Left Standing at the Church Door

Go to Bering Memorial United Methodist Church and prepare to be greeted with open arms. Join in the worship. Pray, sing, listen to the sermon, go to Sunday school, get counseling, enjoy the fellowship and go to communion.

But don't count on getting married there. Now or in the next year or the next millennium. Maybe ever. Oh, and it doesn't matter if you join the church or are just visiting.

See, they don't marry people at Bering anymore. Used to, but not now.
Not since lead minister Marilyn Meeker-Williams decided that if the United Methodist Church was telling her she couldn't join same-sex couples in matrimony, she didn't want to officiate at weddings of straight couples either.

Meeker-Williams and her two co-ministers and her congregation talked about it and sent a message to the bishop. Bering has closed its wedding shop at its sanctuary until the church says all people can walk down those aisles and say, "I do." All for one, one for all, or none for all in this case.

For straight church members such as Ferryn Martin and Stephen Russell, that meant they were going to have to hit the road to have the church wedding Ferryn always wanted.

For as much as Ferryn finally came to understand and support Meeker-Williams's position, she decided she didn't want a wedding out on the street under a tent. She didn't want a secular wedding. She wanted to be married in church. "I don't want to be a martyr."

But then, neither does Meeker-Williams. Instead of conducting a gay wedding, as other Methodist ministers have done around the country and then been yanked from their churches, she is opting out of the process.

And perfecting her own special brand of civil disobedience.

Bering Memorial is a 151-year-old church that originated in downtown Houston and served a German-speaking congregation, not changing to English until 1911. It later moved to its Montrose location, and in the 1970s, under minister Ron Pogue (now an Episcopal priest at Christ Church Cathedral downtown), the church began opening its doors to the local population, many of whom were homosexual. It proudly acknowledges both its gay and straight members and has an active AIDS ministry.

Bering is one of five so-called "reconciling" churches in Texas, Methodist churches which go out of their way to welcome gays and lesbians to fully participate in the church.

Meeker-Williams had served at Methodist churches in Baytown and Port Arthur. As time went on, the heterosexual, married mother of three children felt increasingly called to minister at Bering because of its reconciling status, and she told church authorities that. She was appointed in June 1996. In the row of dour black-and-white photographs aligning one wall of the church offices showing previous Bering ministers, hers is the first female face.

She says she loves her ministry at Bering. She stresses that the church and its congregation are members of the United Methodist Church and will remain so. In the last 15 months, the church gained 100 members, and its rolls now stand at 685 people.

But she -- like some other Methodist ministers, like ministers in many denominations -- is struggling with church doctrine on homosexuality. She has a gay son and wants to officiate at his wedding, just as she would be able to do at her daughter's.

"In the fall of '97 I felt clear that I would not want to do any [weddings] if I couldn't do all of them. It's a pastoral thing; you're treating all people the same who come to me for ministry, for pastoral care or for rights of the church, rituals like this."

In September 1997, the Reverend Jimmy Creech, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska, celebrated a union ceremony for a lesbian couple. The following March, he went before a church jury which narrowly acquitted him of disobeying church law. But his bishop did not reappoint him to his church, and Creech has been on leave of absence. And following the Creech trial, which was reported across the country, there was a backlash from those opposed to homosexual marriage in the Methodist Church.

Marriage is not one of the sacraments of the Methodist Church -- that status is reserved for the Eucharist and baptism, Meeker-Williams says, but it is clearly very important.

When she brought up her intention to cease performing marriages in 1997, Meeker-Williams says there was dissension among church members. Those who disagreed with her most strongly were the gay members, she says.

"They said they didn't think that was fair. They didn't want to see us discriminate against straight couples. It was the sense that we don't want to do to straight couples what the church has done to us."

That was exactly the position taken by lesbian Linda Enger, despite the fact she and her companion of 25 years, Eleanora Piombino, hoped to be married on their 25th anniversary at Bering. "I just felt two wrongs didn't make a right," said Enger, although she later changed her mind on this.

Meeker-Williams backed off. Instead, the church ministers decided not to do non-member weddings, but would still perform marriage services for church members. "That just sort of rode along for 13 months," Meeker-Williams says. Until Ferryn and Stephen called her in December 1998.

Bam. Meeker-Williams couldn't dodge the bullet any longer. Enger and Piombino weren't the only gay or lesbian couples in her church who had been together for a very long time and who wanted to be married. Yet she couldn't honor their request. When she talked to her God, she found she could not go forward. "I still felt very strongly that we could not do for some what we were prohibited from doing for others. It was not just or loving. It's certainly not pastoral."

Special meetings were called on two Sundays in January. The entire congregation was invited. At the end of that, the letter was sent to Bishop Woodrow Hearn.

"We have made a difficult decision. While we understand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls for many decisions that are neither easy nor comfortable, we confess that we do prefer ease and comfort. But that does not bring peace," the letter says.

The letter goes on to acknowledge that the church's prohibition against its ministers celebrating homosexual marriages or allowing them to take place in United Methodist churches is "consistent with our legal system."

"This is the norm. It is not loving or just. Its basis is the understanding that gay men and lesbians choose their sexual orientation although there is increasing evidence to the contrary. We understand that sexual orientation is one of the good gifts from our loving Creator."

The letter says that it is rare for nongay people to "stand in solidarity with gay men and lesbians unless this discrimination presents itself through crimes of physical violence, even murder."

"We are no longer willing to perpetuate the unjust and unholy act of offering God's blessing on some while denying this blessing to others. We will no longer be silent; our silence implies agreement and acceptance of this double standard."

Asked what the bishop had to say to the February letter, Meeker-Williams says he has not responded, but that the two of them previously had several conversations about same-sex marriage and he understands her position.

Stephen Russell is the divorced father of three children, brought up in the Roman Catholic Church. He met Ferryn Martin, a Bering church member since 1989, and began attending with her. She sings in the choir.

They got their first warning that there might be a few hurdles to getting married when Meeker-Williams first balked in 1997. But then they thought things had been worked out. So they weren't anticipating problems in late 1998 when they called Meeker-Williams to say they were ready for the ceremony.

All of a sudden, as Stephen puts it, they'd stepped into the center of turmoil in the United Methodist Church.

Ferryn, who came to the church from a more conservative religious upbringing, says what first drew her to Methodism was its inclusiveness. And despite her disappointment, she came to understand the ministers' reluctance to support a "double standard" about its weddings.

Though, as a history teacher, she was uncertain about the method employed to counter church ruling.

"This is not how you do civil disobedience. You break the law and then change things." But she and Stephen and others at the church have come to realize that breaking church law may mean an end to their ministers' presence at Bering.

"It would have been a hollow act," says Stephen, "and the consequences would have been massive to the church."

So, after rejecting one suggestion that they have some streets closed off and have the wedding in front of Bering, Ferryn and Stephen will be married at a Methodist church in Baytown. Bering people will be at the wedding. "They want to be supportive of us," Ferryn says. The ceremony will be conducted by a member of the Bering congregation, an ordained minister who no longer serves in a church.

They're getting married on June 19, Juneteenth, the day on which Texas slaves were emancipated, a date they take no small pleasure in.

Meeker-Williams is not performing any marriage ceremonies anywhere. She says it is the personal decision of her associate ministers whether to officiate at marriage ceremonies elsewhere. But the ban continues on marriages at Bering itself.

Some ministers in several denominations are willing to "bless the unions" of same-sex couples, without performing the marriage ceremony. Asked if she'd considered that, Meeker-Williams says she thinks that is getting by on a technicality. "I want to be faithful and open."

Asked why members of her church who are gay or lesbian and want to be married don't just go to the Unitarian church, which does celebrate same-sex marriages, Meeker-Williams insists, "We are very solidly committed to remaining United Methodists and working to change that decision. We're working for fuller inclusiveness in our church. We think God is calling us to do that."

Whether that same commitment holds for everyone is open to question. Stephen Russell for one doesn't hold it. He is committed to Bering, not Methodism. He sees Bering with its openness as the best possible place in which to raise his children.

Marilyn Meeker-Williams has come to a crisis of conscience. Her resolution of that crisis has far-reaching consequences for herself, her family, her church in Houston and the larger Methodist Church.

Those who oppose homosexual union point to Bible verses. As the writer of a pamphlet in the church offices readily admits, there are some Bible passages that clearly prohibit homosexual practices. Author Walter Wink, a United Methodist minister who served in southeast Texas for five years, points out that the Bible also condemns, among other things: "celibacy, exogamy (marriage with non-Jews) and naming sexual organs." Modern society doesn't condemn these things. Likewise the Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn: prostitution, polygamy, sex with slaves, concubinage and treatment of women as property.

"And while the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it," Wink writes. So, pick and choose, who is the better Christian?

Marilyn Meeker-Williams believes she cannot tell gays and lesbians that their unions aren't blessed or that they should remain celibate. "Sexual orientation is a gift from God," she says, and trying to assert otherwise just leads to brokenness. Linda Enger says in the early years of her relationship she felt she wasn't really deserving of marriage by the church. After being at Bering, though, "we've learned that God's grace is for everybody."

So in the midst of turmoil Meeker-Williams closed her book on marriage. She describes herself as "hopeful" that things will change soon.

"Hopeful and bold. Because Jesus was. He calls us to be bold and faithful."
And this is what quiet, diminutive Marilyn Meeker-Williams is trying to do: to be bold and faithful to Jesus' teachings in the best way she can without destroying Bering, its people or their mission to the larger world outside their doors. That her stance will attract hatred, denunciation and insults as word of it gets out is undeniable. That is the test she has to face.

Our test is to see how we respond to it and what we are willing to stand up for in this world. Love or hatred. Openness or intolerance. Willingness to listen to others, or the comforts of a closed mind and clenched fists.

And the only thing that believing Christians can know is that someday in that great whatever afterlife, we'll all get to find out who was right. Place your bets, folks. My money's on Marilyn.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@ houstonpress.com.


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