I am not sure how many of you will recognize the subject matter, however, I believe it to be widely known that our church, Zion United Methodist of Iona, imploded after the zealous pursuit by certain parishioners (who will be named in this article) to free the Methodist Conference of our pastor, Frank Schaeffer. After the prize winning film An Act of Love premiered last Friday at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, I can finally address the hidden cobwebs of my aching heart. I have kept the silence…the secrets, the invisible pain controlled; up until this past week.
It is hard to describe the heart wrenching pain one feels at the demise of their church family. God was in the house and we felt Him each and every step of the way. Frank initiated and developed a thriving ministry, bringing Miles Dissinger to the forefront, with his rocking, take no prisoners approach to the worship team’s band Damascus Road. Together, we were Team Jesus, and each passing Sunday grew more and more powerful. You COULDN’T stay away, not if you wanted to. Clydette Overturf, our assistant pastor, led the second service in many heart felt and necessary sermons about Hard Times, (one of the most powerful preachers I have yet to see speak, the pain has turned her away from God and into the vast abyss of Atheism.) To say we were harmed is a wild injustice……to say Frank and his family were “harmed” is understatement at its best.
I began attending Zion in the Spring of 2008. I was drawn to the second service, as there appeared to be a nonjudgmental attitude, and the praise team director was my hairdresser and friend. Suffering from serious, if not functioning, alcoholism at the time, I judged myself. Raised in the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, I had a big fear of God and an even bigger fear of church. After meeting Frank, my fears were pushed aside and I now attended most Sundays. It was within these walls that I found sobriety: comfortable in the knowledge that people would be accepting, as I shared my story my second Sunday in attendance.
The tears flow freely as I write. Oh the people I met there: Rosina, who, despite progressive COPD, attended up until shortly before her death. Frank himself, one of the most loving men I have had the pleasure of knowing. We watched our friend’s children grow in the love of Christ, and in turn, they became our children. I immediately became close with Frank’s wife, Brigitte-we would lunch, hike and talk for hours on the phone. I was the happiest I have ever been in those early years of his ministry. In 2014, the world, as we knew it, began to unravel at the speed of sound.
There were rumors, Brigitte confided. “You will find out this Sunday,” she cried to me over the phone. “Please, please tell me so I can pray for you,” I cried. But it was not for her to confide. That Sunday I went to church with a strong sense of impending doom. When I first heard the words of my embattled pastor, I shook my head in disbelief. The rumor was that he had been found having sexual intercourse with Brian, our Praise Team leader at that time. Frank begged the accusing congregant to come forth, but we found out the hard way that the woman accused of reporting this crime had said no such thing. Thus the start of a filthy smear campaign to rid the Church of a man who was guilty of nothing. The Bogers, the Cox, the Baileys. All were consenting pawns in a movement so vile, it rocked the very foundation of the United Methodist Church.
We sat through rumors for weeks. And then it came……the ultimate blow: Frank approached the congregation with a sermon I will never, ever forget. (At this point in time it was the first service against the second service, if you will. We were pitted against one another at a time we should have drawn together. But the dirty workings of one man set in motion the demise of one of the most powerful ministries I have seen.) Frank told us that he had flown to Boston, to comfort his suicidal son. Tim, his eldest, had cried himself to sleep every night, praying to God to change his homosexuality. He was terrified he was going to hell, and kept his sexuality a secret to protect his loving parents and family. While Frank and Brigitte were there, Frank married his son to another man, an Act of Love that was documented in his file.
There was to be a TRIAL to decide the guilt or innocence of a man who did the loving thing for his son. During said trial, the District Superintendent, James Todd, blatantly lied while testifying. He told the jury of Frank’s peers that he had never seen the paperwork from Frank, admitting that he had indeed performed the marriage ceremony. How was this news made available to the UMC conference? A man who was barely visible within the confines of the church….a man so few of us knew-felt it necessary to drive to Massachusetts to obtain the marriage certificate-a month before the statute of limitations was to expire.
And so it was, while the whole world appeared to be watching that a man we deeply loved and admired was put on trial for the heinous act of loving his son enough to dispel the idea that he wasn’t loved by God. The trial was attended by many of his closest friends. One evening I received a call from Brigitte. She was hysterical as she told me that I was not allowed to attend the trial. The Boger family went to the judge to elicit protection from me after I wrote a blog in which I stated that “I would take a bullet for Frank Schaeffer.” Oh, the irony.
Frank was defrocked after the trial, and then went on to be refrocked in a decision that did little to heal our hearts. He was in California now. The man who had laid hands on the “least of these” over and over again, was run out of the town he had given so much of himself to minister to. I watched in pained silence as one by one, my friends and I left the church, never to return. Some of us have found new homes, yet there remains a sorrow so great that we do not speak of it. It is certainly not for us to judge others. I refuse to believe that my Jesus would turn a child of God away for a sexuality he or she developed at the age of 3 months.
And as far as the Bogers and Henrys of this world are concerned, I have this to say: I see no love or redemption in your acts of malice. I will pray that the Holy Spirit will come upon you and that you see the ultimate truth: we are all sinners, and only God will have the final word.