jemy to Liberia. The will specifies that a free man of color, Jack Winn, was to accompany Jemy and Newton to Liberia and see them re-settled there.

I have strong reason to suspect that Jack Winn was a blood relative of the other Winn families in Tuscaloosa Co. He lived among and was protected and promoted by the interrelated white Winn families.

If the stories handed down in my family refer neither to John A. Winn or their brother Rev. Abner Winn, then they would apparently be accounts of the life of another of their brothers, James Russell Winn. According to the tradition of his descendants, he, too, was a non-ordained Methodist lay minister, who built and preached in a Methodist church at Hillsboro in Union Co., Arkansas.

James R. Winn led a fascinating life, divorcing his white wife in Mississippi, and then living for the rest of his long life with a free woman of color whom he was not permitted legally to marry. His letters to family members demonstrate that he regarded this spouse, Margaret Shackelford, as his wife. They raised their children together as his legal progeny, sending them at considerable expense to Oberlin, Ohio, as the Civil War approached, to assure their safety. Those children are listed in the family bible of their grandfather Abner Winn as the acknowledged children of his son James R. Winn, and one son, Powhatan Winn, inherited all his father’s land in Arkansas.

Descendants of this Winn brother, who now live in Iowa and Minnesota, have visited Union Co., Arkansas, on several occasions. They tell me that they spoke there to African-American families who remembered James R. and Margaret Winn and noted the esteem in which they were held in the African-American community in southern Arkansas. These families confirm family stories that James R. Winn built and maintained a Methodist church for African-Americans in his community, and preached in that church.

The courage of this relative who crossed the color line at a time in which such public actions was not permitted in the South is remarkable. Though white slaveholding men frequently fathered children by women of color, and even lived in marital arrangements with these women, social and legal restrictions made it well-nigh impossible to recognize their spouses and children of color.

James R. Winn’s letters to his children following the death of his wife Margaret Shackelford speak forthrightly about the Methodist convictions that undergirded his choice to acknowledge a spouse and family that he was not legally or socially permitted to acknowledge. These letters also speak very poignantly of his love for Margaret, and note that, since his reason for living had gone, only his faith kept him alive. He died in less than a year after Margaret left him.

The decisive commitment to Methodism, and the effect of that commitment on families’ view of slavery, are apparent in branches of the Winn family beside my direct ancestral line. A noteworthy example is Judge Richard Dickson Winn, son of Abner Winn, Sr.’s, brother Elisha Winn of Gwinnett Co., Georgia.

In November 1860, Richard Dickson Winn was elected to the Georgia secession legislature from Gwinnett County. When the statewide vote was taken at this assembly regarding the decision to secede, all three Gwinnett Co. delegates voted against secession. When it became apparent that the vote would be pro-secession, one of the Gwinnett Co. delegates changed his mind and offered a resolution to support Georgia under any circumstances. Richard D. Winn refused to sign or to change his vote.

Richard D. Winn left an abundance of written works testifying to his staunch Methodism. These clearly indicate that, though he and other Winn families were enmeshed in the slave system, he opposed secession because he wished to see slavery ended, because he accepted John Wesley’s verdict that slavery was immoral.

His cousin, my ancestor Elizabeth Ann Winn Braselton, agreed. Following the Civil War, she filed a claim in Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama, asking for reimbursement for expenses she had incurred in hiding local men to prevent their conscription into the Confederate army. The claim, which was verified by several neighbors, states that she was a Unionist throughout the war. Family stories handed down to me indicate that she did not wish to support the cause of her native South because it centered on the defense of slavery.

I do not wish, in telling these stories or those I told yesterday about my Lindsey ancestors, to suggest that these people were saints. Their lives were complex, as ours were, a mix of good and evil. They grew up within a social system that was taken for granted, the system of slavery.

They were enmeshed in that system. Even when they wrestled with the immorality of slavery, some of these families held slaves (though others explicitly repudiated slavery). Despite her devout Methodism, Lucretia Posey Winn was the aunt of a Confederate general, Carnot Posey of Woodville, Mississippi. Among the many Methodist ministers in the Winn family was a noteworthy Georgia and South Carolina minister, Rev. Alexander McFarlane Wynn, who was raised by the Andrew family—by the family of Bishop James O. Andrew, who caused the split between Northern and Southern Methodists by refusing to manumit his slaves.

According to George W. Clower, Rev. Alexander McFarlane Wynn was “among the most dedicated men in the work of the Methodist Church in the nineteenth century," and was noted for being one of the initial pastors of Atlanta’s first Methodist church, Wesley Chapel (see "Rev. Alexander McFarlane Wynn, D.D., 1827-1906: Pioneer in Atlanta Methodism," Atlanta Historical Bulletin 11,3 [1966], pp. 46-50).

And, just as our Methodist forebears in the South—yours and mine, Bishop Whitaker—struggled with an immoral but deeply entrenched social system premised on the assumption that some human beings are less human than others because of innate traits such as skin color, we today struggle with an immoral and deeply entrenched social system. That system accords power and privilege to men, and, in particular, to heterosexual men.

This social system is premised on the outrageous assumption that innate characteristics—gender and sexual orientation—make the humanity of some human beings more valuable, more normative, than that of other human beings. I wish to suggest to you, as I begin critiquing your essay on the church and homosexuality in tomorrow’s installment of my public letter to you, that just as John Wesley found such presuppositions odious and antithetical to the gospel when they manifested themselves in the slave system of his day, today he would find them odious when they manifest themselves in the social system of heterosexist patriarchy.

Far from courting the danger of becoming a culturally-determined religion if it grants the full human status of gay and lesbian persons, as your essay argues it will, I wish to propose that unless Methodism responds to heterosexist patriarchy with the same critical moral urgency that it brought to bear on the issue of slavery, it will be in danger of capitulating to culture. And in doing so, it will not be able to offer compelling and consistent witness to social justice in any area of our socioeconomic lives.

Thank you for continuing to listen to this testimony.

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