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UMC group to honor Rev. Greg Dell
by William Burks
2009-09-09

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The Rev. Greg Dell, retired minister of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago will be honored with the Gilbert H. Caldwell Justice Ministry Award as the culmination of a weekend conference on "The Journey to Justice," Sept. 25-26.

Sponsoring the conference and award is Church Within A Church ( CWAC ) , a movement within the United Methodist Church ( UMC ) whose goals include providing "a pathway [ to ordination ] for qualified people denied ordination in the United Methodist denomination because of sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, or inclusive-progressive theology." UMC policy forbids the ordination of openly non-celibate gay or lesbian clergy.

The movement sprang from Dell's witness in the 1990s, when he celebrated more than 30 commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. When a 1998 ceremony was reported in Windy City Times, Dell was reported to his bishop, tried before an ecclesiastical court for breaking church rules forbidding such ceremonies, and banned from exercising ministry in the UMC. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to a one-year ban.

Rev. Kevin Johnson, the openly gay pastor of Bloom in the Desert Ministries of Palm Springs, Calif.—founded by Broadway UMC in 2002—found Dell an inspiration to return to ministry and to step outside UMC structures to pastor to the LGBT community. As one of the earliest CWAC churches Bloom in the Desert Ministries functions within the Methodist tradition, but apart from UMC oversight in part because of the ban on "practicing" gay or lesbian clergy as well as the hierarchical strictures of the UMC, under which the bishop appoints the pastor for each congregation.

CWAC strives to be an example to the UMC that "being an inclusive church and being successful is possible" Johnson said. "Because the message that keeps being put out by the United Methodist Church is that when you're inclusive, you're destined to failure."

CWAC Executive Director Cathy Knight describes CWAC's ministries as justice—especially anti-racism and white privilege—inclusiveness for LGBT people at all levels of church participation, church development for models of inclusive ministry, and extraordinary ordination of qualified LGBT persons and those supportive of those who have been barred from ordination within the UMC.

When she arrived in Chicago 10 years ago, Knight's first Sunday at Broadway UMC happened to be the last Sunday Dell preached before his one-year suspension. "I walked into that faith community that had just been wrenched and wrung-out over denominational politics. And when I heard Greg preach, I was just, I melted, I cried, I was sort of finally given air to breathe. I knew there was something big going on here, much beyond myself, but it so validated who I thought I was in the sight of God."

Knight soon began working for the UMC's Reconciling Ministries program, which seeks to change church policy on LGBT issues and networks UMC churches who acknowledge being accepting congregations. She then began working with Dell in planning how to approach the 2000 General Conference of the UMC. At that conference, in Cleveland, CWAC's social actions included at which some of those protesting church policies—including Dell—were arrested because of their actions.

The group's focus on education led it to sponsor the two-day conference surrounding the award and banquet honoring Dell. Workshops topics include the CWAC movement itself, media advocacy, intercultural competence, homophobia and South African choral music as inspiration for change.

Presenters at the conference include Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, professor of theology and Chicago Theological Seminary ( CTS ) ; Rev. Vernice L. Thorne, associate pastor of Broadway UMC; and author and CTS professor Theodore W. Jennings. A Sept. 24 book signing and lecture by Walter Wink will be held at Graham Taylor Chapel and is co-sponsored by CWAC and CTS.

Knight believes that despite advances this summer for lesbian and gay ministries in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches, "the United Methodist Church still doesn't get it," but "it does create more pressure. You know, there's a tipping point—when you're the only one in the room who doesn't like to wear red, pretty soon, you're going to be alone. So, you might just want to start wearing red, and seeing that the world does not end."

The Justice Ministry Award is named for the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, a pioneer African-American Methodist pastor, now retired, who was active in civil-rights issues throughout his ministry. Caldwell was the first recipient in 2007. This year's "Journey to Justice" conference and banquet honoring Dell will take place at the Ramada Inn, 4900 S. Lake Shore. Additional information is at www.cwac.us.

In next week's issue: How the Rev. Gregory Dell made history


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