A congregation of misfits

When Southwest’s Joyce United Methodist Church tried to rebuild its stature in the community, members soon discovered that the rebuilding had to start from within

CARAG — Following a Sunday service a year ago, the 30-some active members of Joyce United Methodist Church gathered for an annual meeting in the church’s main room.

The meeting was typically a quiet, necessary affair, a place for regular churchgoers to talk finances and get reports from church officers on what the coming year held, and then devour a potluck lunch while catching up on one another’s lives.

Pastor Bill Morton discussed the budget. A few congregation members talked about planned renovations and the upcoming strategic planning to set long-term goals for the church.

Susan Marsh, a longtime congregation member, gave a brief report on the work of inner-city Methodist churches to strengthen fading attendance. She finished her report and paused. And then she announced: “I think it’s time we become a reconciling congregation.”

“Oh, no,” Morton thought. “Here we go again. We’re not ready for this.”

Morton caught Marsh’s eye. She held his gaze. And before he could say a word, another hand shot up. “Second.”

Morton thought about the gays and lesbians in the room — Oh, they’re going to be hurt again — but he had no choice. These meetings, after all, were run democratically. The congregation would have it no other way.

He scanned the room. “Any discussion?” he asked.

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Bill Morton came to Joyce in 2000, soon after the congregation’s latest vote on becoming reconciling — that is, fully accepting gays and lesbians despite the United Methodist General Conference’s stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian
teaching.

There were a lot of “yes” votes that time, more than at previous votes in the ’90s. But there were still even more “no” votes, and the controversy had left congregation members divided and raw.

And that wasn’t the church’s only struggle. It had been hemorrhaging members over the years. Its struggle wasn’t unique — inner-city churches across the country had seen similar declines as folks moved out to the suburbs and embraced both cul-de-sacs and large parking lots attached to their places of worship.

Still, the loss carried an undercurrent of persistent concern, a nagging “What if …?”.

What if one more person left?

What if the money disappeared?

What if the conference decided to shut down the church?

“A lot of the older members saw the church crashing,” Marsh recalled. “They were used to the days when they had 500 people at church on Sunday. Now, I don’t think we have 500 people in a month of Sundays.”

When Morton arrived, the congregation had been whittled down to several dozen colorful characters. Homeless people, current and former addicts, single moms and dads, 20-somethings wary of organized religion, retired couples who had hardly known another church, people from all walks of life bound together by geography and their own curious circumstances.

They watched as fewer and fewer people returned to services, and often felt powerless to stop the slide. They weren’t sure where to begin. They had tried to expand into the community, offering services and events, but no matter how expansive the service or how large the event, it never translated into more bodies in the pews.

“It was obvious they were depressed,” Morton said. “Like, well, maybe we can survive for a few more years.”

Morton didn’t know where to begin, either, but he knew he had to start somewhere.

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Sometime around 2004, a newspaper article describing the UMC’s stance on homosexuality arrived in the church mailbox, sentences scratched out and slurs written in the margins.

At first, Morton thought about tossing the article away and not telling anyone. Then he decided to take it with him to the pulpit on Sunday.

He hadn’t brought up the issue of becoming a reconciling congregation, sensing that some members were still fighting and others were just beginning to resolve their differences. And he wouldn’t discuss it here. He only had one sentence in mind, and he said it powerfully, with no room for interpretation: Everyone is welcome here.

Then he repeated it another way: The grace of God is extended to everybody.

Members didn’t react audibly, but Morton felt the change. Small and invisible but present nevertheless, much like the grace he had in mind.

Later that year, Morton, while mulling over ideas for a sermon, was thinking about all the ways his members were different, all the unique struggles they faced.

Suddenly, a phrase popped into his head.

It sounded ridiculous at first and he tried to forget it, but it kept returning. So he said it out loud a few times. It sounded better each time he said it. And so, just like the newspaper article, he took the phrase to the pulpit that Sunday and opened his sermon with it.

“What would you say to someone who came up to you and said Joyce Church is a congregation of misfits?”

With an instant fluidity, as if they had prepared years for it, the congregation that sat silently through so many Sundays shouted out as one:

“Yes!”

“Amen!”

For the first time, members had permission — from both the church and each other — to heal.

“We were able to see each other; we were able to relate to each other again,” Morton said. “We were able to say OK, they’re a misfit, I’m a misfit and God loves misfits.”

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Silence.

Morton scanned the room again. “Any discussion?” he said.

More silence.

Morton spoke, tentatively: “All in favor, raise your hand.”

Every person in the room, moving almost as if in unison, raised one hand skyward.

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Ten months later, Morton stood at the pulpit on a Sunday morning before 40 or 50 attendees scattered in the seats.

The congregation was about to begin strategic planning, a kind of planning that hadn’t been done for years. It would govern the church’s future, from finances to outreach and more.

Renovations continued on the church’s exterior. The boulevard gardens that members had planted and carefully tended over the summer had begun to die, but they would return in the spring, along with the conversations with random passersby they encouraged, conversations that had tied the church to its neighborhood in ways members had never before seen.

New members were digging in, planning events and celebrations, and welcoming friends to the congregation; and old members were doing the same. Nothing felt like work, the way it once did. Every member now understood that a church could be vital, whether it had 50 or 500 members.

Morton had spent the whole week working on his sermon, a reflection on everything that had happened since January. It was a conversation of sorts with the congregation, something had become more and more common on Sunday mornings.

“What is it that threatens to take us captive?” Morton asked.

He got a few answers: Material pursuits. Hate. Indifference. Fear.

He pressed on to his deeper questions: What frees one from captivity? And how can it be
discovered?

“Right now, God loves you,” he said. He said it frequently in his sermons, as most pastors do, but here his intonation was rich and deliberate. He knew the people listening sometimes needed to not only hear it more than others, but truly believe in it.

“Right now. God cares about you. God loves you.”

He continued: “When you were filled with all of the fullness of God, did you not let go of all the things you had been living? When you were filled with all the fullness of life, did you not just let them go?”

He stopped and scanned the room, smiling broadly. “You don’t need them anymore. For now you have found everything you have hoped for.”

Contributing writer Brian Voerding lives in Whittier.