What's Next For Faith Communities After February's Meetings?

Mar 4, 2019

Leaders of the Catholic Church and United Methodist Church recently held unprecedented conversations about the future of their institutions. These meetings could affect faith communities in Illinois.

The United Methodist Church is facing a fracture in its institution after voting to uphold restrictions on LGBTQ members.

More than 850 delegates of the United Methodist Church, or UMC, descended on St. Louis, MO, to decide if they would change the rule book of their denomination. At the heart of the session of their General Conference was LGBTQ inclusion. After four days and a nearly 50 - 50 vote, the UMC passed the Traditional Plan. This legislation affirms the UMC's ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.  

The District Superintendents for Rockford (left) Lisa Kruse-Safford and DeKalb (right) Young-Mee Park. Both districts are part of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

Jeffrey Bross, superintendent of the Aurora District of the Northern Illinois Conference, spoke with WNIJ before the session. He predicted the pain that could be caused if the Traditional Plan passed.

"How do you heal in that, if you decide to stay?" Bross wondered aloud. "How does the church heal with the fact that a group of people might leave their church? And overcome that sense of loss that people have left?"

 

The UMC operates as a connection of conferences around the world. Conferences are divided into districts and districts into local churches. Bross oversees 60 churches. He said he expects this next chapter to be more about harm reduction than policy changes. Bross noted people on both sides of the inclusion topic lived together awkwardly before the vote.

"I think it's not really a 'Don’t ask, don’t tell' but, for the most part, you don't seek out whether clergy are gay or not. We support folks who are, you know, we ordain - we're not actively seeking that out," said Bross.


The Traditional Plan was one of three proposed and is set to take effect in 2020. Policy won't change yet because a council must decide if the plan is in line with the church's constitution. The UMC has its own court system where these restrictions could have an impact.

"Whereas right now, you can be brought up on charges for some things around the issue of homosexuality," Bross said. "But for the most part, you don't, right? And this is gonna be a little more strict and so bishops have to act a certain way. You sign off that you're going to follow the discipline which says you can't do any of that completely."

Young-Mee Park is the district superintendent of DeKalb. Park said the United Methodist Church was misrepresented by the final vote because she sees inclusion in local congregations.

Delegate Shayla Jordan speaks at the Special Session of the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church live-streamed the conference online.
Credit United Methodist Church

"I'm not going to say that we are all like this, we all like that kind of thing," Park said. "But I see people (who are) open and willing in the spirit of compassion and respect."

She said it's not just queer clergy who are questioning if they have a place in the church. The future of gay staff remains unanswered.

"Actually I received some questions in that line," said Park. "'I'm divorced, can I continue to serve?' I was just so surprised to receive that question. My answer to that question: Who are we to tell them you cannot serve God and God's people?"

Park says this discussion and plan implementation is happening too quickly. Lisa Kruse-Safford is Rockford's superintendent. She said she spent the day after the conference demonstrating on a Rockford street corner with signs of universal welcome.

"I don't believe that this is done and settled because half of our church is unsettled by that," Kruse-Safford said.

It's difficult to say how many churches might leave the UMC now that the Traditional Plan was passed. The church's general budget up to 2020 is more than 600 million dollars. Kruse-Safford said it wasn't clear how funds and global presence would be affected if churches leave.

"It's something that my heart can't take in at this time because it's too heartbreaking to think about," she said.

It's also not clear how the Traditional Plan could be enforced since conferences essentially govern themselves. Park says this time of disagreement can be called "growing pains."

"In some sense, it can be an opportunity. We have to turn this as an opportunity so that we can gain more clarity about who we are and what our mission is. And personally, I'll do whatever I can so that we can get there," Park said.

That same weekend the Catholic Church held an unprecedented conference.

Pope Francis and nearly 200 clergy came together for a summit focused on finding a response to deeply-rooted sexual abuse in it's institution. Chicagoan Larry Antonsen watched along with the world as church leaders gathered for the four day summit in Rome. Antonsen said he looked on with genuine hope because he's a survivor of abuse.

A black and white picture of a young, teenage Larry Antonsen sits on his house piano.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

"I was sexually abused by a priest in high school. I thought he was a good friend," Antonsen said. "He would come to dinner at our house and I thought he was a good guy. He was fun, he was funny."

Antonsen said his life changed as a teenager when the priest took him to a secluded motel room in Milwaukee to take advantage of him.

"But then I completely blocked out of my mind. I mean completely, where I had this priest in class after that. I saw him socially, I saw him a lot of times and never once did the memory come back," he said.

Antonsen said it took more than 40 years before the memory resurfaced. By that time he was already ordained as a deacon in a Chicago parish.

"I took one whole year, never stepped a foot in a church," he said. "And my wife is the one that really kind of got me to go back. We were sitting (and) talking one night and she said, 'You know, you're letting the devil win.'"

He stayed in the Church despite his experience and is retired now. He said he didn't report the assault to law enforcement until recently, when the state Attorney General's office launched an investigation into clergy abuse. The Catholic Church said there are about 185 abuse cases in Illinois.

"And Lisa Madigan said there's probably 500," Antonsen said, referring to the former AG. "Now I've heard that it could be up to 700 more."

Antonsen is a leader in his local chapter of SNAP, a network of survivors of abuse by religious leaders.

"I think once you tell your story that first time, get it out, you can begin a healing process that maybe takes forever," he said.

Some abuse survivors shared their stories directly with the Pope at the recent summit. Antonsen said he can see himself in the discussions.  

"I listened to a few of the things from the stories that people told him and I can relate to them, you know, we can relate to how the church fights against survivors," he said.

The Pope proposed 21 reflection points that steered discussion over the course of the summit. Antonsen was frustrated that the points leave out zero-tolerance policies and youth protection.

"This should be about protecting kids -- That's what this is all about. That's what they should be concentrating on, you know, not hurting any more kids," said Antonsen.

The pope closed the meeting with a call for an 'all-out battle' against clergy sexual abuse.

"I think it still goes on, there's still cover-ups going on," said Antonsen. "If you're going to have a war you can't just yell back and forth at each other, you know, there's actions that have to be taken and they haven't taken those actions."

Father Dean Russell is with Saint Mary's Church in DeKalb.

"Hopefully, we've all become more aware of the need to pray for everyone and the need to take people seriously if they encounter an injustice wherever it occurs," said Russell.

Russell encouraged survivors to go to law enforcement first if a criminal act of sexual abuse takes place.

"Something that should go to the authorities should go the authorities, no matter who it is. And of course these things are happening in every realm, you know. It's in every faith and it's throughout our society. So wherever that takes place, there shouldn't be any exemptions for dealing justly with whatever the situation is," Russell said.

Catholic leaders aren’t the only ones grappling with sexual abuse allegations. The Houston Chronicle recently exposed cases in the Southern Baptist Church. "20 years, 700 victims," read the headline. The Southern Baptist Convention is part of the Illinois Baptist State Association, or IBSA. Nate Adams is executive director of the group. He said IBSA was grieved when the report came out.

"Any one incident is too many of sexual abuse, and especially when it happens in a trusting environment like a church setting," Adams said.

Since reports of abuse broke, Adams said the IBSA re-energized existing abuse services with more resources. He said people questioning if they're safe should advocate for themselves by asking about the policies in place.

"If I were going into a faith community -- especially with children and especially with teenagers or those that are more vulnerable -- I would want to have questions answered about what kind of safeguards the church has in place," said Adams.

Adams said he wants people to know that the leaders he knows are listening.

"I can see where it would be disillusioning for someone who is not in a community of faith to hear about these kind of practices taking place," Adams said.

In the meantime, Catholic survivors like Antonsen will have to wait to see the formation of firm policies.

Larry Antonsen points to a sketch hanging at his home of the Catholic Church that he says his wife grew up attending.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

"So I'm trying to look at positive things but I don't see any right now," he said. "I just don't, you know? We'll just have to wait and see what they do. I mean they have to do something. I think they have to something. I don't know that they have to think they have to do something yet, and if listening to the stories that they listened to all weekend didn't change some minds or change some hearts or attitudes then I don't know what will. I don't know what will."

Religious leaders from both the Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church have said it's a step in the right direction that the conversations in these historic meetings happened at all.