An openly bisexual pastor continues to cry foul ball in connection with his church’s softball team being put in the spotlight because of what the church believes and what he preaches from the pulpit.
The Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell of St. John United Church of Christ in St. Clair said his church team was banned from the loosely organized and informal St. Clair church softball league that plays on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Evergreen and Orchard parks because of the beliefs he and the church have on gays and lesbians, and because Darnell himself is bisexual.
The issue first came to light earlier this month when Darnell sent a letter to the editor to The Missourian on May 10. In it, he stated that the week before “the St. John United Church of Christ was informed by the St. Clair church softball league that we are no longer welcome in the league.”
After some investigation, The Missourian decided not to publish the letter or write a news story. Darnell then on Tuesday of this week sent a press release to media outlets, including The Missourian, about the issue under the heading of “St. Clair Church Banned From Softball League.”
The issue has since received national attention from the media and has been reported from coast to coast.
Johnny Dover, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in St. Clair and the organizer of the league, told The Missourian last week that St. John United never was told it couldn’t play or was banned, but that if it did play, three other churches in the six-team league would not, meaning the league then no longer could exist.
In 2011, the league consisted of St. John United, Friendship Baptist, Liberty Baptist, Bethel Baptist, St. Clair Christian and Victory Church. The same six were planning to play this year until the situation arose.
“They (St. John United) were told there were three teams that would not play if they did,” Dover said. “And if three teams would not play, we wouldn’t have a league.
“We would never say a church can’t play. But they were told that if they did play, we wouldn’t have enough teams to have the league.
“This is because of (the church’s) stance on sexuality,” Dover said.
Dover said the three churches that have taken the stance are his and the other two Baptist churches, Bethel and Liberty.
Bethel Baptist pastor the Rev. Ben Kingston confirmed his church was one of the three. He told The Missourian on Wednesday that the issue revolves around the word “Christian.”
“I believe the word Christian means something,” he said. “And part of that is that certain lifestyles are biblically acceptable and others are biblically forbidden. Homosexuality is biblically forbidden.
“This is a Christian league,” he said. “If we call ourselves that we want to be that.”
Kingston made one other statement.
“There are certain biblical guidelines,” he said. “It’s all in the name of Christian. We were willing to take a stand on this. They (St. John United Church of Christ) are 100 percent committed to their ideologies, but so are we.”
St. John United Church of Christ’s website states that Darnell, 27, became pastor there in October 2011. It is his first call to a pulpit.
In the press release to the media, Darnell spoke about the stance the three churches have taken.
“What exactly anyone’s sexual orientation, let alone mine, has to do with softball is beyond me,” he said. “What angers me most about this situation is 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 10 years.”
Darnell himself does not play on his church’s softball team.
“It is ironic that this church league seeks to exclude those they disagree with when Jesus welcomed all kinds of people on the margins of society, including lepers, prostitutes and convicts. Doubtless, they would not be welcome in the softball league either.”
The rest of the press release is similar to Darnell’s original letter to the editor.
“After 12 years of participation, three other teams decided that either St. John UCC be forced not to play, or they would disband the league,” the local UCC pastor said in his letter. “The reason? Our congregation welcomes gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons into its life, ministry and leadership. We take this stand because we believe Jesus Christ’s Gospel is one of inclusive love. However, we fail to see what our views on sexuality have to do with playing softball.”
When again contacted by The Missourian on Thursday, Darnell supplied additional comments about the issue at hand.
“As a pastor and a citizen of St. Clair, I could not remain silent on this issue,” he said. “Those who act out of hatred and fear must be called out for their prejudice, lest it continue to infest our community.
“Softball is not the real issue, but the dignity and worth of all persons. The action of the softball league suggests that discrimination in the name of Christianity is permissible. I believe that not only is such action not permissible but unChristian. To act with such blatant discrimination and ignorance is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived with those on the margins of his society, and he stands with those on the margins of our society, including gay, lesbian and bisexual persons.”
St. John UCC
Richard Guinn is St. John United’s softball coach. He spoke with The Missourian last week after the newspaper received the letter.
“Our church is acceptant to gays and lesbians,” he said. “We’ve been acceptant to that for years, and we’ve been in this church league for 12 years. Our previous pastor, who was a traditional pastor with a wife and kids, left and we searched for a new one.
“We hired one who is a declared bisexual. Because of that, I guess, we were given the option that if we showed up to play, three other teams wouldn’t and the league would fold. So we bowed out.
“It seems like this centers on our pastor since the shift came after he was hired.”
Darnell said the church is trying to start a separate softball league.
“We have stood and will continue to stand as a witness to openness and acceptance in the community of St. Clair,” Darnell wrote to The Missourian in his letter to the editor. “We are disappointed that some of our brothers and sisters in other congregations are too small-minded to set aside differences and play softball with those who believe somewhat differently.
“At St. John United Church of Christ we choose to not let us deter us from our mission as an open and accepting Christian environment that stimulates spiritual growth and relationships where God’s love and our unique gifts are celebrated through worship, ongoing missions, education and Christian fellowship.”
Darnell added to those comments on Thursday, saying that he believes his church has stood as a bulwark of the community of St. Clair for 106 years.
“We are proud to stand as an open and accepting community of faith, particularly when so many voice discrimination and exclusion,” he said. “The congregation has been a member of the United Church of Christ and its predecessors since its founding. The UCC and its predecessors have a long tradition of commitment to social justice, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights. Our denomination was the first to ordain an African-American in 1783, a woman in 1851, and an openly gay minister in 1972.”
Darnell said the denomination also started accepting “same-sex” marriages in 2005.
The league is not supervised by the city. The city’s only involvement is that it rents the fields for the league to use.
St. Clair City Administrator Rick Childers specifically would not comment on the issue.
“Our fields are available to all our citizens,” he said. “Reservations are recommended for ongoing organized activities.”