A Gay Pastor Leaves His Santa Ana Flock, Exposing the United Methodist Church's LGBT Rift
Hymn No. 558 in the 960-page United Methodist Hymnal is "We Are the Church," and the chorus to this call for Christian unity echoes through the high-arched ceiling at Santa Ana United Methodist Church (UMC). It's Pentecost, the day that commemorates when the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles, and the multicultural congregation—Latinos, Filipinos, Cambodians, Tongans, whites and blacks—sing from their worn, wooden benches: "I am the church/You are the church/We are the church together!"
The Reverend Cedrick Bridgeforth, a bespectacled African-American who wears a neatly pressed, white, short-sleeved shirt, joins in before yielding the pulpit to other pastors during the joint service. It's his last month of ministry. He looks back at the altar, on which rests stoles marking different phases of his career. They will serve as props for his farewell address.
Saying farewell to Rev. Bridgeforth
Gabriel San Román
The inspiration for it came earlier that morning, when Bridgeforth saw a puzzle-piece-decorated stole in his closet, the one he wore while speaking at the LGBT-inclusive Reconciling United Methodists Texas Conference in Houston in March. "It took a lot to get to Houston last week," Bridgeforth tells the faithful in his Alabama drawl. "There's a whole journey that led to that. That's not where the story begins; that's actually where it ends."
Bridgeforth continues with the story of his stoles. He drapes a kente-patterned stole over his shoulders and recalls the Afrocentric Crossroads UMC in Compton, where the reverend started as a youth minister. He cloaks himself with a surfboard-decorated one gifted by UMC Bishop Minerva Carcaño upon his appointment to Santa Ana in 2015. But Bridgeforth sets aside a shorter white stole with colorful praying handprints sewn in, a gift given when he sought to become a candidate for bishop in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, which stretches from Hawaii to Colorado and all the way up to Montana.
"This one's a little painful to talk about, so I'll put it down," he announces. Nervous chuckles sound from the pews. "That experience forever altered my life." He turns to his Houston stole instead, lifting the two ends up while walking down the main aisle of his attentive flock. "As I selected this stole, I thought about Santa Ana United Methodist Church and how each and every one of you represents a piece of this puzzle. And without any one of you, it just won't work."
Bridgeforth is Orange County's only openly gay pastor in the UMC, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination and one with about 35 congregations in OC. This Pentecost is his last in Santa Ana for a while—perhaps forever. Next month, Bridgeforth is taking a voluntary leave of absence after a tumultuous year that saw him disavow his bishop candidacy just before winning a vote, a quiet controversy whispered about in church circles ever since that speaks volumes about an LGBT schism forming in the UMC.
"Due to some backdoor politicking that happened, I withdrew from that endorsement process," Bridgeforth says after the service, refusing to divulge more. He was also suspended with pay for three months toward the end of 2016 for complaints originating outside his church. When asked if his being a gay black pastor had anything to do with the sudden turn, he replied, "It's a factor."
The young, erudite pastor is the latest victim of the UMC's decades-long row over LGBT members. The Book of Discipline, a behemoth of a Methodist rulebook that dates back to the denomination's founding in 1784, includes a passage added in 1972 that affirmed the "sacred worth" of gays but also deemed homosexual behavior as "incompatible with Christian teaching." Modifications since then prohibited the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" gays and forbids pastors from marrying same-sex couples inside or outside of its churches.
Scuffles over scripture every four years at the General Conference of Methodist Churches has brought UMC to the brink of separation, especially with the election last summer of Karen Oliveto, its first openly lesbian bishop. But the Western Jurisdiction, which elected Oliveto, and the California-Pacific Conference (Cal-Pac) within it that represents much of the Golden State, has its own divisions to come to terms with. Just ask Bridgeforth on his way out.
"Everybody in the West is not of the same mind," he says. "Until our public and our private conversations and politics align, we'll be broken."
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Dollins, author of The Outing
Bridgeforth surveys the large bookcase in his Santa Ana office. "I haven't decided what books I want to take with me," he says. He pulls out a copy of The Gay Emperor Is Naked: A Critique of Homosexuality by James R. Hill, a San Diego pastor whose church is in Cal-Pac, and gives it to a reporter.
On the eve of his leave, Bridgeforth is left to muse about the episcopacy that might have been. "I don't think it would have played out that catastrophic, but we'll never know," he says. "Would I want to be the first openly gay person elected to the episcopacy? Not unless it were for the purpose of bringing the church healing and bringing it together."
The 45-year-old points to his national profile in building coalitions across theological and racial lines, efforts aimed at bridging the church's unresolved racism and ecclesiastical homophobia. A year ago, he chaired Black Methodists for Church Renewal, belonged to the General Board of Pensions, served as lead clergy delegate for his Annual Conference, sat on the Reconciling Ministries Network Board and was heavily involved in the church's Love Your Neighbor Coalition. But, as he said in Houston last month to the Reconciling United Methodists conference, he's now none of those things.
He grew up in Decatur, Alabama, and attended a church where people just didn't talk about gays or lesbians or even the birds and the bees. He never thought he'd be a reverend one day, but his grandmother saw something in him when he was 10. "Boy, one day you gonna preach," Bridgeforth recalls her saying.
And grandma was right, though Bridgeforth lived with a level of discretion about his sexual identity right through his 2006 ordination in the UMC. "I came out to my mom when I was 19," says Bridgeforth, who was serving in the Air Force at the time. "I wrote her a letter, sent it and freaked out. But all that's been fine. Once I did that, I didn't care what anybody else thought or knew."
After his service, Bridgeforth moved West and earned a master's in divinity from Claremont School of Theology. He preached in LA-area congregations while teaching courses at the University of La Verne's Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies. Bridgeforth added a doctorate of education in organizational leadership from Pepperdine. That allowed him to take an administrative route in the UMC, becoming district superintendent for Cal-Pac in 2008 and authoring a book (Thoughts and Prayers, a tome on everyday faith) during his tenure.
When Cal-Pac closed Crescent Heights UMC in West Hollywood in 2011 (a property that sold for $4.5 million this February), Pastor Scott Imler claimed it happened because the congregation was too pro-gay for church elders. Bridgeforth, then serving as district superintendent of Los Angeles, didn't make any statement about his own sexual identity in the media; he plainly reiterated Cal-Pac's position that the church had too many overdue bills and not enough members.
"That's not my only story," Bridgeforth says. "I happen to be gay. I happen to be black. I can't pick or choose either one of those. It is what it is."
It wasn't until the end of Bridgeforth's term as district superintendent in 2015 that he nonchalantly acknowledged his life partner during a public Methodist gathering bidding him farewell (he wears a black band on his ring finger, but isn't married—"I'm not living in sin, either," he adds). By the time Bridgeforth drove home, his Facebook page exploded with supportive messages. "Came out?" he thought to himself. "What are they talking about?" But Bridgeforth still doesn't proclaim his orientation loudly from every mountaintop; his name is absent from a 2016 #CalledOut letter to the UMC from LGBTQI religious leaders.
But Bridgeforth did add his signature to an open letter from the Love Your Neighbor Coalition to African bishops of the UMC earlier that year, criticizing its stance that LGBT inclusion be sidelined in favor of focusing on other issues such as international terrorism. The back-and-forth exposed a modern-day reality faced by many mainline Protestant branches: evangelizing in Africa and Latin America tipped the global scales of the LGBT debate in favor of conservative Methodists. This would come back to haunt Bridgeforth.
Carcaño, the first Latina to hold a bishop post in the denomination, appointed Bridgeforth to Santa Ana UMC when he finished his district superintendent stint. Thanks to his administrative experience and being at the helm of the diverse church, people began whispering about "Bishop Bridgeforth" long before candidate elections were scheduled for 2016 at Cal-Pac's Annual Conference at the University of Redlands.
With the conviction of God's will and community backing, Bridgeforth headed to Redlands last June as the favored candidate and got the nomination needed to formally set forth on the path. "For at least the last four years, the presumptive knowledge was that Bridgeforth would be our candidate for bishop," the Reverend Mandy Sloan McDow, the pastor of Laguna Beach UMC, says. "His sexuality really had nothing to do with his candidacy. The most compelling part was that he was really gifted for ministry."
The Cal-Pac clergy delegates, including McDow, agreed and handed Bridgeforth an overwhelming majority of votes to become their nominee. But Bridgeforth never had a chance to revel in the victory. He stood at the microphone moments before the vote's results were revealed; Bridgeforth said "it had been made clear to him that he couldn't accept the nomination, should it come to him," McDow recalls. The passive wording troubled her. A screen then revealed Bridgeforth's winning tally next to a stunned conference.
Though uncertain of the reasons for his withdrawal, McDow notes pastors such as Bridgeforth risk much by being open. "On the clergy side, there's a rampant amount of fear," she says. "If there's sufficient proof that someone is 'self-avowed' and 'practicing,' then anyone can lodge a complaint."
A spokesman for Cal-Pac says matters of supervision, including Bridgeforth's, are confidential.
The Reverend Frank Wulf, another gay man, got the Cal-Pac candidacy. "Frank comes through the door and says, 'I'm gay!'" Bridgeforth says of their different approaches. "I come through the door, and I say, 'Hi, I'm Cedrick.'"
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McDow is a fierce LGBT ally from the pulpit
Once a vanguard of Protestant progressivism—Methodists of various stripes created the Salvation Army, YMCA and Goodwill Industries and were on the front lines of the abolitionist movement—the UMC finds itself alone among mainline Protestant denominations on questions of LGBT ordination and same-sex weddings.
In late April, a judicial council found Oliveto's consecration against church law after being challenged by the Oklahoma-based South Central Jurisdiction. She still serves as bishop, despite the decision, but the rift has deepened. "I addressed this from the pulpit because I knew a number of our church members were affected by that and felt hurt and excluded," says the Reverend James Dollins of Anaheim UMC. But even before Oliveto's election, the General Conference of the Methodist Church formed the Commission On a Way Forward in May 2016, a task force of bishops that will examine the Book of Discipline's references to human sexuality and convene a special conference in 2019 with a proposed solution, one that hopefully avoids a schism once and for all.
"They're going to have to come to us with an agreement on how we're going to move forward so we can stop debating this," McDow says. At last year's Cal-Pac conference, she co-authored a resolution that urged non-conformity with the Book of Discipline that was overwhelmingly adopted. Her hopes for the Commission On a Way Forward scrubbing its exclusionary passages are less cheery. "It's unlikely we're going to get the language removed," she says.
In Orange County, though, UMC LGBT inclusivity has a small but strong foundation. Bishop Melvin Wheatley of Westwood UMC was the first prominent opponent of the Book of Discipline's anti-gay clause; he appointed the denomination's first openly gay pastor in 1982. He retired to Leisure World two years later, the same year his gay son died of cancer. Wheatley lives on in a new generation of allied pastors who keep his flame going after his 2009 passing in Mission Viejo, including McDow, a firebrand who presides over gay-marriage ceremonies in open defiance of church elders.
McDow came to Laguna Beach UMC in 2015, just before the United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. She previously served at Saint Mark's UMC in Atlanta, one of the largest Reconciling congregations in the nation. McDow advocated for inclusion right away, starting a four-week "The Bible and Homosexuality" course that taught her OC is no progressive paradise. Classes drew about 70 people, half of whom weren't from the congregation. And then the hate mail came. "People suggested I was leading my flock astray," she says. "That I was going to be responsible for the damnation of thousands of people and that I was doing the work of the devil."
Most of the bigoted comments came from outside the church, which started its path to becoming a Reconciling ministry soon after. The congregation already thought of itself as inclusive without the designation and previously shied away from any potential firestorms. But laypeople started the conversation anew. "Over a year and a half, I preached sermons about it; we invited guest speakers in and had listening sessions," McDow says. "When we finally took our vote during service, the congregation went 124-2 in favor of becoming a Reconciling church."
Laguna Beach is the newest of OC's few Reconciling churches; the only other congregations are in Brea, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa. And it's not an empty designation. "Of all our new members who've joined in the last year—and there's been a good number—90 percent came for that reason," McDow says. "Now, we're trying to figure out how we live that identity."
They'll have to do it without McDow, who's being reassigned to a downtown Los Angeles church next month.
Anaheim UMC is discussing greater inclusion. Dollins, who just published The Outing: A Gay Christian's Journey Towards Self-Acceptance, held an event at the church delving into the book's themes. "It's about a gay Christian youth who's trying to integrate those different pieces of himself," Dollins says of the novel. "The book's primary purpose is to help young gay people accept who they are, particularly those of faith. My secondary hope is that the church can read this and talk about the story."
"Dollins had his own personal growth in understanding LGBT people," says Vicky Cook, a former lay leader both at Anaheim UMC and at the Cal-Pac district level. Wearing a crucifix necklace that dangles down her Hawaiian shirt, Cook sips coffee while discussing the strain of being a lesbian Methodist during the past 19 years. Learning of Bridgeforth's departure raises her own questions about staying. "We have these major issues that we're faced with, and we don't hear about what's going on," Cook says, on finding out about what happened to him from hearsay. "Bridgeforth is a tremendous pastor who's extraordinary at connecting with people. I don't know how you replace that."
Cook will also weigh her commitment if the Commission On a Way Forward comes back with an unsatisfactory solution to the LGBT question. "How am I not compatible with Christian teachings?" Cook asks. "That's always been a sore spot, that a faith community could have this Book of Discipline that contradicts what the Bible teaches and what Jesus would do."
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Big guy McFarland is big on the Bible
"How are you, big-guy pastor?" a homeless woman asks the Reverend John McFarland. The greeting on this rainy Sunday morning is an apt one; the towering 6-foot-7 McFarland wears an olive-green suit with a tie displaying scenes from the Gospels neatly tucked into his jacket. He lumbers around the Fellowship Hall of Orangethorpe UMC in Fullerton before service for Agape Café, a free-breakfast program for the homeless.
"I know that it's really hard to be alone in your problems," McFarland says to them. "Bless your meal time; I pray you'll be able to stay dry."
The reverend talks the Bible with the homeless at one table over a plate of huevos con chorizo—man lives not by bread alone, after all. But back in a church conference room, McFarland says conservative preachers such as him are a dying breed in Cal-Pac. While he's a firm believer in social justice, McFarland abides by the Book of Discipline resting on his desk and his interpretations of the weathered Bible stacked just below it. He has mastered the cadence of a charismatic preacher, hoisting the Good Book up high to exalt its verses before slamming it down on the table to emphasize its truths.
The reverend gently flips through his Bible's thin pages, which crinkle with every turn until arriving at Romans 1, the longest of Apostle Paul's letters. He adjusts his glasses while surveying the text closely with his index finger. "Though they knew God, they did not honor him or give thanks to him," McFarland reads aloud. "Women exchanged the natural functions for that which is unnatural, and in the same way, man abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another. Men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error."
The scripture, which McFarland believes to be the inspired word of God like all else in the Bible, rails off sins including envy, greed, evil, deceit, gossip—all of which Romans 1 deems worthy of death. "Who can't find themselves in that list?" McFarland asks. "I do believe I'm worthy of death—that's why Jesus died for me."
"McFarland is extraordinarily intelligent, knows scripture, but just has a different perspective," Cook says. The two worked together when she held her district position in the church. "He's always been kind and respectful, never judgmental. But I'd always tell him I don't agree with his viewpoint."
The only thing more imposing than McFarland's height is the 41 years he has been preaching the Gospel. He ministered at Fountain Valley UMC for 26 years, starting in 1988, when he was a big supporter of the Promise Keepers movement that critics argued was anti-gay. "I did have cultural prejudices at some point in this process," McFarland admits.
Back in the 1970s, if he saw a transgender man walking in Berkeley, where he studied at the Pacific School of Religion, he'd cast him aside as a social leper. Now, McFarland has made friends with a transgender homeless man who sits in the pews of his church after eating breakfast at Agape Café.
He's also good friends with Dollins, going back to their shared days at Escondido UMC, where McFarland served as a youth minister. But McFarland rooting for the Dodgers and Dollins liking the Padres isn't the only thing they disagree on. Dollins refutes the passage from Romans through the fictional voice of the Reverend Norquist, the spiritual guide to Grant, the young gay Christian protagonist in his novel. "While these verses portray homosexual behavior in a negative light, still, neither St. Paul nor any other New Testament writer articulates any commandment against homosexual behavior," Norquist counsels.
As does Dollins, McFarland has tremendous respect for Bridgeforth as a leader. "He was my district superintendent for a while, and I was honored that he was my overseer," he says. But gays and lesbians aspiring to the episcopacy is another matter. "I'm cautious of his orientation, but that doesn't diminish my respect for him as a brother in Christ."
Despite these friendships and admirations, McFarland believes the UMC would be better off with a schism. "The split is, in my mind, essential," McFarland says. "My precious progressive friends need to be able to tell same-sex-behaving people that they're righteous and holy and need not repent. I need to be able to point them the other direction toward confession."
Bridgeforth remembers similar pushback from his mostly immigrant Filipino satellite congregation in downtown Santa Ana. "There's a lot on social media about this bishop [Oliveto] who's a woman married to a woman," Bridgeforth told them the Sunday after he voted for her election. A gasp sounded from the pews, then an awkward pause. "You all know that, had I been elected on Friday, the same buzz would have been about me, right?" The churchgoers' anxieties eased, but only because Bridgeforth was the gay clergyman they knew and liked.
He gave the same update at the Grand Avenue church later that Sunday morning, but to applause. "Not everybody's in the same place," Bridgeforth now says. "That's just the nature of who we are as a church." Some of the folks from the Spanish and Cambodian services decided they couldn't stay in the UMC after Oliveto's election. "But you've sat under my leadership for a year and a half," Bridgeforth told them in person. "How is that different?"
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