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By Tara Cavanaugh
George Jonte is the new coordinator for LGBT ministries at the United Methodist Church.
1. Tell us about your job as the coordinator for LGBT ministries.
I love it. Absolutely love it. It’s wonderful just to be working in an area about which I’m passionate. How this all came about is the Central United Methodist Church, who has been a reconciling United Methodist congregation since 1996, felt like it was time to do more so that we could work toward an ultimate goal of getting negative language out of our discipline so that we could move forward and be aligned with the other mainstream denominations. We pretty much stand alone as the only Protestant denomination now that does not have full inclusion of our LGBT brothers and sisters – in not only membership and leadership, but in ordination.
In order to try to affect this, the UMC was given a grant from the Arcus Foundation to help. My first year goals were to try to contact at least 35 other United Methodist Churches in the southeastern part of Michigan and try to engage them in some sort of dialog along reconciling lines. It is not our intent to try to coerce a congregation into becoming a full reconciling congregation but to at least look at the issue.
2. How could you look at the issue?
Maybe do a Bible study, a book study, a small group dialog, or at the very least requesting that pastor be able to do an equality sermon in the pulpit at the church. It has gone very, very well. We’ve exceeded our own expectations. I guess I’m a pretty persuasive individual. (Laughs). But we’ve come up with all sorts of creative ways for people to do it because sometimes pastors don’t want to be involved. They fear being brought up on civil disobedience charges with the church.
3. What are some other difficulties to overcome?
I guess the biggest thing in the UMC is that there’s a clause that was inserted in our rules in 1972 by a vote of the general conference to include a phrase that states, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Quite frankly, it is not incompatible. (That clause) is very discriminatory and inherently not Christian. And I am of the firm belief that if we can get that one negative phrase taken out of the discipline, everything else will follow – marriage and ordination. I think we stand a better chance of getting that phrase out of the discipline in the general conference in 2012 than we ever have before.
Now this didn’t happen overnight with those other denominations either. So far what has really ensued within the Methodist denomination is a lot of name-calling, backbiting, a lot of hateful rhetoric instead of discussion and positive debate. That’s part of the reason why I was brought in: to try to get Michigan churches more involved in listening and discussion.
4. What are some other programs you’ll be starting up?
We’ll be initiating several programs for youth. First of all, two new youth directors and I will be going into schools to discuss the issues of bullying. We’re going to establish those programs early in the fall. We’re also going to have a discussion group, just a place where questioning youth can have a safe and comfortable place.
We’re going to establish a gay parents group for those who aren’t sure how to handle the issue with their spouse or children. And we will be establishing a group for the transgender community.
5. So you’re working on the local level, but you’re also working to help change the UMC’s policy toward homosexuality at the general conference next year.
The general conference is a gathering of all of the churches globally in the UMC. This includes not only the U.S., but also European, Asian and African churches. We meet once every four years. And general conference is all about making changes, setting doctrine, setting polity for the UMC to discern how we will function over the next four years. It will be held in Tampa, Fla., April 28 through May 4 next year.