Justice, Love, and Compassion on Trial

–Why I Took Part in the Jimmy Creech Protest Demonstration

by L. Victoria Peterson

 Demonstration By mario beauregard

Why did more than 100 persons leave their homes and jobs and go to the middle of Nebraska in November where they would be greeted by both cold weather and a cold spiritual climate? I think they wanted to be a part of history. They wanted to call attention to the spiritual violence that they believed the United Methodist Church was perpetrating against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender persons. They wanted to show their support for the first United Methodist minister who had publicly challenged the church’s ban on same-sex unions. I was one of the group who came to that gathering in Grand Island, Nebraska.

On Trial
The Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church was scheduled to try the minister, Jimmy Creech, on November 17-18, 1999. He was charged with disobeying the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church, specifically paragraph 65c of the Social Principles, which states that “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

Creech had performed a covenant ceremony for two men in North Carolina on April 24 of that year. Two years earlier, he had been on trial for performing a ceremony for two women in Omaha, Nebraska. That time he had been narrowly acquitted of breaking church law but was not reappointed to his position as senior pastor of Omaha’s First United Methodist Church. Taking a leave of absence, he had moved to North Carolina, but was still considered under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska U. M. Conference Now he was facing another trial there.

The trial would take place at the Trinity United Methodist Church at Grand Island, Nebraska. Creech’s response to the charge was that the prohibition was unjust and in conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ. “I will not uphold bigotry,” he wrote to Bishop Joel Martinez of Nebraska.

Why I Participated 
I went to Grand Island partly because I had come to know and admire Jimmy Creech when he was my pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Omaha. He officiated at the funeral of my husband in 1996. Eight months later he conducted my daughter’s wedding. His wife, Chris Weedy, also earned a place in my heart.

The Ministry of Soulforce 
A prominent leader of those supporting Creech was the Rev. Dr. Mel White, co-founder of Soulforce Inc., a California-based ecumenical network of volunteers committed to applying the principles of nonviolence on behalf of sexual minorities.

Rev. White was instrumental in bringing to Grand Island Soulforce volunteers from 20 states across the nation. Other caring people, many from Nebraska, joined these volunteers the night before the trial to learn the Soulforce principles of nonviolent direct action as taught by Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The training was serious, but Rev. White’s humor added a spark. “Years ago there was no room for Jesus at the inn, but there is room for him at the Holiday Inn,” he said, referring to the Midtown Holiday Inn where the training in nonviolent response took place. Soulforce people wore white sweatshirts with the big letters STOP SPIRITUAL VIOLENCE on the front. They were also required to wear around their necks a card showing that they had taken the training in nonviolent resistance.

Claiming Sacred Space
The instructions were not to look at, speak to, or smile at the anti-gay persons who might be carrying posters visible from the church setting. Interact with God, not these people, and “claim that space for God and good and truth,” he counseled. A few anti-gay protestors stood across the street from the church on both days.

Recommitment Ceremony 
After the evening meal, people crowded into one of the party rooms at the Midtown Holiday Inn to witness the renewal of the vows of Larry Ellis and James Raymer, the couple previously united in April by Creech. Local churches had declined to provide a place for a recommitment ceremony. TV personnel and cameras lined the back of the room, and Creech, in a cleric’s collar and white robe, stood at the front, along with his assistant.

Ellis and Raymer, in black tuxedos, exchanged vows in a setting that included a call to worship, scripture reading, solos, the exchange of rings, communion, and the benediction and recessional. After Creech’s announcement pronouncing them life partners, other gay and lesbian couples renewed their vows before the assembly. As in a traditional wedding, the guests then enjoyed cake and conversation.

Then came time for the press conference and the nitty-gritty down-to-business making of a statement, followed by the start of the 24-hour candlelight vigil. A number of brave persons (not me) worked a shift holding candles outside the church throughout the night.

My niece, who had been choir director at the Grand Island church where the trial was to be held, participated in this candlelight vigil and other activities that preceded the trial. She called it a “slumber party for grownups.” The camaraderie and conversations among those huddling in their parkas and warm gloves and getting acquainted were probably something to be savored in times to come.

The “Most Senior” Participant
It looked like a “sea of white” the next morning when the approximately 120 persons, clad in their special sweatshirts from the nonviolence training, stood quietly outside the back entrance to the Grand Island church. Someone later told me that I was the “most senior” person there. At age 73, probably so.

It was 7 a.m., and we took care to look only at one another or at media persons preparing for whatever was going to happen. The winter sky kept getting lighter. Only soft humming and the by-now-familiar piercing whistle of a train broke the stillness.

Time passed. We shifted our weight from one foot to the other. Some of us leaned against the building. I am sure many were praying silently. Reporters and TV crews moved about with microphones and cameras.

Immediately in front of the church door, clergy, their spouses, and other supporters of Creech locked arms, blocking the entrance. It was to be a “symbolic blockade,” an act of civil disobedience.

Mel White had said that Soulforce was committed to nonviolence. “For us ‘to disrupt’ or ‘to prevent’ the trial would be an act of violence,” he had assured the officer who presided over the trial, Bishop William Grove of Charleston, W. VA. and the Nebraska bishop, Joel Martinez, in letters sent before the trial. Every Soulforce delegate had signed a pledge of nonviolence.

Soulforce recognized that the bishops did not have the legal authority under church law to cancel the trial, but, said White, “You have the moral authority ‘to prevent’ it by refusing to walk up those eleven steps to the Sanctuary of Trinity UMC.”

The locked arms of the volunteers at the entrance would serve as a symbol to give the bishops pause and remind them that they could still stop the trial from moving forward by refusing to participate in it. They could do this as an act of conscience and moral courage.

You are arrested!
Finally, after what seemed like an hour, a police car drove by. Rev. White had made previous arrangements with the Grand Island police and county sheriff as to possible arrests. Then, escorted by police on motorcycles, a bus pulled up, supposedly containing the bishops and potential jurists. Camera crews sprang into action. Bishop Grove asked the Soulforce delegation to move. No one did. Silence and time ruled the moment. Then a Grand Island officer commanded: “Move away or be arrested.” Nothing happened.

“You are arrested!” The words prompted our applause and signaled our support for the persons locking arms at the church door. But now I had to make a decision. Was I going to be among those arrested?

The Big Decision 
My niece immediately joined those crossing the street to the abandoned school building where those arrested for trespassing were held. Thinking I would regret it if I did not participate, I found myself walking toward the old brick building, bringing up the rear. We-about 73 of us-stood in a dark hall (no comfortable waiting room with chairs, TV and coffee). Later some men climbed ladders and installed light bulbs. It was probably Rev. White who saw that a few folding chairs were brought in. His partner, Gary Nixon, was handling the financial part.

As we got nearer the officers processing the arrests with fines and costs ($48), we could hear children’s voices singing, “We Shall Overcome.” I could see no children-it must be angels, I fantasized. Later I saw the kids hovering in a hole in the wall near the outside door.

The Trial
About 8 o’clock, Creech was escorted into the church-alone-for the jury selection. At 10, the trial began in the sanctuary of the church, with several hundred on hand. Creech sat at the front with his wife and stepdaughter Natalia. The jury consisted of 4 women and 11 men, two being alternates.

Bishop Grove addressed the group, asking that there be no demonstrations. He lit a candle as a visual reminder of unity and opened with scripture and the Lord’s Prayer. He read the charge. Since Creech believed the law was unjust and that participating in the trial by defending himself would be honoring the unjust law, he did not seek counsel, did not enter a plea, and did not participate in jury selection.

The proceedings moved on, and then Creech addressed the jury. He spoke for nearly an hour and his closing statement was nothing less than “a manifesto of faithfulness, sensitivity, passion and solidarity,” according to the Rev. Greg Dell, director of In All Things Charity. (In All Things Charity is a national organization of United Methodist clergy and laity working for change in the Church’s position on homosexuality. )

Creech bemoaned the unfairness of the rule prohibiting same-sex unions in United Methodist church buildings or by United Methodist clergy. Creech was not criticizing the idea of discipline and order in itself. “The process is honorable,” he said, “but it should uphold just and fair laws that give order as to how we live our lives as part of the body of Christ.” Claiming that “the process has been corrupted,” he said that in some instances, “ministers must lie about who they are in order to be ordained.” He said the passages in Leviticus and Romans have to do with rape, adultery, and exploitation, not with loving relationships. Then: “We do not require everyone to be chaste just because of a few verses about heterosexual violence.” He spoke about persons he had known who had made the intense struggle from self-hatred to being able to love themselves. “It took a lot of courage,” he said, because the church rejects them.

Saying that the trial was not about him but about a bad law, Creech asked the jury to refrain from rendering a verdict, thereby not giving honor to an unjust law and allowing the church to use its resources to persecute people.

Waiting for the Outcome
After lunch the verdict came: all 13 jurors said guilty. There followed a long anxious wait for the announcement about the penalty. This was the hard part. We went for a bite of food. We waited-and waited some more. We watched the steps leading into the church. People came and went. Reporters hung around. Children colored in their books in the shade of the building. The Grand Island church showed great hospitality: veggies and dip and other snacks and drinks were available in the church parlor. It was almost like a picnic-had it not been for the extreme seriousness of the moment.

It was late in the afternoon when Creech finally came out of the church, facing reporters, camera crews, and supporters. After 29 years as a United Methodist minister, he had been stripped of his ordination. Mel White later wrote that he will never forget the sad look in Creech’s eyes. Losing credentials as a minister in the church he loved was almost too much. The Soulforce group then formed support around Creech and his family, and Jimmy Creech gave a statement to the press. It was all over.

I am grateful that I could attend the trial even though the penalty was so unfair and damaging. The United Methodist Church does not know what it has done-it has defrocked one of the best ministers in the world. I know that the Jimmy Creech that we came to love will continue to witness in many ways, even if not in the pulpit.

© 1999 Evangelical &  Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update,  volume 23, number4 Winter 1999-2000
Lois Victoria Peterson
“Lois Victoria Peterson, widowed and the mother of three, was a legal secretary. As an older student, she earned her Bachelor of General Studies degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She now serves on the board of the Omaha chapter of Nebraskans for Peace, the oldest statewide peace organization in the nation. She edited her mother’s translation from the Swedish of the book Sunshine Singer, a biography of J. A. Hultman written by Oscar Lovgren.”