Reverend Janet McKeithen, the leader of the interfaith Church in Ocean Park, continues the Church’s activist tradition by her insistence on officiating at gay marriage ceremonies in defiance of the United Methodist Church’s official doctrine.
Reverend McKeithen cites her Church’s main focus as helping its congregants grow spiritually, while engaging in community activism. Sandy Richards, the Church’s former leader, was frequently seen on the picket lines during the Living Wage battles. The Church was also involved in the formation of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) and the Ocean Park Community Center. The Mirror spoke at length with Reverend McKeithen, a kind and soft-spoken woman who prefers to be addressed as Janet, about the stand she has taken on gay marriage, and how that stand is, in her strong opinion, in line with Christ’s Biblical teachings on tolerance and compassion.
To date, Reverend McKeithen, an ordained Minister since 1984, has performed four gay marriage ceremonies despite the dictums of the United Methodist “Book of Discipline,” which clearly states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings. Technically, the Bishop can defrock and fire her, which would cause her to not only lose her position, but her home, as she and her family live in a house on the Church grounds. (“I’m married…to a man,” she jokes.)
When asked why she has yet to be thrown out, Reverend McKeithen explains that a practicing Methodist would need to bring her up on formal charges. “I’m a little bit surprised actually, that nothing has happened because I’ve been pretty open about it,” McKeithen observed.
Not surprisingly, religious politics come into play for McKeithen on this issue. The Regional Methodist body known as the California-Pacific Annual Conference recently passed a resolution in support of clergy who choose to perform same sex weddings, although that resolution is not legally binding to the Methodist powers-that-be, so technically McKeithen is still at risk. However, in her own quietly determined way, she plans to stick to her guns, and she believes that “I’m a little part of the big flood that is happening.” Reverend McKeithen goes on to point out that other Methodist Reverends are performing gay marriages in secret, and many retired Methodist Ministers have openly performed gay marriages.
McKeithen has done an appreciable amount of Biblical research, and believes that the Bible, and by extension the teachings of Christ, are in support of her compassionate stance, and that, not surprisingly, many leaders opposed to gay unions have co-opted Biblical passages and, knowingly or not, perverted them for their own purposes.
“It upsets me when people use the Bible in a way that damages people’s lives. Many people who are trying to be faithful Christians believe that God doesn’t approve of them because they are gay or lesbian. The church has taught them that erroneously. The scriptures are being used to shut people out rather than bring people into communion with God and with one another,” says McKeithen. She cites a specific example in the use of the word “abomination,” which meant something very different in Biblical times than it does today. “Leviticus 18 is often quoted, but you never hear about Chapter 19 or others where the same word is used,” she explains.
McKeithen says that God called upon Jesus to step out and widen the circle of who is acceptable and who is not, and he often had to go against the rules of his faith and community to follow the call from God.
Last week, McKeithen widened the circle by marrying Jennifer Seat and Stacy Stoldt, a couple from Chicago who have been together for 14 years and were referred to the Reverend by a family member. When asked about Reverend McKeithen, Ms. Seat said, “She’s wonderful…it’s great that she’s doing this.” Ms. Seat hopes that her marriage, despite the fact that it will not carry the same legal benefits in Illinois as it would if she and Ms. Stoldt lived in California, will encourage other gay couples to make their unions public.
So why then, do so many people still retain their knee-jerk negative reaction to gay marriage? Supporters of Proposition 8, the state-wide ballot measure that seeks to overturn the legality of gay marriage in California, contend that the measure is not an attack on gay couples or their rights under California law. Rather, Prop 8 supporters object to the current law because, in their view, gay marriage redefines the entire notion of marriage without giving those opposed a say in the matter. They also believe that young children will be at risk if teaching about same-sex marriage is approved for early education curriculums.
McKeithen observes that, “When a Pastor tell them this [gay marriage] is un-Christian, they believe it,” because parishioners have a vested interest in doing the bidding of their pastors, especially if they believe that disagreement will bar them from heaven. “It comes out of fear of the unknown… fear that society will degenerate, but it’s not true…I don’t know what are they are afraid of,” she observes.McKeithen is upset by what she views as fear-mongering tactics used by religious leaders to leverage people into the voting booths to vote for Prop 8. Her response, typical of the Church in Ocean Park, is community activism: every Sunday her parishioners work a phone bank, calling Californians to urge them to vote against the measure. She believes that the measure will be defeated, but that it will take a lot of effort; she and her church are, as always, willing to do the work.