I am not a divider, am I?
1995 Medford Mail Tribune Headline
I serve a church in Ashland, Oregon. We are on the very southern edge of the Oregon/Idaho border, yet in one incident in our local church life, we were brought into the very center of one of the most important global conversations the greater church has had in the last 50 years—whether or not to ordain and fully include LGBTQIA people in the church.
This past All Saints Day, we had a chance to remember two of our most precious Ashland saints. The scripture I chose for this last All Saints Sunday was not a traditional ‘all saints’ scripture. I had been walking the congregation through weeks of parables, digging into these stories ‘set in the real world’ that ‘tell something about humanity’ and ‘something about God.[i] Months earlier, I had chosen Luke 12:13-21 for that Sunday, a parable about a rich fool who tried to keep all of God’s blessings to himself. I had lined this up with Thomas 72, which parallels two of the verses:
A man said to him: Speak to my brothers that they might divide my father’s possessions with me. He said to him: O man, who made me a divider? He turned to his disciples and said to them: I am not a divider, am I? [ii]
You can map out worship for weeks at a time and plan ahead, but parish life will always bring you something that interrupts. The interruption was a parishioner with a newspaper article. He shared a story that day with me that I knew had to be told for All Saints. This interruption pulled me simultaneously out of sequence and deeper into the parable than I could have ever imagined.
Entertaining angels unawareIt started about 1991. Ashland Methodist had visitors to the church service, a lesbian couple, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill. When it was the time for the welcome, they stood up, as was the custom at the church then, and introduced themselves. They explained that they were lesbians, they were married, and they were looking for a church home.
“We are hoping we will be welcomed,” they said.
Rev. Sue Owen was serving the Ashland church as the pastor in 1991. I called and asked her what things were like at Ashland Methodist then. She shared that like a number of churches, Ashland Methodist had already had a number of conversations about
Rev. Owen continued to teach about the need to include all people in the life of the church. Though there had been Bible studies about the subject, another
Michelle and Roxy stayed despite the anger and fear that swirled in the church. They offered themselves and their life experience as ambassadors to facilitate conversations. They were open and were willing to answer questions about what it meant to be gay or lesbian.
Despite such kind and generous women as examples, the Ashland church council was divided right down the middle when, in 1993, they brought the question of inclusion of gay and lesbian people to a vote. The chair of the council was faced with casting the deciding vote, but in doing so his vote would have been contrary to the wishes of his spouse. Rev. Owen declared at the time that this was simply too divisive and too close. The church decided to wait.
Meanwhile, Michelle and Roxy simply were part of the life of the church. They became Lay Delegates to Annual Conference for the Oregon-Idaho Conference and took up the role of ambassadors there, as well. They endured many fraught conversations—or rather shouting matches—at Annual Conference as delegates from local churches across Oregon and Idaho debated about the salvation and humanity of its LGBTQIA siblings. Michelle and Roxy bore these rancorous debates with grace, love, and openness.
Rev. Owen remembers “They never got angry, no matter what horrible things were said. They believed love was the way, and that was how the world would change.”
A couple goes missing and a community shows upRev. Owen left Ashland Methodist to serve as District Superintendent in Bend, OR. But on December 5, 1995, she got a phone call from someone at the church telling her that Roxanne and Michelle had gone missing. The caller wanted to know, had they by chance come to visit her in Bend?
That ominous call came from Ashland Methodist. News that the women were missing sparked fear for their wellbeing and a panicked effort to find the missing women. Rev. Michael Powell who was then serving the church shared that when news broke that the women were missing, “it was pretty obvious that there was something really, really wrong.”
An all–out search was undertaken to find them in Ashland and Southern Oregon. Five thousand flyers were distributed across Jackson and Josephine Counties
Over the next few
And everywhere, there were vigils where people prayed for the women’s return. Rev. Owen attended vigils in Bend and in Portland with then Bishop William Dew. These vigils broke out widely across faith traditions, around the country, and among the burgeoning LGBT community.
Rev. Powell fielded many questions from media and others about the relationship of this lesbian couple to the church. He says, “I minced no words. Yes, they were lesbian, yes, they were good Christian women, and yes, we loved them.” His words drew some hate mail, but by far, more than 90% of cards and letters spoke words of love, encouragement, and fear at what might have happened.
A terrible discoveryOn December 7, Roxanne’s pickup truck was found in a parking spot at a Medford Apartment complex. In the back of the truck, police found the bodies of the two women. They had been murdered. They had been bound and shot execution-style in the head. The murderer had then covered their bodies with empty boxes and left.
With such a horrific murder, but a motive and the perpetrator unknown and at large, anxiety locally and nationally increased. Robert Bray, then part of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was quoted in the local Ashland Daily Tidings as saying, “Gays and lesbians around the country are following this case and are concerned and fearful about the motive behind it.” An arrest was made on December 13th at a motel in Stockton, California. Robert Acremant, then 27, had bragged to his family about committing the murders, and his mother had turned him in. Acremant had an attention-seeking personality and reveled in the media attention so much that the Jackson County Sheriff restricted his media visitors. He was tried and convicted in 1996, and died on death row in Oregon of unknown causes at age 50, on October 26th of this year, right before All Saints Day. May God have mercy on him.
For LGBT people locally and nationally, the murder of the life partners Michelle and Roxy struck a chord of fear and deep sorrow. LGBT people know only too well the vulnerability that exists for them in an unwelcoming society that condemns homosexuality. Acremant knew this, too. It is believed that Michelle and Roxy were targeted because they were lesbians. A leader at Ashland Methodist at the time shared with me that “The villain here thought that because they were lesbians in his twisted mind no one would care if they were murdered. This attitude came out when he was first arrested, but his lawyers pushed the ‘robbery gone wrong’ motive and that is what was published. [But] Ellis’s purse was found with nothing missing from it.”
Rev. Powell described the experience of learning the news about the murders as devastating. He says “it was devastating because they were so loved. It was heartbreaking. To have been murdered, how could this happen?”
Change, however, is hard. Really hard. Even for really good people. Even following horrific events.
When I first heard this story, I thought this must certainly
Still, even so, even as late as 2008, Ashland Methodist is ahead of the curve. The Oregon-Idaho Conference, also, is ahead of many of its sister conferences around the country and globally in inclusion and openness to all people. Rev. Owen believes it was the willingness of Michelle and Roxy to witness to their lives,
Love can change a person. Can it change a Church?Because of Michelle and Roxy, our saints, many, many hearts were changed.
Barry, the trustee, was such a person. The week before the women disappeared, the church had engaged in a regular advent prayer practice. Congregants drew names from a hat, then spent the week praying for the person named on the card. When the week was over, the person
Barry’s relationship with Roxy and Michelle transformed his understanding of gay and lesbian people and impacted his own family. Barry had spent years estranged from his son, who was gay. Barry vowed to find his son and reconcile with him, and he did.
Roxy and Michelle are with us still and
This story is and was so big and so painful that when I shared the story in Ashland this last All Saints Sunday it was the first time it had been shared in more than a decade. If it had not been for Rev. Powell’s diligence in saving key clippings and notes, this story may have been forgotten or become lore. But like every parable, this story is about real life, right here. It reveals something about our humanity, and it reveals something about God. I believe this is a story that must be remembered and told. Michelle Abdill and Roxanne Ellis are deeply part of the story of who we are at Ashland Methodist, in the Oregon-Idaho Conference, and in our denomination.
Protesters engage in a silent witness on the edge of the plenary "bar" at General
Ashland Methodist voted to become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network in 2008. There are almost a thousand reconciling communities in Methodism, but this is far too few. The divisiveness of the General Conference has stymied the efforts for inclusion of all people in our church. This rancor is but a mirror of our own local churches as we struggle to live Jesus’s words to love each other, love our neighbor, and understand Christian persons as radically equal siblings in Christ, with one baptism and one Spirit, where all things are held in common, where there is no Judean nor Greek, male or female, slave or free. We are holy because Jesus is holy—all of us.
We cannot keep God’s blessings for our own, boarding it up in barns or erecting gates to hold the Spirit in. For Jesus has shared his love with the whole world.
Or as Jesus himself declares, I am not a divider, am I?
In a few short
We at Ashland Methodist are in prayer for our denomination. We have actually walked this walk. And we at Ashland Methodist know that our saints walk ahead of us.
Richenda Fairhurst is an elder from the Pacific Northwest Conference serving as Senior Pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church in Ashland, Oregon.
[i]“Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus
[ii]Adapted from Stephen J Patterson, James M Robinson