Patty Willis: Are you willing to worship with your feet and walk out?

At a recent lunch with United Methodist colleagues, I asked, “Why has LGBTQ inclusion been such a lightning rod?” The answer came quickly.

“It isn’t about LGBTQ people. It is about getting the votes and control.”

The conversation stopped.

Ruminating on that answer, I remembered a class I took on the Civil War at Salt Lake City Public Library. The white man sitting next to me said authoritatively, “The Civil War was not about slavery,” and then he spoke of the underlying issues of states’ rights, economics and political control.

However correct or incorrect that pronouncement (many respected historians do list slavery as a primary cause), the emancipation of enslaved humans was the lightning rod of its time that drew John Brown and his followers to Harper’s Ferry. It was the motivation for freed men to fight to the death for the Union Army.

Without the Civil War, slavery would have continued and indeed the attitudes that supported slavery are still so strongly held that aspects of slavery transformed into Jim Crow laws and live on in the War on Drugs and the school to prison pipeline.

During the decades overlapping the Civil Rights Movement begun by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the inclusion of LGBTQ folks has attracted fire, most recently threatening to split the United Methodist Church asunder.

I have felt the heat of that fire since I was 21 years old and fell in love with the woman who is still by my side. The religious underpinnings of the exclusionary practices that turned away our communities, fueling the fears of what we could spread within those groups, left the enactors of exclusion without remorse.

Around the time I met my love, the president of the church I grew up in, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said that homosexuality was “more serious than any other sinsexcept murder.

The punishment was being carried out at the church’s university, Brigham Young University, that I was attending. During my junior year, students were being taken out of theater and dance classes and asked to turn in fellow students who were involved in “homosexual activities.” The friends they turned in for their own good were given choices of electric shock, vomit aversion therapy and/or dishonorable expulsion from school.

University security police patrolled undercover by the gay bar in the nearby city and took down license plate numbers of cars that held the university parking sticker. The owners of these cars were given the same options as the artists.

This time would be called a “purge.” Later, I saw this purge as part of the identity-building of a marginalized religion with polygamous and polyandrous history seeking entrance into the mainstream Christian right.

Three years ago, the LDS church issued a policy, and later re-classified it as a revelation from God, that delayed the baptism of children with a gay parent (transgender people are treated differently) from the usual age of 8 to the age of 18 at which time they could be baptized only if they disavowed the gay parent.

I believe that the “revelation,” which was rescinded a week ago, was economically motivated: to shore up the support of tithe-paying people who had given generously, sometimes their entire savings, to support Proposition 8 that overturned same-sex marriage in California.

To the children who were affected by the policy, that underlying intention had no meaning. They were publicly excluded from a rite of passage because they had a gay parent. In my experience as a pastor who ministered to these gay parents, many of the penalized children were from marriages resulting from the counsel of church leaders that such a marriage might “change them.” As important as elucidating causes are, can this focus on cause disconnect us from the suffering? Writers unpack this sad progression of history but where is the lament?

Perhaps instead of considering the causes which make actions appear less cruel, we should take actions at face value and rally a counter crusade. As high schoolers all over the country staged a walkout of their schools on a certain day, do those of us who belong to a church that is discriminatory against LGBTQ folks need to stage a walkout after the opening hymn? How about doing the same during general meetings? Fifteen minutes in, all those who care about their LGBTQ brothers and sisters, get up and walk out.

The question remains. Why are LGBTQ being used as a lightning rod that attracts forces that can rip families, communities and denominations asunder?

Could this question be seeking to become the first sentence of a lament rather than an explanation? Fifteen minutes into a service, are you willing to worship with your feet and walk out?

Rev. Patty C. Willis is the former pastor of the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Cottonwood Heights. She is studying for a doctorate of ministry in public theology at Drew Theological Seminary,