Imagine that your 42 year old son has died after a four year battle with a rare disease that has destroyed his internal organs. You are grieving at his casket the night of the wake when an official of the church—-the church which earlier in this horrid week approved the ceremony—-calls you, informing you that they can no longer honor your request to have the funeral in the church as planned tomorrow.
“Why?” you ask.
“Because we found out your son was married…to a man.”
The conversation may not have been in those exact words, but that’s what happened to Julie Atwood a few weeks ago when the Reverend T. W. Jenkins, Pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida, officially cancelled her son’s funeral the night before it was to take place the next day. Her son, Julion Evans, was married to Kendall Capers two years ago after 17 years together.
“It was devastating,” Ms. Atwood said of the experience. “I did feel like he (Julion) was being denied the dignity of death.” Church officials told Ms. Atwood it would be “blasphemous” to have the funeral in the church, the same church where she was baptized and where family members still attend.
Kendall Capers expressed to Tampa Bay NBC affiliate WFLA that he understood the Pastor’s position but added that the abrupt cancellation was “disrespectful” and “wrong.”
“Regardless of our background, our sexual orientation, how can you wait that long and put someone in a bind when they’re going through a loss? asked Capers.
They did have the service at the funeral home where the wake had been held, but many mourners missed the service because they went to New Hope Church, unaware that the venue had been changed the night before.
What to make of this?
I can understand Pastor Jenkins dilemma. For whatever reason, he apparently wasn’t aware that Mr. Evans and Mr. Capers were a gay couple. When several irate church members brought it to his attention, he made a decision not to violate his own principles: “I try not to condemn anyone’s lifestyle, but at the same time, I am a man of God and have to stand upon my principles.”
And ultimately, Reverend Jenkins and his church had every right to refuse the family’s request for the funeral in the church.
And yet, more than a principle is involved here. These are real people with real feelings: grieving people, hurting people, desperate people.
People needing a word of hope.
But hope is not what they received from a people whose church is named New Hope.
Pastor Jenkins said he tries not “to condemn anyone’s lifestyle.” Yet two person’s lifestyle is the very reason he refused to conduct the funeral.
As a pastor, I’m sure I’ve conducted funerals for people whose lifestyle I didn’t approve: people addicted to alcohol and drugs, adulterers, gossips, hypocrites. But conducting a funeral is not necessarily an endorsement of the deceased’s lifestyle choices.
Pastor Jenkins and the church could have made that clear to the family and gone ahead with the funeral as planned.
But even then, is it always necessary for a church to point out to the grievers all the areas where the deceased’s lifestyle was at variance with the church’s standards? Does that help mourners work through their grief?
And what if not all the deceased’s family shares all the pastor’s principles? The couple in question certainly didn’t view their sexual orientation as blasphemous, nor did they think it necessary to hide it: “It’s not like we woke up and said, ‘let’s be gay,’ someone we were born with and we’ve dealt with it for me, 40 years, him 42 years, and we make the best possible choices,” said Capers to WFLA. Granted, their lifestyle was in violation of this particular church’s principles, but is refusing to minister to the grieving the best way to convince them to live by a church’s teaching?
Perhaps in their minds, the pastor and people were expressing love by their harsh actions. Maybe they thought such a demonstration of “tough love” would prompt sinners to repent. If so, New Hope would not be the first to justify their actions with that kind of reasoning. Indeed, such rationalization was institutionalized during a dismal era of the church, the Medieval Inquisition, when the church resorted to torture in order to ferret out heresy.
No, I don’t believe the family of Julion Evans is feeling the love, at least not from New Hope.
Love will have to come from another kind of Christianity, a Christianity intent on loving people unconditionally, even those people who do not abide by the church’s principles.