Imagine a faith community where your gender and sexual orientation is seen as a blessing and not a stigma. The United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline American protestant denomination with just over one million members. Over the past 15 years, this progressive faith movement has developed an inclusive theology and polity that welcomes the LGBT community with enthusiasm and gratitude.
Why can this happen so easily while other Christians are spending millions of dollars to keep us out of their churches and second-class citizens in our own country? The UCC community’s slogan of their successful outreach campaign is simply: “God is still speaking.” The faithful are encouraged not to “place a period where God has placed a comma.”
One of the most significant leaders in UCC to make all this a realty is the Rev. Michael Scheuemeyer, who is Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy based at the UCC’s headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. He will be in San Diego next week to receive an award from the St. Paul’s Foundation for his global advocacy for LGBT people and particularly within the difficult challenges of HIV prevention and services. He will also be speaking on Sunday morning, Feb. 17, at Mission Hills United Church of Christ as guest of the Rev. Scott Landis.
Scott and I have known Mike for many years. He is an extraordinary leader and has worked tirelessly within his denomination and ecumenically to build a strong ministry of advocacy and reconciliation. I first met him in Pasadena in the late 1980s when we were all struggling with an early LGBT movement that was largely rejected by the churches and the HIV epidemic. Mike was in the middle of the difficult struggle to have conversations between LGBT and straight people over the past 30 years. He worked in several congregations in California and for the past 10 years has been travelling across the country and the globe to create educational resources to help people of faith understand the important gifts LGBT people can bring to local congregations.
Advocacy for transgender issues – ahead of his time
In 2005, Mike produced an award-winning film,“Call Me Malcolm,” about a transgender seminarian's struggle with faith, love and gender identity. It was among the top-attended films at two international film festivals.
The 90-minute documentary tells the story of Malcolm E. Himschoot, then a third-year student at Iliff School of Theology, who was eventually ordained in 2004 by the UCC's Denver Metropolitan Association.
Mike was then the UCC's minister for LGBT concerns, says “Call Me Malcolm” is unique among documentaries that deal with transgender issues "because it focuses on gender identity as it relates to matters of faith, spirituality, vocation and human personhood. With enormous heart, integrity and sensitivity, Malcolm shares his own struggles and listens compassionately to [others], as he comes to terms with who he is and God's claim on his life."
In 2008, Mike joined over 6,000 California-based clergy to support the right for same-gender couples to marry in California. UCC filed amicus briefs (friend of the court) with other local and national faith communities as a result of collaboration with Eric Isaacson (who will also receive an award on the same evening). Mike has since worked in every state that has fought for marriage equality. After a federal judge in California struck down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional, Mike said:
"I applaud the court’s ruling. It honors all families in our communities and is an important step for equality and justice for everyone. This ruling is not about what religious institutions have to do, it is about the role of the state to treat all of its citizens fairly and equally, and the importance of respecting religious liberty. Same-sex couples should have the right to marry because it is the only way to honor religious liberty. Many of our United Church of Christ pastors and congregations perform religious marriage rites for same-sex couples, and do so out of their theological convictions. This in no way inhibits others from refraining to do so out of their own convictions. It is not the role of government to interfere and deny anyone this basic right based on gender."
HIV global issues
Mike and I began working together on issues of LGBT global equality in 2010 and his strong connections with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance in Geneva and the United Nations allowed Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda to give testimony at the UN’s Civil Society High Level meeting in 2011.
Our focus was ensuring LGBT issues were addressed in the future AIDS plan for the UN and with the Religious Right’s almost successful attempt to have the LGBT issue side-lined. Mike was a skilled diplomat to ensure “Men who have Sex with Men” (MSM) were somehow included in the final AIDS Declaration. A lot of people worked on this strategy to make it happen, but there was not a religious leader who worked harder and more strategically on this issue than Mike Scheunemeyer.
With LGBT people criminalized in 76 countries, it was vital to have these populations mentioned in the final report so funding and resources could be made available in the near future. Millions of people are affected by these kinds of deliberate exclusions. Mike pulled out every resource and connection he had to make this happen.
In July 2012, Mike was also really helpful to invisible communities in the Global South who wanted to attend the International AIDS Conference. Mike worked very hard to raise $13,000 among his friends and congregations to ensure our St. Paul’s project to bring 26 people to Washington could actually happen. He was also part of the planning team for the Interfaith Pre-conference in Washington attended by over 500 people including our representatives of the Spirit of 76 Initiative. It was incredible to have these authentic witnesses present with us for two weeks and Mike was as thrilled as I was to get to know these incredibly courageous leaders who are still working closely with us.
Among the myriad organizations he serves, he is a member of the National LGBT Task Force’s Religious Leadership Roundtable and was recently honored by the City of Cleveland for his faith leadership during this week’s Cleveland LGBT Heritage Day.
The Task Force Faith Work Director, the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, adds:
“When I think of the kind of faith leadership that is humble and fierce, gently relentless about justice and love, I think of the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer. I’m honored to call him a colleague and friend.”
Rebecca says it all. I am also honored to call him a colleague and a friend! So please join us as we celebrate Valentine’s Day Dinner at Heat, one of San Diego’s newest restaurants on Feb. 14. $100 tickets are going fast so please reserve your table or seat HERE.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.