My parents were supposed to spend the last week at the United Methodist Church General Conference in St. Louis. Dad, who’s served as a UMC minister for the past forty-two years, joked that he wanted to be there to see the church either go down in flames or rebuild itself from the ashes, depending on how the vote went.
Instead, we spent the week gathered around my grandmother’s hospital bed as she quietly, steadily, passed away.
Over the past year, as my grandmother grew increasingly frail, she helped us understand her hierarchy of needs: just below eating enough food, and just above watching every game the Grizzlies played, my grandmother needed church. My grandmother was a lifelong Methodist, but growing up in rural Mississippi in the Depression, she’d go to just about any church service, revival, or all-day singing, no matter the denomination. In her earliest childhood memories, she is sleeping on a pallet on the floor during a revival, or eating apples and persimmons on the back pew with her friends.
Some Sundays I drove her to Trinity UMC, her longtime church, or out to Faith UMC, my father’s church, where she loved to wait in line after the service to shake my father’s hand and get a kiss on the cheek. Other Sundays, a family friend drove her to Aldersgate UMC, a church my father served years ago, and where we held her funeral on Wednesday, as the contentious General Conference drew to a painful, disappointing close.
In the long hours we spent quiet in that hospital room this past week, my father and I checked for the latest updates from the General Conference. One speaker, JJ Warren, a gay man seeking ordination and serving as a young adult delegate, brought the tense room to raucous cheers. “I want to be a pastor in the Methodist Church because I love our tradition,” he proclaimed. People in the audience stood and cheered, and then the delegates voted to make his call to ministry an offense to the denomination he loves.
On a recent trip to church with my grandmother, I noticed a poster with the UMC motto proudly hanging on the main entryway: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Just beneath that, a scrawled, handwritten note is taped to the glass: please keep doors closed! I’ve never seen a better encapsulation of the Methodist church at this moment, as we decide whether we will live up to our own motto, or shut the doors of the church—along with our hearts and minds—for good.
During the service, I leaned over to ask my grandmother whether she wanted to go up to the altar to receive communion. “They’ll come to me,” she said, and she was right: after everyone in the church had been through the line, the pastor and liturgist carried the bread and cup to my grandmother where she sat in the folding chairs that have long replaced wooden pews in many struggling churches like hers. She took communion from her seat, dipping the bread into the cup with her shaking hands.
This is what the church is supposed to do: bring God to people. Not stand between people and God.
This is the church I thought I knew. But now that my grandmother is gone, and my father is retiring from the ministry, and now that the UMC has officially turned its back on our LGBTQ family, I don’t know how to know this church, anymore.
As my grandmother lingered in the hospital, preacher friends stopped by regularly to pray for her and for us. The church, in those dark and holy hours, was a comfort to me. But I don’t know how to be part of a church that comforts me while leaving others out in the cold.
After the funeral, at my grandmother’s grave, a Methodist preacher wearing a rainbow-striped stole invited us to sing a hymn, Blessed be the Tie that Binds. When we sang what has always been my favorite line, “the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above,” it sounded like a far-off fantasy.
In response to the decision at General Conference, Will Willimon wrote, “the Holy Spirit doesn’t work from the top down. The Spirit does good from the bottom up, through God’s hijinks in the local church…by God’s grace, this train wreck may give us the opportunity to rediscover the power of the local and congregational.”
Most Sundays, this past year, even after a tiring trip to one of my grandmother’s “home churches,” she liked to go down to the makeshift church service held in the activity room in her apartment building—five or six people reading scripture, singing, playing piano. Sometimes my dad would come over and provide a lesson. The first time she went to one of these services, my grandmother described it to me in great detail, how the handful of people sang and prayed together. Her eyes filled with tears as she said, “That’s what church is supposed to be.” I think she might be onto something.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Martha Park
Martha Park is a writer and illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from The Rumpus, Granta, Ecotone Magazine, Image Journal, the Atlantic’s CityLab, and elsewhere. She was the Spring 2016 Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, and holds an MFA from Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing.