CELEBRATING INTOLERANCE

The Reverend Gregory Dell has a 44-year history of involvement in issues of social justice and has been a pioneering and courageous supporter of same-sex unions in the face of opposition from his own church and elsewhere. Greg officiated at a covenant service for two gay men who were members of his congregation, Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago. He was charged with disobedienceto the Discipline and order of The United Methodist Church. In a church trial he was convicted and suspended indefinitely but a subsequent ruling limited the suspension to one year. After the suspension, he returned as pastor to Broadway UMC until he was forced by illness to take early retirement in 2007. The following is excerpted from a presentation to MIND (Methodists In New Directions) on June 10, 2011.

I was a teenager when Dr. Martin Luther King came to Chicago. He came to raise public awareness of the metropolitan area’s segregated housing -- the worst in the U.S. at that time and the worst today. My best friend and I decided to participate in one of the early marches. We were youth members of the Methodist church and we took to heart the message that was being preached each Sunday -- a message challenging the racism all around us. It wasn't a popular message to say the least. But Scott and I were convinced and determined. Disobeying the vehement prohibition of my parents, the two of us joined the demonstration scheduled for white suburban Berwyn.

It was not what we expected. Until that day I had experienced Berwyn as a pleasant, friendly and welcoming community. But as we lined up for the march we experienced none of that. Before we took our first steps we were greeted with shouted epithets – some from young children, hurled rocks and threatening action -- including being spit upon and rushed at by people lining the streets carrying axe handles. The police took action only when the violence was most vehement. As I said it was not what we expected -- though in retrospect I'm not sure what we expected!

At the march’s end Scott and I melted into the sea of white faces and returned to his car. We drove mostly in silence to his home. We were met by his mother who, of course, was worried about us and wanted to know all the details. As we finished our report it was obvious that she was feeling angry. After a few moments of silence she said,” I don't understand those people. How could they be so evil. I can't stand intolerance.” I can't stand intolerance. That said it all: intolerance of intolerance. Strange as it sounded there was a profound wisdom in what she said. We are called to be intolerant of intolerance. Or, to put it in the words of the title of these remarks, sometimes we are called to celebrate intolerance.

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In the months preceding my church trial a great deal of media exposure was generated -- not by us or any of the parties involved in the trial but by the media’s judgment that the story potentially had broader interest than just another church story. Soon after the story broke in Chicago, NPR contacted me for an interview. The reporter was fair and supportive in her commitment to share my remarks along with those who represented the prosecution in a national broadcast. I didn't think much about the interview in the following days or even know if it had been broadcast. But I paid more attention when I received an e-mail about a week after the interview.

The e-mail had been carefully prepared and sent in such a way that I couldn't determine its precise origin or know a way to return a response. Here, is the content almost word for word of that e-mail:

“Reverend Dell, it makes me nervous to send this e-mail. I am 14 years old. I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I think I am a homosexual. I have tried to get rid of those feelings of being attracted to other boys. I've read a lot of articles and listened to my parents and my pastor. Although my parents and my pastor do not know about my battle with this, it was clear to me that their judgment was that homosexuality was sin and a perversion of what God intended for His people. Every time the subject came up I heard their anger and judgment and believed it to be God’s feeling as well. One night I prayed so hard that I was sick the next day and couldn't go to school. I finally decided that there was no hope. Nothing had helped.

It seemed certain to me that I was hated or would be hated by God, my parents, and my church and probably everybody else if I was found out. I decided that the most faithful thing I could do would be to end my life. I decided I would do that on Friday after school. That way I thought my death would not mess up other people's lives as much as it would during the week.

I came home from school and went to get the bottle of pills that I thought would end it. I had the radio on and was listening to NPR. They had this story about a preacher who believed that God loved homosexuals as much as straight people. He was being put on trial for misleading people about homosexuality. He insisted that it wasn't he who is doing the misleading but it was those people who said homosexuality was evil who were doing the misleading.

I thought, "this guy must be crazy". But then I thought what if he's right?

I decided that I would wait to see what the jury decided about you.”

The jury, as most of you know, came to the decision that I was in error. I never again heard from the 14-year-old boy in Jackson, Mississippi. I don’t know what he did when he heard the verdict.

An institution that supplies a 14-year-old with reasons to doubt his own worth -- to doubt that worth to the point of self-destruction, is guilty of complicity to commit murder. At that point and in that arena such an institution is my enemy. I believe I am called, in fact I believe all of us here are called to intolerance for that which is so destructive.

When intolerance by word or deed is directed at persons because of their identity (for instance their sexual orientation, race, or gender) -- that intolerance should not be tolerated; it must be opposed by word and deed. But when intolerance is directed at the actions or words that are dehumanizing or destructive of God’s gifts of diverse identities, it must be celebrated.