A lesson from Rob Portman

This post does not take sides in the ongoing debate about rights of homosexuals in our nation and our church. Please don’t pretend that it does.

Conservative US Senator Rob Portman surprised many a few weeks ago when he announced that his position on gay marriage had changed. After learning that his son, Will, is gay, his view began to “evolve.”

The Senator graduated from a private prep academy in Cincinnati. College at Dartmouth, Law School at Michigan, a career at a law firm that lobbied more than it litigated. I have a feeling that his position on gay rights and other social issues were born of theory. I wonder how many gay people he would have run into in his life. But when his son came out to him and his wife in 2011, he began to rethink this position. Gay rights were no longer abstract, but had real implications for someone he knew and loved.

I think this understanding, this sense of a face instead of a theory, is where compassion comes from.

For all of the conversation about diversity in our church and in our culture, Sunday mornings at 11 is still the most segregated hour in the American week. When my kids look around the lunch room at school they see faces that for the most part look like theirs. Perhaps 80% of our community fits into a relatively narrow window socio-economically.

Sure, we can pity poor folks, we can feel bad for them, we can wish they had jobs and such. But it isn’t until we meet them face to face that compassion begins.

Jesus didn’t hang out with the first-century equivalent of one percenters. He was with the poor, the sick, the outcast. He ministered to them, cared for them, loved them. It was, in fact, the key to growing the church.

We need to get back there. We need to be in mission. We need to go to where the poor people are and ask them what they need and beg their permission to help. We need to open the doors of our churches to people who don’t look like us, talk like us, smell like us. We need to give preferred seating to those with tattoos and lip piercings and those weird holes in their earlobes that you could put a finger through.

Because they’re children of God. Just like your homogenized congregation.

We need to get excited when the Trustees say they need to repaint Fellowship Hall again. We need to rejoice and say “You’re darn right we need to repaint those walls, because missions is dirty, but it’s the reason we are the church.”

We need to take our youth on mission trips and let them learn that not everyone looks like their school mates. But we also need to take our adults and let them learn the same lesson. How many of your adult members grew up in towns that were segregated by practice, but not law? How many in a discussion of poverty or Medicaid or food stamps have as much first hand knowledge of folks with these issues as Senator Portman had with gay people?

Will Portman says he spent an entire Christmas Holiday from college trying to come out to his parents. But he never could. His fear of judgement and condemnation wouldn’t let him have that conversation. How many people in need pass your steeple every week, desperately needing what is inside but never open the door for the same reason?

Spend some time in mission. Be intentional. Connect “our” people with “those” people. Then maybe we’ll figure out we are all God’s people.


  1. Walt Jones says:

    This is right on. We have become what John Wesley most feared… comfortable in our middle class status, and have lost the sense of mission that made the Methodist movement so powerful in making disciples.

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