Commentary: A pulpit exchange in Morristown on faith and sexual orientation

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr.
Pastor Sidney Williams Jr.
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Editor’s note: The opinions below are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

By the Rev. Sidney Williams Jr.

A Season of Reconciliation and Remembrance

Since being appointed as Pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Morristown, I have sought opportunities to engage in the ministry of reconciliation while exploring innovative ways to remember our legacy of liberation and love of neighbor.

There has been no shortage of opportunities to do so. Racial discrimination and the marginalization of black voices demand our attention daily, but there have also been more challenging opportunities.

Upon my arrival from Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010, I was asked to engage in a pulpit exchange with the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. At that time, the church—which was known for embracing the LGBTQ members of our community—was seeking a new rector and the search resulted in its first lesbian priest.

After much prayer and consideration of my own phobias, I concluded that this was a kairos moment to engage in the ministry of reconciliation and to honor the memory of Bishop Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.

In January of each year, Bethel worships at Redeemer to commemorate the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. On the second Sunday of each year, the Episcopal Church, USA, celebrates the Feast of Absalom Jones, the first African-American priest in what is presently the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of the Bethel AME Church, and Rector Cynthia Black of the Episcopal Church of Redeemer, in 2014. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Black.
Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of the Bethel AME Church, and Rector Cynthia Black of the Episcopal Church of Redeemer, in 2014. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Black.

This day commemorates him as a pioneer of religion, social action and transformation. Prior to our pulpit exchange, very few members of the Episcopal congregation knew the story of the Free African Society established by Jones and Allen or the history of African Methodism. As a congregation, Bethel was confronted with its fears and given the space to begin speaking about how to be more welcoming.

There were some members who really struggled with worshiping God in the midst of people who did not conceal their sexuality. The idea of exchanging the peace with a transgender person was overwhelming for more than a few people, but God blessed our fellowship abundantly.

After our first combined worship experience, members of Bethel who had concealed their sexuality felt a sigh of relief. For the first time, they knew they would be loved by their pastor and church members regardless of their orientation. There was no longer a need to pretend. They could now worship God in spirit and truth!

Joint worship service at Bethel AME in Morristown, January 2018. Photo courtesy of Bethel AME.
Joint worship service at Bethel AME in Morristown. Photo courtesy of Bethel AME.

Over the past seven years this pulpit exchange has been the gift that keeps on giving. Members of Bethel are regularly told how much Redeemer appreciates the deeper connections they now share with other members of the community, and the chance they now have to nurture their fellowship in Christ.

Although the AME Church still does not permit same-sex marriage or affirm clergy who identify as LGBTQ, we do have a liberating voice that invites every believer to experience a God that is on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized.

In other words, our God talk is transformative and it gives us the vocabulary to learn to love our neighbors in more profound and meaningful ways. We can do more than love the people and “hate the sin.” God is challenging every member of Bethel to examine their own fears and to drink more deeply from the fountain of grace.

When asked about my personal beliefs or preferences, I have shared that I believe in a marriage between man and woman; however, I cannot fully comprehend the mind of God.

God’s Love is infinitely beyond what I could ever think or imagine. I am simply glad that God looks beyond my faults and sees my needs. I also believe that God does this for each of his children. In the family of God there is no room for sibling rivalry. We are the keepers of all of our brothers and sisters regardless of who they have sex with (or not).

There never seems to be enough time for sacred conversations and good fellowship and yet that is what we need most. This year Bethel will continue this incredible pulpit exchange as we celebrate 175 years.

Bethel AME 175th anniversary
Illustration: BethelMorristown.org.

In addition to usual fellowship, on Feb. 9 and 10, 2018, Bethel will host a facilitated dialogue led by Sarah Pharaon of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

This organization works with sites around the world with difficult histories and stories, connecting the past to the present and helping move people “from memory to action.”

The training will help build skills in facilitating discussions around challenging topics, encourage empathy for differing points of view, and we hope, create more engaged, vital citizens and stronger communities.

This program was made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

Worship service at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. Photo courtesy of Bethel AME Church.
Joint worship service at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. Photo courtesy of Bethel AME Church.
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