The United Methodist Church in America is in the middle of splitting up over LGBTQ issues.
The progressive part of the United Methodist Church will keep that name. The conservatives will be called the Global Methodist Church, though the split has not yet happened.
At the heart of the split is a 23-year-old openly gay drag queen who recently was certified as a candidate for ministry by a church district committee.
“My very mission as a drag queen and really as a minister is to help bridge the huge gap that is between queerness and spirituality,” said Bloomington-Normal resident Isaac Simmons.
Simmons said his drag name, Penny Cost, is a pun on Pentecost, because in that story the Holy Spirit came upon a group of Jesus followers and spoke in a new way. The Pentecost is the Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus after his ascension, held on the seventh Sunday after Easter.
“I believe that drag is my way of speaking in a new way,” said Simmons. “It's my way of reaching people who have been told over and over again, that they are unreachable and unknowable and unholy. My drag is really about a reclamation of power within LGBTQ+ spaces that has been predominantly held by the historic church.”
Simmons is the first in the Great Rivers Conference to come out before certification, though others have done so later. The conference includes a big chunk of the state outside Chicago.
Simmons has been targeted on conservative blogs and lauded by progressive ones.
“I was not expecting anything to happen like this, to the scale, to this national attention. For queer people in the Christian world, hearing things like, 'You're an abomination’... I've been called the ‘son of Satan,’ ‘the antichrist,’ those are not new sentiments,” said Simmons. “That I was expecting, but what I was not expecting was the love and the grace that was poured into me by people all across the country from seminarians, to laity, to clergy. I expect that in my journey, I will find people who will wish that I wasn't present in conversations, but also people who are making room for me and making room for those love-filled conversations.”
Simmons said by reclaiming power within LGBTQ+ spaces and distributing it back to queer people, the Holy Spirit, Christ and God are able to be present in lives. Simmons resists hate by constantly reminding himself that we are all human.
“I believe that we are all created in the image of the Divine, and if that is true, then every single person walking the Earth has good intentions at their heart. Whether their deeds line up with that is a different discussion. I try to remember that to help ground myself in those conversations and to realize that we are all on a continuum of change and a continuum of education,” said Simmons. “It is through having those difficult and hard conversations that a better tomorrow can be reached.”
Simmons identifies as cisgender and gay. He is white and said he holds privilege in hard conversations because of the way he identifies.
“I am able to have conversations that my siblings of color and siblings who identify as trans might not be able to have,” said Simmons. “When I've had a difficult conversation where I’ve been called an abomination or something like that, I remember that they are filled with the Divine and I go back to my support network.”
Simmons had a conversation with his bishop about why he continues to fight.
“He said, ‘Isaac, Why do you stay in a denomination that is debating your existence?’ And I said, ‘It's because queer folks have been ran out of enough homes in their lives. I refuse to be run out of the house of God,’” said Simmons. “I will fight to stay here and to make this accessible until I'm told that I no longer can."
Becoming a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church is the fourth step in a years-long process leading to ordination.
Simmons will be a rising senior at Illinois Wesleyan University in the fall. He's currently working as the project and remote learning coordinator at Hope United Methodist Church in Bloomington.
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