Protesting in the Pews

Nestled in the heart of Montrose, and sporting Pride flags and posters that proclaim queer-friendly messages, Bering Memorial United Methodist Church stands firm on its commitment to fully embrace everyone who walks through its doors.

Church members have sought justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities since the early ’80s. In response to a controversial United Methodist policy that bans same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy, Bering leaders plan to protest by publicly blessing the unions of dozens of LGBTQ couples during its 10:50 a.m. worship service on January 12.

“We’re going to make a clear statement denouncing the policy by affirming our LGBTQIA+ couples and their families,” says Bering’s pastor, Rev. Diane McGehee. “We reject discrimination in the United Methodist Church, and believe it is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Last February, the United Methodist Church decided at its General Conference to retain an existing church policy that states “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Conference’s new strategy for punishing LGBTQ-affirming congregations (known as the Traditional Plan) went into effect this month, and strengthens penalties for clergy who are found guilty of performing a same-sex wedding ceremony. A first offense will mean suspension for one year without pay, and clergy who are found guilty a second time will be stripped of their credentials without recourse.

Churches across the country have openly opposed the United Methodist Church’s anti-LGBTQ stance, and a split within the denomination is now looming. McGehee explains that until the denomination decides to support queer folks and their committed relationships, her church will not use the term “United Methodist” in any of its communications. “We are not proud of that affiliation, so we will not identify ourselves as such,” she says.

Due to the national church’s property-ownership structure, local LGBTQ-affirming congregations cannot exit the denomination and assume ownership of their buildings until that issue has been litigated. Bering and other LGBTQ-affirming United Methodist churches believe that the denomination can still vote to become inclusive when the policy is revisited at its next General Conference in Minneapolis this May.

“We’re hopeful that the United Methodist Church will change its mind,” McGehee says. “Other leaders and I have re-filed a different plan, called the Simple Plan, that would remove any discriminatory language from our Book of Discipline. However, if the Traditional Plan is readopted, I believe it will split the church.”

If the Traditional Plan passes in May, churches will have an opportunity to exit the United Methodist Church at a special session of its Annual Conference in August. Bering is seriously considering leaving the denomination should this be the case.

“Bering is ready for change,” McGehee admits, adding that the congregation has met to examine the issue, and a leadership team is working on making sure Bering becomes LGBTQ-inclusive. “There are many lifelong Methodists who have been hurt by the [denomination’s] decision.”

Nearly 70 percent of Bering’s 500 members identify as LGBTQ. “We have some incredible same-sex couples who are married—including one that has been together for 50 years—along with others who are waiting to get married in [this building]. None of their relationships are being recognized by the denomination, and that’s just wrong—especially when you think about the legacy of this church and everything its members have done to help the community.”

Bering was established in 1848 by German-speaking immigrants who were unwanted in other places of worship. The church was originally situated at Milam and McKinney streets in downtown Houston, before moving to Montrose in 1926.

During the yellow-fever epidemics of the late 1800s and the flu pandemic of 1918, the church organized nursing teams. And after many LGBTQ Houstonians moved to Montrose in the 1960s and ’70s, the church’s administrative board decided that everyone would be welcomed without discrimination or prejudice.

Also in the ’70s, Bering set up a temporary homeless shelter on its campus. At the height of the ’80s AIDS epidemic, the church launched a support group for people with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones.

A year later, the church founded the Bering Community Service Foundation, a nonprofit volunteer organization, as well as the Bering Dental Clinic, to help meet the medical needs of those living with HIV/AIDS. In 1988, the Bering Care Center became the first adult daycare center in the nation for people with HIV/AIDS. Bering Omega Community Services, the church’s partnership with the Omega House, was the predecessor to Avenue 360 Health & Wellness, which now provides health services to underserved populations in Houston.

In 1991, Bering’s membership voted to become a part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist group that seeks justice for queer people. It is currently one of only a handful of Reconciling congregations in Southeast Texas.

Doubling down on its commitment to LGBTQ folks, Bering does not marry couples—gay or straight—inside of its building because of the inequalities that still exist within the United Methodist Church. McGehee says that by the end of 2020, Bering plans to become a congregation where no anti-LGBTQ policies exist.

“Bering’s leadership team has been working hard since February 2019 to decide the best route for our church, so that we can continue to do our best work going forward,” McGehee says. “It is our intention that by the end of 2020, there will no longer be a limitation on who can participate in this church.”

Following Bering’s January 12 worship and mass-affirmation service, there will be a reception featuring food, dancing, and photographs. To RSVP, send an email to [email protected]

For more information about Bering, visit beringchurch.org.

This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.