A Georgia congregation has officially left the United Methodist Church in support of LGBTQ rights, deciding instead to be an independent nondenominational church.
The move by Asbury Memorial Church in Savannah comes a year and a half after the UMC — the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. — voted to strengthen its bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings.
"Our LGBTQ community is vital to the thriving congregation we have today," the Rev. Billy Hester said. "We have always tried to be an all-inclusive environment, and we're excited about our future."
Asbury Memorial, which Hester said is lovingly called the "island of misfit toys" by its members, voted to part ways with the UMC last September by a vote of 309 to 7. It then had to wait nearly a year for official approval from the UMC's South Georgia Conference, which it received in a virtual meeting last month. The disaffiliation became final on Thursday.
"We're kind of different than most churches," Hester said in an interview. "I've got to thank the people in the southern leadership for letting us out, because I don't think some other conferences have made that path so easy."
Hester said his church is the first in Georgia to officially disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. A spokesperson for UMC's South Georgia Conference said Asbury Memorial is not the first to do so in the United States. The official did not immediately answer additional questions.
Earlier this year, the UMC had been expected to vote to break up over differences on gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ pastors, but the vote was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, potentially leaving its factions in limbo until next year.
The revival of a 'slowly dying' church
Hester, 61, said Asbury Memorial Church was "slowly dying" in 1993, when he returned to his hometown, Savannah, after 12 years in New York.
"Aside from me and my wife, the youngest member was 66," Hester said. To breathe new life into the congregation, the young couple used their theater background to host musicals.
"We held open auditions, built our own sets and stages and performed in our very own sanctuary," he said, adding that the church eventually brought in people from all walks of life, including LGBTQ people, who found a safe haven in the revived religious community.
Today, he said, LGBTQ people make up about 35 percent of his congregation.
"Some of the earliest supporters of Asbury were LGBT folks," he added. "They were just as integral to this community that we built from the ground up."
And as LGBTQ members supported Hester, he supported them. In February 2016 — with same-sex marriage newly legal across the U.S. but still not permitted at UMC churches — Hester announced that he would discontinue all weddings at Asbury Memorial.
"If we're not allowed to marry all people in our church, then we are not going to let any people marry in our church," he said, adding that he had hoped the decision would draw attention to the issue and put pressure on the UMC to change course.
Hester said not even his own daughter, who got married this year, was allowed to tie the knot in Asbury Memorial, the church she grew up in.
"Many elderly members who supported LGBT folks waited, but they never saw change from the Methodist Church," Hester said.
He wants his legacy to be Asbury Memorial — an "homage to those who never got to see LGBT issues brought to the light of day," he said.
And as for resuming weddings? After 4½ years, he said, he's tired of telling people Asbury Memorial no longer hosts such celebrations.
"I think the denomination will get there one day," he said of the UMC, "but in the meantime, we're going to celebrate at the end of this month by hosting a virtual vow renewal ceremony for couples — both LGBT and straight couples — who have waited a long, long time."