“It’s not that you accept gays and lesbians in your church, or even that they are part of your leadership, it’s that you joined an organization dedicated to them that we find offensive. If you will just leave the organization we can stop trying to disfellowship you.”
That was the message in 1995 as the American Baptist Churches of the West moved to remove four congregations – LABC, FBC Berkeley, San Leandro Community Church and New Community of Faith (San Jose) – from its membership for those congregations having joined the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
My response was rather curt, “Imagine that, a church taking its beliefs seriously enough to actually to put them into action. The Association of Welcoming and Affirming is not a large or strong organization. It is, however, an important one. It is a tangible message to some folks who have been unfairly condemned by many of their fellow Christians that there is a place for them in the love of God, the Christian faith and the Baptist family. In that, this little organization is an attempt to follow the command of Jesus to treat others the way we would want them to treat us we can’t just step away from it. That would be turning our back on love.”
All four churches stood strong so on Saturday, January 6, 1996, the American Baptist Churches of the West held a special meeting. In the morning session the rules of membership in the region were changed and in the afternoon session the four churches were voted out of membership for violation of the new rules.
My memories of the meeting itself have faded. I remember that it was very foggy in Sacramento when we arrived but that it was sunny when we went outside at meeting’s end.
I remember the pain on the face of long time American Baptist leaders like Shirley and Dick Jones as they, and their church, were described as a “cancer in the body that needs to be cut out.”
I remember the pleas to respect the freedoms at the heart of the Baptist tradition – Soul freedom, Bible freedom, Church freedom and Religious Freedom being described as unimportant.
I remember the church emptying very quickly after the final vote and those of us representing the disfellowshipped lingering in the parking lot trying to come to grips with the enormity of what had taken place.
I remember LABC gathering after worship the next morning to discuss our next steps and Susan Joachim, who had joined Lakeshore after growing up in, and working for, the Disciples of Christ, saying, “They can’t stop us from being Baptists!”
Of January 6, 1996, and of that period of time, I have often said “I wouldn’t want to go through that again. But neither would I trade it for anything.”
On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at 5:30 p.m. Pacific, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists will host a worship service in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Disfellowshipping. The service of song (Dale Edmondson has written a hymn for the occasion), prayer and testimony will lift up the pain of the event, its ongoing significance and the hope its memory calls forth. You can participate via the LABC Zoom channel. I sincerely hope that you will.
May our history of courage and our commitment to love bless the world, the Baptist tradition and our community in the year ahead.