“When is the church coming with food? I’m coming when they are here. They make sure we have something to eat. And they make pies.”
Last Wednesday Gary and I went with a small group to the Ruth Ellis Center (REC) in Highland Park, within metro Detroit. It’s part of our commitment to visit every outreach and mission ministry of the congregation. Every third Wednesday of the month, our church brings dinner to 40-50 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and young adults between the ages of 14 and 23.
The mission of the Ruth Ellis Center is “to provide short and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, and questioning youth.” The REC is the only organization in the country with a residential program for LGBTQ youth in the foster care and juvenile justice system, especially youth experiencing homelessness. “The church” served chicken pot pie, rolls, applesauce, and pop. And she made pies: apple and pecan.
It’s been a tough ten days for the rest of The United Methodist Church. On November 15, the Council of Bishops “respectfully” requested that a formal complaint be filed against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert for officiating at a same-sex union on October 26 in Birmingham, Alabama. The Council decided that this union violated the The Book of Discipline 2012 for undermining the ministry of a colleague (paragraph 2702.1f) and for conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference. And she made pies: apple and pecan.
“What’s going on in southeast Pennsylvania?” one of my children emailed a week ago with a link to a news release, “Methodist Jury Convicts Pastor for Officiating at Son’s Wedding.” I was born and raised in southeast PA, and my family still lives there.
Six years ago, Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, PA, officiated at the same-sex wedding of his gay son in a private ceremony in Massachusetts. Shortly before the six-year statute of limitations expired, a complaint was filed. Last Monday a United Methodist jury of clergy found Rev. Schaefer guilty of violating paragraph 2702.1f of The Book of Discipline 2012. On Tuesday Rev. Schaefer was sentenced to a thirty day suspension and was told that if he was not willing to follow church law, he would have to surrender his clergy credentials. And she made pies: apple and pecan.
“What’s going in in The United Methodist Church?” asked someone in our sixty-member women’s book study group last Tuesday morning. “I read the headlines in the paper. Do we really have church trials?” We talked about the official stance of The United Methodist Church around homosexuality, the nature of church trials, and the role of our Book of Discipline 2012. We wrestled with it means for United Methodists to freely to differ with one another on social and theological issues while still being held accountable to our church law. And she made pies: apple and pecan.
Five thousand youth, primarily African-American, are served every year at the Ruth Ellis Center. The Drop-In Center offers a computer lab, clothes closet, showers, laundry service, counseling, life skills training, and job search assistance. A street ministry also distributes socks and underwear and offers information and training about safe sex and preventive medicine.
Detroit’s poverty rate of 42% has been the highest in the nation since the recession. Henry Walker, director of the Drop-In Center, told us that of the one thousand homeless youth on the streets of Detroit every night, 40% are LGBTQ youth. The Ruth Ellis Center provides a safe haven and place of connection for youth who have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation. The stigma of their sexuality causes these youth to be highly vulnerable on the streets and at great risk for sexual assault, violence, and substance abuse.
“Who was Ruth Ellis?” I ask our leader. Ruth Ellis was born in 1899 and was one of the first openly lesbian African-American women in our country, which was unprecedented in her time. From 1946 to 1971 Ruth and her life partner Babe Franklin opened their Detroit home to African-American gays and lesbians before the Civil Rights movement, when there were few other social venues for blacks. They provided safety and encouragement and helped many through college. Eventually a board of directors was formed, and the Ruth Ellis Center was funded as a critical youth social services agency in Metro Detroit. Oh, and they made pies: apple and pecan.
Cindy greets us when we arrive. I ask how she found the Ruth Ellis Center, and Cindy says that her girlfriend was thrown out of her home and found housing at the REC. Now Cindy is on the staff. It’s clear that the youth and young adults at the Drop-In Center feel safe to be their authentic selves. They shoot billiards, listen to music, use computers, and chill out.
After the youth and young adults finish their meal, they begin to dance, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. It’s a unique dance form known as vogue, a kind of dancing that would not be safe to perform on the streets, according to a National Public Radio All Things Considered segment earlier this year on the Ruth Ellis Center. (http://www.npr.org/2013/05/17/180326971/michigan-lgbt-youth-center-does-outreach-with-a-dance-hook) Through dancing the LGBTQ youth are free to be themselves.
Henry tells us that ours is the only church that makes a monthly commitment to serve dinner. Reminding us that many of these youth have been rejected by their parents and beaten up by their church, Henry insists that the consistency and compassion of our presence has made a huge difference.
Why do we make apple and pecan pies for the Ruth Ellis Center? Because pies are an outward and visible sign of compassion. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” God put us on this earth to show compassion to and suffer with others.
We also make pies because pies are a comfort food, and God knows that United Methodists could use a little comfort right now. No one wants faithful clergy who are following their heart to be put on trial. No one wants to hurt our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. No one wants to disenfranchise anyone else. We are not of one mind, yet we become one heart when we suffer with and show compassion to the very least of God’s children.
She had compassion. That’s why she made pecan and apple pies for LGBTQ youth and young adults. I don’t know what she believes about homosexuality, but it doesn’t matter. All I know is that she lovingly baked delicious homemade pies that were so good that the youth and young adults came back for seconds and thirds and said, “Thank you so much.” All I know is that she was trying to be in the world who God is: compassion incarnate.
On Thanksgiving I am going to give thanks for the Ruth Ellis Center and for all people who reach beyond their comfort zone to make apple and pecan pies for anyone who is not like them. And before I eat my own pie, I am going to pray for safety, support, and community for all those who will be on the streets on Thursday.
Thanksgiving means nothing without Thanks-living, and Thanks-living means nothing without compassion. As long as we show compassion we’ll be okay. So we continue to make pies: apple and pecan.