I met Joey on a hot, sunny Fort-Worth-TX-kind of day. He’s in his mid-20′s, cute, and has a squeaky-clean-resemblance to Tom Cruise. We were at a protest– drumming for 24-hours-straight to protest the UM Church’s stand on homosexuality. I introduced myself to him as we drummed together and he turned in reply, “You don’t know me?! I’m famous!” and proceeded to tell me the story that I hope you’ll read below.
Joey has been a member of the United Methodist Church all of his life. In 2005, the UMC’s highest court, the Judicial Council in the infamous ‘Decision 1032,’ had “ok’d” a pastor’s right to deny membership to a gay man. In Joey’s case, a pastor, a DS, and a bishop denied Joey’s right to TRANSFER his membership to another United Methodist Church.
I thank Joey for his witness and for his faithfulness to a denomination that doesn’t want him and a God that won’t let him go. – Pastor Amanda
by Joey Heath
I have been a member of the United Methodist Church my entire life. I was baptized in a Tacoma, WA. UMC and was confirmed at Hinesville First UMC. During middle and high school I was really involved with the youth group at my church. I also became involved with Savannah district council on youth ministry as the junior high representative for the Savannah District. This gave me a seat on the South Georgia conference council on youth ministry. So for two years I was a part of planning youth events for the Savannah district and the South Georgia conference. My junior year of high school my family switched from the big UMC church in town to a smaller church a little ways out of town called Mount Olivet UMC, where I currently still hold membership.
When I went off to college at Valdosta State University in the fall of 2001, I became involved with the Wesley Foundation on campus. I really got heavily involved and I loved the ministry. That is when I came to the realization that I had always known about Jesus but I never really knew him and had not accepted him as my Savior. So that fall I gave my life to Christ and never looked back. The summer after my freshman year of college I was selected to be a part of a traveling youth ministry team called Lifeguard which was put together by the Georgia Southern University Wesley Foundation. So I spent the summer going around to youth groups all over Georiga. My sophomore year I was on the leadership team that led the VSU Wesley Foundation. I also became really involved with Park Avenue UMC and its youth group.
Something else happened that summer after my freshman year of college that I haven’t mentioned. That summer I came to the realization that I was attracted to other men. I didn’t know what do but at that time “I knew” it was not God’s will for me to be gay. At first I just tried to bury the feelings again and just ignore them but then through a series of events it was brought to the attention of my campus minister. So I sat down with my campus minister and confessed my deep dark secret, the one that I had never shared with anyone. He prayed with me and promised me that together we could get through this. This began what would be a two year journey of prayer and study. I prayed everyday. I cried almost everyday. I didn’t want to be attracted to guys. It went against what I had been taught so I struggled hard. Sadly this led me into depression and hurt my relationship with God. I no longer felt that closeness I had once felt. This struggle had taken over my life and left little room for actual time with God and growing in Him. Finally I came to a breaking point. On the outside I looked like the happy good little Christian with it all together, but on the inside I was depressed and struggling with no one to turn to. One night I cried out to God and said “I can’t do this anymore. It is tearing me apart inside and is killing my relationship with you. I don’t know if it is the right thing to do but God I have to stop or this is going to destroy me or push me away from my faith.” I had been crying for a while and then I just stopped and got really quiet. That’s when I heard God say to me “That’s ok, I love you anyway.” So I made the very simple response “Ok God, I’m gay.” It took a little longer before I understood it from a scriptural point of view but that came in time with study.
My senior year of college I made a decision. I decided it was time to come out to the Wesley Foundation. I set up a meeting with the campus minister and had a long conversation with him. We talked about how we disagreed on the issue of homosexuality. Then we got in to the fact that I would no longer be able to speak for the ministry. I was actually scheduled to give a devotional at the monthly free lunch that Wesley held the next week. He told me I wouldn’t be able to give the devotional because it would give the appearance that the ministry approved of my “lifestyle.” I was of course pretty upset at this but there was nothing I could do. Then they told the youth director at the church that I now “considered myself gay” and this resulted in a meeting with the youth director. I sat down with him and he explained how he feels homosexuality is wrong and then explained that it would be best for me not to come back on Sunday nights to help with the youth group because parents would not like it and he has to answer to them. So basically I bowed out graciously because I was graduating soon and I felt it was not worth fighting.
I moved to Athens, Ga. after I graduated college and after being there some time I got a little involved with the UGA Wesley Foundation. I felt a little out of place at first because I wasn’t a student but then I found a community group for grad students. They really made me feel a part of the group. I never hid the fact that I was gay but I didn’t bring it up either, that is until that spring. I had gotten my relationship with God back on track and I was really trying to live his will for my life out. I felt like he was calling me to share with the group about my sexuality. So I brought it up to one of the leaders of the group. He said he would talk to the campus minister about it. This led to me having a sit down meeting with campus minister where he basically questioned my intelligence for believing that homosexuality was natural and then questioned my faith for believing God was ok with it. They even threatened church discipline on me but backed down on that saying they wanted me to stay a part of the group. They then added that they could not create a forum for any discussion that is pro-homosexuality. I even tried to explain that I didn’t want to discuss the Bible passages. I simply wanted to discuss what it felt like to be a gay Christian in a community that is not accepting of homosexuality, but they said they just could not allow it. So once again I felt rejected by a part of the United Methodist Church and felt like a second class member of the church I had been a member of my whole life.
During my time in Athens I attended another denomination but I missed the church that I had grown up in and all the traditions that go along with it. So when I moved back to Valdosta I decided that I wanted to find a Methodist church to be a part of. So my first Sunday back in town I had a friend invite me to a church called The Gathering: A United Methodist Congregation. I went there and loved it. The worship was more of the praise and worship style that I really enjoy and it was a very warm and welcoming place. I really liked it so kept going. Before long I was becoming involved by greeting before the service and being an usher during the service. So when the pastor, Rev. Billy Demmersen, announced that there was going to be a membership class I jumped at the chance. I wanted to transfer my membership to The Gathering. So I went through the class and the next step was to have a one on one meeting with the pastor. So I set up my meeting with the pastor figuring this was more of a formality since I am already a member of the UMC and completely understand what that means. When we got to the end of the meeting he said “Joey I was hoping you would bring it up but since you didn’t I will. I understand you consider yourself to be a homosexual.” I was not going to lie so I told him that truth. At that point he began to explain that because I am gay it would not be appropriate for me for me to join. He basically lay out that if I wanted to be a member of The Gathering I had two options. One option was to go into ex-gay or reparative therapy. I said flat out absolutely not because I was not willing to put myself through that kind of pain again. The other option was to commit to celibacy. Now I could have lied to him and said I would be celibate and just kept my private dating life private but I believe that Jesus calls us to live with integrity. Since I would not lie and I do not feel called to be single I also had to reject this option. So basically we were at an impasse. Sadly he had the power to deny me membership in his church. So I sent letters to the Valdosta district superintendent and to the bishop of the South Georgia conference. This led to discussion between Rev. Demmersen and the two men. It is worth mentioning that Rev. Demmersen had mentioned in meeting with me that even if the they told him he had to allow me to join, he would probably still not allow me. I was hoping that bishop and D.S. would do what was right and say that he had to allow me to join. They however affirmed Rev. Demmersen in his decision to deny me membership. As of right now I am still being denied membership to The Gathering.
It has been a long and hard journey and it is not over yet. Somehow through all this I have still clung to God and my faith and that is why I am working for inclusion with a group called the Reconciling Ministries Network. I simply want to be fully included in the church that I love so much and have given so much of my time and service, the church that I would like to continue to be a part of as a full and equal member.