The Revs. Allen and Sara Ewing-Merrill normally enthusiastically greet those who show up for their Sunday morning services at HopeGateWay, a United Methodist Church at 509 Forest Ave. in Portland.

But this Sunday the husband-and-wife pastors worked especially hard to roll out the welcome mat, following what they called “a really rough week for all who care about love and justice.”

“No matter who you are, where you came from, whether you are gay or straight, short or tall, you are welcome in this place,” the husband told the 11 a.m. gathering.

The two were trying to help their members come to terms with the vote last week by the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian clergy.

That set the Ewing-Merrills scrambling to change the focus from the upcoming Lenten season to what they called the devastating, heartbreaking and infuriating events that took place in St. Louis.

They deftly re-engineered Sunday’s planned Mardi Gras potluck lunch to include a discussion of the general conference vote. They filled up Sunday’s service with songs with inclusive messages. They wrote about the general conference in their weekly newsletter and posted comments on Facebook.


“We decided a long time ago that we would embody inclusiveness fully here in Portland, Maine. Nothing that happens in St. Louis this week – nothing that happens at General Conference tomorrow or anytime in the future – no restrictive, discriminatory policies or institutional statements will change that. The question has been answered,” they wrote.

The St. Louis vote set the country’s second largest Protestant denomination – with 7 million members and 12.6 million members worldwide – on an uncertain path toward a possible schism over LGBT inclusion similar to those in the Presbyterian and Episcopalian denominations in the United States in recent years.

The vote launched predictions that some of the liberal regional councils of the church, such as the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, would leave while others would stay but continue to allow same-sex weddings and gay and lesbian clergy.

Last week’s conference vote followed more than 40 years of grappling over the issue. The vote was the result of an alliance between conservatives from the United States and foreign countries, mostly African. Allen Ewing-Merrill said while 55 percent of the delegates were against easing restrictions on LGBT members, some 70 percent of the U.S. delegates were in favor of easing them.

The vote hit the congregation hard, said the Ewing-Merrills.

“There is a lot of pain,” said Ophelia Hu Kinney of Portland, who was at the conference last week for her work with Reconciling Ministries Network, which promotes inclusion in the United Methodist Church.


She and her wife joined the church, which has about 100 members, several years ago when they moved to Maine.

The roots of HopeGateWay, which has a pinwheel in rainbow colors for its logo, date back to the founding of the Methodist Society in Portland in 1795 and the historic Chestnut Street Church, built in 1856 and now home to Grace Restaurant..

“This is a place that felt like home,” Hu Kinney said.

Member Jennifer Dimond of Portland said the St. Louis vote is discouraging.

“I am proud to be a member of HopeGateWay. I refuse to say I am a member of the United Methodist Church,” Dimond said.

Jose Mavungo, who emigrated to Portland from Angola in August, said the St. Louis vote goes against his understanding of Methodist doctrine.


“In the church we need to understand the common denominator of God and Christ. It is all about love,” he said.

Martin Turnbridge of Saco said he felt heartbroken.

“Mostly for people who will hear from this that they are second class human beings,” said Turnbridge.

The Rev. Linda Grenfell of Wells, a retired United Methodist minister, sported a rainbow-colored stole, a liturgical vestment. She said it had been some time since she had worn the garment.

“I thought, I am just going to wear it today,” said Grenfell, one of 19 retired clergy members in the HopeGateWay congregation.

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