For twelve years a church softball team has played in the city wide Church softball league. But this year is different, because their pastor is different –– bisexual. And for that reason the league has decided they are no longer welcome on the field.
"By now most of you have heard that last week, our softball team was informed by the St. Clair Softball Church League that our team was no longer welcome in the league," writes the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell, the 27-year-old pastor of St. John United Church of Christ.
"Apparently three of the more fundamentalist congregations decided that they no longer wanted to play softball with our team because of my sexual orientation."
Just as the softball season was about to begin, St. Clair Church Softball League commissioner Johnny Dover, also pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, called St. John's softball coach, Rich Guinn, with an odd question.
Dover first told the coach that he had heard through the grapevine that their new pastor, Darnell, was bisexual.
“I asked if it was true,” Dover said.
Guinn confirmed Darnell's bisexuality.
Darnell told FoxNews.com, that the inquiry was "surprising because I don’t even play, I have no affiliation with the league.”
But the affiliation with the church was enough. After confirming the rumor, Dover, the Rev. Ben Kingston, pastor of Bethel Baptist in nearby Lonedell, and the Rev. Wyatt Otten, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, decided their teams could no longer play against a congregation that had deliberately called an openly bisexual man to be their pastor.
screenshot from video
The Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell, pastor of St. John United Church of Christ.
"Openly bisexual" seems to be the key phrase. "We have an openly lesbian player, too, and that's never been an issue," Darnell said.
Well, Kingston and Dover said, they didn't they know that St. John had been fielding a lesbian, said the Washington Post.
Rather than force the issue, St. John decided to quit the six-team league rather than ruin things for everyone else, the Associated Press reported.
"You can't have a league with three teams, so sacrifice us for the good of the league," said Guinn.
Robin Juerges is just one of the John's Softball team members who is hurt about the league's attitude towards them.
"Now all of a sudden, we're not worthy to play," said Juerges, according to KSDK news. "I'm disappointed in my town."
"It's very disappointing but quite frankly not too surprising given the nature of this community — it's a pretty conservative area," Darnell said.
St. Clair, a rural community of 5,000 residents, about 45 miles southwest of St. Louis, is an area emblematic of an issue that is increasingly on the front-burner following President Barack Obama's announcement earlier this month that he supports gay marriage, according to the AP. In Bible Belt states like Missouri, the issue is far from resolved.
Darnell, fresh out of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, said that he anticipated his sexuality might lead to “some difficulty”, but had no idea how much.
His first job out of seminary, Darnell was hired in October to lead the 130-member church, replacing its previous pastor.
"It's been a bit of a difficult transition," he told KSDK.
Indeed, Darnell said the local ministerial alliance, a collection of St. Clair pastors, initially took issue with his sexuality, but that the members there had "decided they would benefit from an alternate viewpoint," the Post said.
"Now, what exactly, anyone’s sexual orientation, let alone mine, has to do with softball is beyond me," Darnell said.
Jesus on the cross
Tuesday evening, from behind the backstop,The Rev. Ben Kingston, Bethel Baptist pastor, told a Washington Post, "We believe that God's word speaks clearly about boundaries, and that lifestyle is outside of those boundaries.
But Darnell says, he believes God's Word also speaks clearly about love. In his blog, Darnell quotes the words of Jesus:
Our reading this morning from St. John says “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
He adds: "The commandment is not to judge others or to marginalize those not like you, but to love one another as Christ has loved us."
The league commissioner said, "I guess you call it the stand they take," Dover said, speaking in the third person. "It's a Christian league. They felt that maybe what that church stood for wasn't in line with what they believe and so they chose not to play."
"The sad thing of it is," Dover said, ready to add salt in an already raw wound, "no matter how good or bad that team is playing, they are always having fun."
And that is what angers "me most about this situation," Darnell writes. "It's not any offense to me, but that our softball team just wants to play – they aren’t making a statement on sexuality, they simply want to play as they have for over ten years."
"We love them and we hope that that can be resolved with them if that's the case," said Dover.
"But Jesus tells us that we abide in his love when we love one another as he has loved us," Darnell writes. "The commandment is not to judge others or to marginalize those not like you, but to love one another as Christ has loved us."
Frankly, I think some of our brothers and sisters in St. Clair have forgotten this. It seems that they would rather take on the role of judging who is right and who is wrong.
But nowhere does Jesus say “Love one another as long as you believe and act the same way.” By the exclusion of our team from this league love is certainly not being shown, but blatant bigotry and discrimination.
As for Dover's hope for a resolution, Darnell adds:
But I am glad to say that others are responding with love and grace. St. Martin’s UCC in Dittmer has offered to play us in pick-up games on Thursdays.
Friedens UCC in St. Charles, St. Lucas UCC in South County and Parkway UCC in Town & Country are each interested in a tournament. Ebenezer UCC in Augusta and St. Peter’s UCC in Owensville are looking into forming teams as well.
Our sister congregations in the United Church of Christ are responding to this act of exclusion, by reaching out to us in Christ’s love. They are ready to stand by us.
Nevertheless, Kingston adds, "We call ourselves a Christian softball league. And if we call ourselves that, we want to be that."
And so does St. John United Church of Christ:
As much as the action of the softball league provokes our anger, and appropriately so, I think this is also an opportunity for us to demonstrate Christ’s love.
Jesus tells us to love one another as he has loved us...Can we be bold enough to do the same?
"What kind of statement would it make if we were to offer water or Gatorade at the softball games we have been excluded from, as a gesture of love to those who forced us out of the league?"