On May 18th I was consecrated into the Order of Deaconess & Home Missioner of The United Methodist Church at the United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Columbus, OH. It was a joyous service that took place during opening worship where there were women on stilts with streamers, a sea of 6,000 United Methodist Women worshiping God, and in the crowd where my parents who had flown in from Seattle and two of my very best friends. My friends streamed the service from D.C. to Arizona to Seattle and even up in Alaska. It was a big deal. After 9 years of discernment in the church that I love, I found a home as Bishop Gregory V. Palmer laid his hands upon my head praying, “Irene DeMaris, I consecrate you to a lifetime of Jesus-like service under the authority of the church.”
I walked off that stage as a proud United Methodist Deaconess committed to a lifetime of love, justice, and service. It further strengthened my calling to bring forth the Kin-dom of God in the here and now in the world and within my chosen denomination.
The next step for a newly minted Deaconess or Home Missioner is to be commissioned by the bishop in the conference we live in. Most people are not aware of my Order, so just getting commissioned can be difficult, but my good friend and fellow Foundry United Methodist member, T.C. Morrow was on it with a call and a few emails to conference staff. I knew my commissioning was going to be hard as soon as they told me it was going to be during the Service of Ordination & Commissioning, since I was aware of the grumblings surrounding two of the clergy candidates up for a vote for commissioning and full-connection due to the fact they are in loving, stable marriages (as LGBTQIA+ folks). Even harder still is in my limited time in D.C., T.C. and her wife have become a good friends who have supported my calling, shown me grace, and made sure in all this mess my becoming a deaconess did not get lost in the shuffle.
How does one hold the tension of embracing her own calling while holding sorrow that those equally called are being denied? That’s how I entered annual conference as a friend and as a white cisgender straight woman who will never be discriminated over who I love.
The Board of Ordained Ministry had deemed T.C. and another friend fit for ministry, embracing their time, talent, skills, graces, and gifts for the work they are called to do. Then the bishop chose to uphold the Book of Discipline laws that deny full inclusion for those who are called to ordained ministry. Not following an unjust law is not unprecedented. I was livid and the atmosphere of the annual conference shifted to one of deep lament. One doesn’t need to spend more than a few minutes with either individual to know they are called by the grace of God for ordained ministry.
On Thursday at 11am I found myself in the hallway sobbing and unknowing if I could be commissioned at the 7pm service that day. I knew I would be face-to-face with the person whose actions the day before did further harm to my fellow siblings in Christ. I do not think that my bishop is a bad person, or isn’t in her heart of hearts progressive. She may have been backed into a corner, but I’m not here today making excuses for a bishop. I will say this. We talked about being one under the cross all week and not enough about why. Jesus spoke truth to power and laid it all on the line; we are not called to easy lives as followers of Jesus and sometimes we have to make risks. A prophetic voice was yearned for and it was denied. We were not one at the cross.
I made a few phone calls to see if I actually had to be commissioned. I technically did not. I knew bulletins weren’t being widely distributed, people didn’t really know me since I am new to the conference, and I was terrified something would come out of my mouth to the bishop and I would lose my job.
Between my good friend who sat with me, a phone call with the Executives at my Order, and messaging with another deaconess, I realized, this was something I needed to do. The liturgy mentioned Foundry and my faith community deserved some joy this year after two years of sorrow at annual conference. I needed my annual conference to know who I was and who I belonged to so that I could be more effective in ministry. I needed my bishop to know that in spite of the Spirit being denied, I would not let an unjust rule of law impact my calling.
Before the service I took a short nap and spent time in prayer lamenting the church I choose to stay in. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide me through it all.
She works in magnificent ways. As I hugged T.C. before the service I knew deep in my soul that this was the right thing. Then as I processed with my two friends who were representing Foundry United Methodist Church and my place of ministry, Wesley Theology Seminary, among a very different sea of people than in Columbus, the Spirit took over.
Joy was found in finding pink heeled footing in the questions Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling asked me. When she asked the first question, “Do you sincerely believe that you have been led by the Spirit of God to engage in this work and to assume its responsibilities?” I was able to find my voice and say “I do” from deep in my soul.
The moment was mine and the Holy Spirit worked through Bishop Easterling as I faced my new annual conference, I finally felt at home. I would see the group from Foundry to my left and that’s what mattered to me. Did I preemptively leave the stage and then bounce back in my heels? Yes. Did I ham it up? Yes. The Spirit needed joy and I was happy to oblige.
For a moment such as this, I found strength and hope in the Spirit and as God is my witness, the Spirit was working in my bishop. Can we be angry? Yes. Can we be hurt? Yes. But the Spirit abounds in grace. Grace that lives through us all. I hear that people are attacking our bishop and saying cruel things, that’s not what God wants. That is not the work of Jesus, that is what divides us at the cross.
The work is long and difficult, but the Kin-dom of God is worth it. Mourn, cry, lament, throw a cheap pair of heels. When you are ready, the movement for justice will be ready for you and it will be open wide for Bishop Easterling because I saw God in her and I know that she wants the Kin-dom as badly as I do.