Bishop Talbert is a retired bishop of the United Methodist Church. He is a proud African- American who is a product of the civil rights and Black power movements, which means he is proud of how God created him to claim his heritage as a person of color.
How has your personal journey to advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people strengthened or challenged your faith?
As a black person, I’ve always been proud of who I am and the struggle for that pride and equality that has grown out of the civil rights movement. Early in my journey, I was not sure of who gay people were or what their struggle was. I was not willing to equate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) struggle with the struggle in the Black community. So, when I heard people in the LGBT struggle call it a civil rights issue, I had my differences.
In conversations with LGBT people, I remember asking questions like “Why do you need to talk about it [meaning their sexuality]?”
I remember one person responded by asking me a question, “Do you know anything about Black power?”
I said, “Of course I do.”
She said, “Then why was it important for you and other Black people to talk about it?”
That triggered in me a level of sensitivity that I had not experienced before. I understood for the first time why LGBT people need to speak out — because it is who they are. Not to speak out is to deny their identity and orientation.
That was a turning point in my journey. I could no longer bifurcate the issues of race and sexual orientation. I understood it was a civil right.
What is one of the defining moments in your life as a Christian?
I grew up in a community where I was baptized as a baby. At a revival, I was waiting on the Mourners Bench praying to have the experience others had of the Holy Spirit. An old, old Methodist deaconess sat down beside me. She asked, “Why are you still sitting here?” I told her I was waiting to feel the touch of the Spirit in the way these other people were describing their faith.
She asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” “Yes.” “Are you willing to step out in faith in the Name and Spirit of Jesus Christ?” “Yes.” She said, “Well, that’s all you need to know. You’re ready to leave this seat.” I left that seat and was baptized by immersion which made me a member of The Methodist Church. I’ve been working and living in faith to this day.
I was probably nine at the time. I look to that experience as a benchmark in my Christian journey.
Do you have a story of a person who embodies Christ’s teachings?
When I was a student in seminary, I participated in the student sit in demonstrations in 1960 in Atlanta, a spin off of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Our strategy was to desegregate all public accommodations and services in the Atlanta community at a time when Martin Luther King Jr. was deploying the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience.
Using the expertise of leaders from that movement, students from several black educational institutions created our own community to organize our own sit in demonstrations. Non-violence became a centerpiece for these. Students were only allowed to participate if we took the oath of non-violence. Taking that oath was a spiritual experience because it was a commitment to be willing to die for the cause.
We prepared for weeks with careful plans. We met and talked to public officials, store owners, and the police. We told them that we would break the law and go to jail, if necessary, to have our civil rights. We published our strategy in the newspaper. We invited Dr. King to join us, and we were overwhelmed when he came.
Men and women were arrested. Dr. King was arrested with us. I was one of several young men who were privileged to be in one jail cell with Dr. King. We were angry radicals. We were angry at white people, all of them. Martin Luther King Jr. shared with us his philosophy of non-violence. It was very personal. He got to know us and he talked about George Wallace and Bull Conner. King was the one person there who insisted that white people are our brothers and sisters.
He said directly to me, “And, Mel, you know better because George Wallace is a Methodist.” I knew he was right. I could not let anger be the overpowering influence in my life. I came to the realization that love is stronger than hate.
In your mind, what are the Biblical foundations for LGBT inclusion in the church?
In Matthew, a young lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus knew who he was. Rather than answering, Jesus asked him question, “What does it say in the law?” and the man replied, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Then Jesus said, “You have read it right. Do this and you will live.”
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, took that passage and developed the doctrine of Christian Perfection. Based on Jesus’ teaching of these commandments, Wesley said, Christians are to love God and love their neighbor. There are three simple rules to follow:
1)Do no harm.
3)Stay in love with God.
There are volumes written on these which are the very essence of being Christian. Really these are all I am trying to model in my life journey.
Is there a prayer or meditation that helps you make it through trying times?
Some years ago, a monk, Father Adrian, serving in the delta in Mississippi, wrote a saying about Jesus called “Singing.” He said, “Jesus was born singing love. He lived singing love. He died singing love. He rose in silence. If the song is to continue we must do the singing.” This is formative for my spirit.
What would you say to those Christians who have a different view on inclusion?
First of all, I would say, “You have a right to your belief. All I ask for you is that you recognize that there may be a different perspective.”
When I was bishop in San Francisco , 68 United Methodist clergy participated in a single holy union service for a lesbian couple in my area. By performing this ceremony, they were seen as violating church law. It was not easy for me to be with all the people who were angry.
As I visited people in the area, I would ask two questions.
First, “How many of you have gay and lesbian people in your congregation or in your families?” Hands would go up all over the place.
Second, “You know that the role of LGBT people in church and society is very controversial. How many of you can get help and support in dealing with this issue in your church without being judged?” Usually, very few hands would go up.
Then I would say, “That’s the problem I have as bishop. Of what significance is the church if you cannot bring your most difficult problems and challenges and find support and guidance? The church has to be able to help you with these difficult things.”
What can we do to foster dialogue and build bridges with people with different views on inclusion?
For leaders, we have to be open to dissenting views. We can’t expect people to listen if we refuse to listen to them. We need to realize that the view we hold may be wrong.
The larger issue is not a matter of what we believe about a certain issue. We are all part of the family of God. As such, we must respect the humanity of each other. People we are trying to reach must see in us a fairness and openness to their views.
You have to hear people out. Usually it comes back to Scripture. It helps us to see that we can interpret Scripture differently.
*Inspired by Bishop Talbert’s story of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to honor the life of this great leader, I wanted to share this video with all of you.