I did not turn my back on the church — it turned its back on me
I was baptized and confirmed as a United Methodist. I went to Sunday school and vacation Bible study, and participated in youth groups and missions as a teenager. I have fond memories of Pastor Bob and Pastor Rick, and going on weekend retreats with the youth group.
I graduated from high school in 1985 and three months later I was going through basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. While at Ft. Leonard Wood, I attended services at the chapel every Sunday, mainly to get an hour or so away from the drill sergeants. To be honest, I, along with the other recruits, slept through that hour in the chapel.
While at Ft. Leonard Wood I received letters from home, with updates from friends and family. My mom said they had a new pastor at the church. Pastor Bob had retired, and Pastor Rick moved to California.
Over the next year I went to Ft. Benning for jump school, and then on to Germany for my first posting. Through it all I dutifully attended services at the chapel every Sunday. In August 1986 I received a letter from Bashford United Methodist Church, the church I grew up in. I had not heard from them for more than a year—and when I opened the letter, discovered it would be the last time I heard from them.
Here I was, 19 years old and half a world away from home, and I get a form letter from the church saying I was being removed from the church rolls because I had not tithed in more than a year. I have no idea how they even got my address, as my parents did not give it to them. I suspect an aunt gave it to them, the one who always said I would never amount to anything. But I will never know.
After a year in the service and eight months on the interGerman border, I had already begun to question my faith. Every time we went to the border, I questioned how the loving God that Pastor Rick and Pastor Bob talked about could allow something called a “death zone” like the one that ran across Germany to exist.
Receiving that letter sent me on a journey that lasted 16 years. It was a journey that saw me read multiple religious texts and attend different religious services trying to find the answer—an answer, any answer.
I guess I would say I was more of an agnostic at this point, but if anyone asked, I would still identify as a United Methodist.
Then my dad died. My dad was not a churchgoing man, but after his strokes he became friends with the traveling minister the church sent out to the house. We requested that the traveling minister hold my dad’s services, but the same pastor that booted me off the rolls for not tithing said that he was the minister, and he did all of the funerals for church members. He had never met my father. When that minster came to our house, he asked some questions about my dad, and asked for some stories. We told him about how our dad would take the dog out for Egg McMuffins, as he needed an accomplice to help him cheat on his diet.
The minister told that story, and got the dog’s name wrong. He also messed up several key facts about my dad’s life. It was hard enough losing him, but to have someone who did not even know him try to sing his praises was an insult.
I was moving closer to the edge of the cliff in admitting something I had always known, but was always afraid to admit. I was married at the time, and my then-wife’s uncle was a priest. The final push off the edge of the cliff was when that priest told me that my dad being in heaven with his dogs could not happen, and that the concept of animals in heaven was a Walt Disney creation.
Why tell you this story? Why tell you something so personal, so soul-baring? For years I lied to myself about what I believed—or in this case, did not believe. Would I have gotten there without a few pushes by men in robes, hiding behind the word of God? I will never know. I do know that I did not turn my back on the church. It turned its back on me.
The reason for this post is that last week, the United Methodist Church decided to side with the bigots and homophobes, formally voting to maintain its opposition to same-sex marriage and gay clergy. I do not regret the church leaving me, or me leaving the church. But I will never understand how the loving, forgiving God I learned about in Sunday school, Bible class, and confirmation classes could be so hateful. The messages I’ve received say ff you don’t give money, we won’t pray for you. Your dogs cannot go to heaven with you. If you are “different,” God will hate you.
Throughout mankind’s history, religion has often played a role in persecuting those who are different. It has been used as an excuse for genocide, slavery, segregation, and war.
But I will never understand how an all-powerful God who created mankind can hate any of his own creations.