A Pastoral Letter to the Laurel Heights Congregation

Dear friends in Christ:

As most of you are aware, yesterday marked the end of a called session of our denomination’s General Conference in St. Louis. The conference contained many beautifully poignant and prayerful dimensions, a rich and textured reminder of the friendship, the koinonia, we share in Christ with so many across the world. As a reserve delegate, I was privileged to share in that glorious experience of “world communion”—literally—as I happened to be participating in a plenary session when the Eucharist was shared by the entire body.

But the General Conference proceedings also contained contentious and even very painful elements, as delegates discussed legislative changes to our Book of Discipline relating to our full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church. These discussions were complicated, at times muddled, and by the end of our work, deeply unsatisfying to most of those present, as well as to United Methodists everywhere who followed the proceedings. As the congregation I love and serve, I have held you in my heart through this entire process, even as I know you have also held me and our dear church in your prayers. In the midst of this sometimes dispiriting work of General Conference, I have felt carried and sustained by these gifts of prayer.

The legislation that by the end of the conference was approved, a Modified Traditional Plan, passed by a 53% to 47% margin, indicating a dramatically divided global body. The One Church Plan recommended by our bishops, which I had hoped would be adopted, failed by a similar margin.

The approved plan would normally go into effect January 1, 2020. However, it contains several significant unconstitutional elements, elements that will likely be deemed such by the church’s Judicial Council when that group meets to review the plan in April. This outcome would mean that the UMC is effectively in a status quo position, with very little having changed in our governance or policies from last week to this week.

This is a tender and even painfully disillusioning time for many, and so I want to remind us to be particularly aware of those around us for whom these expressions and developments are experienced as hurtful or harmful. I ask you to be for one another the church I have experienced you to be since becoming your pastor—a congregation of care, attentiveness, protectiveness toward another, welcome toward the stranger, and in all things, grace.

Rev. Brian Adkins, a member of Commission on the Way Forward, shared this message with the church that I want to underscore in this moment: “LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Churches around the world: you are beloved of God. No matter what happens [at General Conference] or anywhere else, there is a place for you at God’s table . . . .”

Sunday we will gather at that table, God’s table, lovingly prepared at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church to welcome all to partake. Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, signifies many things—our unity as the body of Christ across differences and divisions; manna to sustain us through the wilderness journeys of life; the call to welcome the hungry, lonely, and excluded to the church’s banquet; and the abundance of God’s gracious provision of renewed strength, rekindled hope, forgiveness, and new life for all. Knee-bent and body-bowed we will come; raised up as children of the resurrection, beloved of God, we will go. I will be there as your pastor both to offer these treasured signs of grace, signified in bread and cup, and to receive them from your hand.

Before and after, know that my door is open, and I welcome your visits, calls, emails, letters, or other ways that might be helpful to you in processing this moment in our denomination’s life, and in ours as a congregation. Further, those interested are invited to gather on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. or next Sunday, March 10th at 10:00 a.m. for information sessions on General Conference. Following Sunday’s meeting is a separate Gathering for Prayer and Reflection in the chapel at 4:30, for those who wish to share that time together. I will also share my understanding and impressions of General Conference at our Administrative Council meeting on Tuesday, March 5th at 6:30 p.m., and all are invited to that session as well.

We are the church, and in our individual lives and common life together we seek to bear witness to a Savior who has broken down the dividing walls, making peace and creating one new humanity by means of his cross (Ephesians 2). This is who we are, and who, by grace, we are becoming. Our General Conference did not altogether succeed in that regard this past week; may we do better going forward from here.

I’ll see you at the welcoming table.

Grace and peace.
Paul Escamilla