Since 1972 the United Methodist Church has included language in its official Book of Discipline that says the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Since then, as the LGBT controversy has grown throughout Christendom, additional restrictions have been codified including prohibitions on the ordination of “self avowed practicing homosexuals,” and a ban on clergy presiding or local churches hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
In its own version of "Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell," the UMC has many LGBT pastors in various locales across the U.S., as well as thousands of LGBT members and lay staff serving at every level and in every capacity in the life and ministry of the church, who cannot be honest about who they are or with whom they share their love and life. The extent to which a clergy or lay person discloses their orientation has varying consequences depending on where they live. The decision about whether or not to live openly and honestly or by contrast to bear false witness against one’s self is deeply personal and still fraught with peril in most places.
In an effort to provide support for LGBT clergy and lay people, the Reconciling Ministries Movement was founded in 1982 and now claims over 450 “Reconciling” congregations, fellowships, and campus ministries. Add the growing number of Bishops increasingly willing to overlook the Book of Discipline by appointing “open” and/or “glass-closeted” LGBT clergy to serve as pastors in local churches and it’s easy to understand why the perception of progress has been so prevalent even as the Book of Discipline itself has become increasingly toxic.
As Southern California’s first “reconciling congregation” and the second West of the Mississippi, Crescent Heights UMC, has remained “out loud and proud” in its embrace of all people, not regardless of “who they are,” but because of “whose they are.”
Located in the heart of West Hollywood, California, an international gay “Mecca” and the first city in America founded with a gay-majority City Council, Crescent Heights Church has long been a flagship for the aspirations of the LGBT faithful all across America and a badge of progressive pride for the California-Pacific United Methodist Conference, as the UMC has lumbered slowly and unsteadily toward acceptance and full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life and ministry of the 10+ million member worldwide denomination.
With the rise of the non-denominational mega-churches, the generational shifts in spiritual practice, and the changing demographics of church-goers in America, the UMC has encountered increasingly fierce competition for members, by some estimates losing 14,000 congregants per month for the last four decades. Succumbing to the fear of irrelevance and further exalting the two principle metrics of religious success in America, -- people in the pews and dollars in the plate -- the UMC has fallen prey to the "get bigger quicker" church growth gurus and market share technocrats, as it has sought to shore up its flagging numbers, wholesale, with new recruits whose views on homosexuality are inimical to the best interest of LGBT folk both here and abroad. In so doing, the UMC is sacrificing its historic role as a champion of justice on issues from child labor, to women’s suffrage, to civil rights, to the Viet Nam war.
Nowhere was this reversal in the balance of LGBT fortunes more evident than at the May 2012 UMC General Conference in Tampa, FL when newly "united" delegates from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- two countries currently grappling with legislation to execute gay folks merely because of who they love -- took to the convention floor and denounced LGBT folk as "an abomination," referring to them us “animals and wild beasts,” and calling for us to be "stoned to death" and questioning why we are even aloud to be members of the church. By the closing gavel in Tampa the United Methodist Church had became decidedly hostile territory for the LGBT faithful. So vile was the rhetoric that the international interpreters were apologizing to the body in advance for the ugly content of their translations.
Given this new and overtly hateful tenor, if it weren't for the Cal-Pac Conference’s ongoing effort to close Crescent Heights Church – for no credible reason that's ever been offered --and confiscate our historic West Hollywood property, for which the largely LGBT congregation holds legal title, we might well consider our “involuntary discontinuance” -- as a United Methodist congregation -- without debate or even an opportunity for the congregation’s elected representative to speak – as a blessing in disguise.
But over the last three decades Crescent Heights Church through a simple ministry of "radical hospitality" has served as the "room at the inn" for a variety of faith-based communities representing the rainbow of God's family, including the West Hollywood Bahå’î Congregation, the Quakers, the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles, Divine Light New Age Christian Ministries, the Sai Center (Hindu), Muslims for Progressive Values, the Reformed Utrecht Old Catholic Church, and the Korean Baptists to name a few.
CHUMC has also been a refuge for literally thousands of people in dozens of 12 Step recovery groups and a wide variety of other health & wellness, educational, arts, and people-serving programs, including: Project Angel Food – providing meals for thousands of AIDS patients; the EAGLES Program – L.A. Unified School District’s alternative LGBT High School; California Faith for Equality - the religious coalition that opposed Proposition 8; the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center – Southern California’s first legal medical marijuana cooperative providing for AIDS and cancer patients; the Contra-Tiempo Dance Academy - an alternative to the summer streets for at risk inner-city kids; and most recently the Midnight Ministry - an urban outreach and rescue program playing “Red Rover” at the crossroads of danger and death, providing emergency support services for youth and young adults coming out of addiction, prostitution, domestic violence, and homelessness.
West Hollywood doesn't need more condos, which is the most likely fate of the property given market forces and the denomination's financial woes. What it needs, situated as it is in the shadow of the Sunset Strip, is the people serving community center that Crescent Heights Church has become with the blood, sweat, tears, time, and treasure of its LGBT members and constituents.
We don't know what message the United Methodist Church was trying to send when they kicked our local ministry to the curb, but given that we were initially targeted on the heels of the California Supreme Court’s historic “marriage equality” decision, when we were solvent, debt-free, and growing, it’s hard to ignore the lavender elephant in the middle of the room.. But the message we received was "You are not worthy of a United Methodist Church in your community, you don't measure up to our standards, we don’t want to be in ministry with your community, we’re casting our lot for the future with those who hate you."
OK, we got it. It is regrettable that after 99 years of service that the UMC finds no redeeming value to our fellowship and ministry but if they want us out of their increasingly hostile denomination, so be it. They should take their name off of our building and hit the road.
As a California Nonprofit Religious Corporation, state law provides that our local church corporation enjoys all the rights of a natural person, among which necessarily includes a “right to life,” despite its subordinate relationship to its “mother church.” State law also vests in the local congregation the sole authority to dissolve the corporation and dispose of the corporate assets. After all, there are a lot of parents who don’t like the way their kids turn out, but that doesn’t give them the right to kill them at will in order to reap an early inheritance of their off-spring’s property, the denomination’s unilaterally imposed self-dealing trust beneficiary grant notwithstanding.
CHUMC is the last and only "welcoming" church in the City of West Hollywood and over the last 33 years has also become the hallowed ground of our community heritage, where dozens of our friends and loved ones lost to the AIDS pandemic have been memorialized and where many have even been sprinkled on the exotic plants and trees that constitute the memorial gardens spread across the half acre church campus.
We are not unappreciative of the United Methodist Church’s many years of witness in West Hollywood, but the church property, designated and protected as a local historical resource, belongs to the community, it belongs to the people, to the memories of those who came before us, and to the spiritual aspirations of those who will follow.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all Americans and LGBT Americans should not have to apologize for wanting to be in ministry and make disciples among our own people. No other minority is asked to do so. We played by the rules even when the rules have been inimical to our people's best interest and sense of sacred worth. The denomination should do no less and those rules include following state law.
Crescent Heights Church is not a house on Boardwalk or a hotel on Park Place to be bought and sold across the Monopoly board of the UMC’s global designs, particularly given that the new apples of the denomination's eye from South of the Equator are 90% subsidized with U.S. do-good dollars, in effect providing Christian cover for brutal kleptocratic regimes hell-bent on executing our LGBT brethren for no good reason – but their ill-placed religiously inspired hatred. However you slice it, the uncompensated "taking" of our church property will make us involuntary accomplices in the debasing, derision and death of LGBT folks half a world away and that is simply unacceptable.
No, Crescent Heights in West Hollywood “ain't your mama's church," as one Sunday morning visitor observed. But it's as close to God's unfinished business in the world as you can get and no matter who might knock at the door, we know how Jesus would have us greet them -- as beloved children of the awesome God who created them and who calls us to the corner of what the first pastor in 1914 described as ”two dirt roads in the middle of a barley field,” to make a positive difference in the world. It's a good and hopeful place to be the little community church that has never stopped believing that what we can’t do by our selves we most certainly can do together, whenever “two or more are gathered."
Please sign our petition to Resident Bishop Minerva Carcaños, calling on the California – Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church and its Los Angeles District Union to cease and desist from their ill-considered, unlawful and life-denying land grab of the Crescent Heights Church campus in West Hollywood, California, so that we might continue to serve as a multi-faith center of hope and healing and keep offering the life-saving ministries we’ve been called to in this time and place.
Grace and Peace in God's Service,
Pastor Scott T. Imler
For the remnant congregation of Crescent Heights Church
West Hollywood, California