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Methodist network holds Winter Warming Conference
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Over 150 people attended the Reconciling United Methodists Network (RMN) Winter Warming conference at the First United Methodist Church of Elmhurst Jan. 19.

Presented by the Northern Illinois Conference Reconciling Ministries Task Force, the conference is held each January during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. "Biblical Obedience: The Higher Law of Love" was the theme of this year's event.

Reconciling United Methodists are, according to the website, "a growing movement of United Methodist individuals, congregations, campus ministries, and other groups working for the full inclusion of all people in the United Methodist Church. RMN mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ's inclusive love."

Rev. Bonnie Beckonchrist—pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights, chair of the national RMN board and member of the Northern Illinois Conference RMN Task Force—said the conference is "a congress of Reconciling United Methodists from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference gathering to educate, inspire and activate people to do the work of Reconciling Ministries which is working towards a fully inclusive United Methodist Church regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

The "We Do,'I Do!'" forum took place in the sanctuary featuring rainbow colored bunting decorations to commemorate the day's events. Rev. Greg Gross, clinical manager of the HIV Testing and Prevention Program at the Center on Halsted and deacon in the United Methodist Church; Rev. Trey Hall, lead pastor of the Urban Village Church; and Caroline Staerk, director of field programs at Equality Illinois led a conversation focusing on marriage equality as it pertains to the United Methodist Church and the work of RMN.

Staerk updated attendees regarding the legislative status of the Illinois Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act. Staerk also noted that a number of clergy, African-American leaders and business executives have signed letters supporting marriage equality.

Although all Reconciling churches make their status as a member of the RMN public, Gross noted that 215 Methodist clergy in the Northern Illinois Conference have signed onto a statement affirming their commitment "to bless any prepared couple desiring Christian ceremonies for civil unions or marriage. These clergy members have opted to keep their names private since performing these ceremonies is against church law. Despite the Methodist leadership's opposition, a number of Methodist clergy have already performed same-sex weddings and civil-union ceremonies inside the church sanctuary, Gross remarked.

Hall spoke about the origins of the Urban Village Church and the steps they took to become a Reconciling Ministries church. Unlike other Methodist churches and clergy, Hall noted that the leadership of Urban Village Church decided to make its RMN status public. So far, the leaders have not received any pushback from the community because of their LGBTQ-inclusive policies.

Five concurrent workshops followed the forum: "Reconciling 101: Getting Started," "Biblical Reflection for the Movement Toward Full Inclusion," "Healing Words: Liturgies, Prayers, Songs and Rituals of Inclusion," "Reconciling in Any Language" and "Loving Your Gender-Diverse Child."

Rev. Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, professor of Old Testament Studies and author of Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, led the Biblical Reflections workshop. Anderson explained that there is a social justice tradition in the bible including Jesus' practice of inclusion. "We've got to learn how to construct a biblical argument regarding progressive causes like LGBTQ inclusion," said Anderson.

In the Reconciling 101 workshop Rachel Harvey, associate executive director of the RMN, and Krista Paradiso, North Central and Western regional organizer of the RMN, talked about the discriminatory policies of the Methodist church regarding LGBTQ people as well as the history of the network. Currently there are 531 Reconciling churches nationwide, according to Harvey and Paradiso. Harvey and Paradiso also outlined the resources that their organization provides to any church, campus ministry or community who wishes to become a member of the RMN.

A buffet dinner and worship service capped off the day's events. The worship service featured a choir (made up of conference attendees who wished to sing) and a sermon entitled "Do the Right Thing" from retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, vice-chair of the RMN board of directors. In his sermon, Talbert spoke about the history of the church as it relates to LGBTQ issues and his experiences as an LGBTQ inclusive minister. "The challenge I want to leave with you tonight is very simple, do the right thing," said Talbert. "We need to do the things that God has called us to do despite what is written in the book of discipline [regarding the LGBTQ community]."

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