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Out of the frying pan

by GWEN FAULKENBERRY | December 4, 2022 at 2:26 a.m.

Last March I wrote a piece about leaving my beloved spiritual home, the Southern Baptist Church, and how painful it was, like a death. The hegira happened over a year before that, but I had just come to a place of enough healing, and distance, that I could begin to put it into perspective.

I also was influenced by how spring and its natural rhythms correlate with my internalized church calendar. Easter approached. And with it, I hoped, the possibility of a church-going resurrection.

That hope was fueled by the fact that my family had been visiting a local United Methodist Church. I don't want to over-dramatize, but the picture that comes to mind is a little caravan of vagabonds: aged 50ish father and mother, bent and dragging; a daughter in law school and just out of back surgery, a son in his first year of college, a teenage daughter, and another daughter, a child. Dressed in rags. Nothing to offer. Tired. Dirty. Bruised. Jaded. Needy. Rough hands, parched throats, starving.

We collapsed onto their pews and rested. They fed us. Washed our feet. Refreshed us. Soothed our souls with their songs about Love.

There was intelligent, creative, and relevant discussion of scripture. There was prayer for schools, teachers, and children. For the community. For all other churches, called "sister churches" in our town, considered family. We were welcomed to the communion table, and offered the body of Christ, broken for us.

This good, sweet, pure moment seemed pregnant with promise. And then someone asked us: How do you feel about disaffiliation?

I did not understand specifically what they were talking about, but I can tell you how I felt in that moment, hearing that one word. It's the same way I feel now after being educated on the issues dividing United Methodists: I feel sick. Sick of the termination of affiliation.

I am struck by the parallels between the UMC and political culture of this time. In a description I read by the newly retired bishop here in Arkansas, the church's struggles are almost exactly the same ones I have as a writer, person of faith, and advocate for unity in our state and country in spite of what feel like insurmountable differences.

I am certain others have a different opinion, having also read some of those. But my take as a visitor to the Methodist church, and why I am drawn to it, is that it seems to be one last institution that stands between the increasing isolationist politics of the evangelical community and more High-Church or, especially for rural people, no-church options.

In my work I sometimes feel like I am trying to bridge a gap between two positions that are foreign to each other and often hostile. We could label these places loosely according to conservative/liberal extremes, different generations, political parties, whatever; but we all generally know the lay of the land.

I am not in denial of irreconcilable differences. But once you take the extremes out of it--the real white supremacists and LGBTQ haters on the right-wing fringe, for instance--along with the literal far left and their intellectual/spiritual tone deafness and lack of humility, you have this group of people who surely can learn to dwell together in peace despite differences. Who must. It seems the survival of the United Methodist Church as well as a healthy American democracy depends on such a group.

It is not easy. I am not talking about standing in a circle holding hands and singing Kumbaya. The differences good people have in the middle are real. I risk the ire of some on both sides when I say it--which actually helps prove my point--but not every Democrat is evil or misled and not every Republican is stupid or a fraud. Not everyone against gay marriage hates gays. Not everyone for the right to abortion devalues human life. Not everyone who wants a private school voucher wants to destroy public education. Not everyone for more gun control wants to take away our guns.

What seems to be lost on many is the art of compromise in service of the greater good. I don't mean some lofty communist ideal of greater good in sacrifice of the individual. I mean the belief that we as individuals are better off in community with others who work with us when we agree and challenge us when we don't. This is the most patriotic American notion possible: One nation formed out of many is much stronger than a string of bubbles that each contain a few likeminded souls.

Sustaining unity is hard work. Ask any successful family. But to quote my mom, nothing worth having ever comes easy. And to quote my dad, hard work pays off. Individual rights do not mean every individual gets their own way about everything. That is not freedom. We must distill our essentials to those few things most important to us, and stand on them, with respect for others who differ.

And in the non-essentials, to paraphrase John Wesley as well as "Frozen's" Elsa, let it go. The UMC is bravely trying hard to hold that messy middle ground where I live and where I believe a lot of other people live. It is not a comfortable place. But it matters that it remains. Moderates must moderate. And mediate. If the center cannot hold, to quote Yeats, things fall apart. The UMC becomes either fundamentalist or universalist. And America becomes blue or red.

It is easy to lose hope that maintaining a middle ground is possible. But isn't that the dream--the ideal--that is America? I want no part of ceding my ideal of a diverse church and country to the either/or crowd. I want no part of giving up on the possibility for change and growth and overcoming our differences someday. I definitely don't fit in a far right-wing congregation. But I don't fit on the other extreme either.

That is why I empathize with Methodist friends who feel anguish at the thought of giving up the church that gave their faith a home. I am not one of those with much experience in the UMC so I feel it less keenly I'm sure.

But there is heartache in relinquishing the idea that a faith home like this one--that attempts the loosely controlled chaos of a diverse faith in Jesus--can exist in an organized way. For the caravan of vagabonds we are, the experience has been like finding a place we might call home and then discovering it was on fire.

I don't know how much I can help save it or if I can at all, much like everything else I do with my life. Most of my efforts feel like a drop in the bucket. But I am thankful for those in the UMC as well as the USA who don't give up. Let us not grow weary.

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. ( Email her at

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