I was saddened to learn of the death of the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell in New Jersey earlier this month.
Born in segregated North Carolina, Caldwell was denied admission to Duke Divinity School because of his race (a policy that the United Methodist seminary continued into the early 1960s), and became active in the civil rights movement. In later years he was a vocal champion of the LGBTQ liberation cause within and beyond the United Methodist Church.
But I was privileged to have experienced a different side of Gil Caldwell than the mental picture some may have from only reading of his activism and caucus affiliations of recent years.
I applaud his civil-rights activism and remain concerned about racism. We obviously had contrasting theological perspectives and were on opposing sides of such controversies as sexual morality.
But for some reason, this celebrated liberal leader seemed to take a personal interest in me. No, we never got to the level of the famous cross-ideological friendship between late U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I never took a family vacation or rode an elephant with Gil (what I recall him asking me to call him). Of course, the more we get down to the local level, we can recall all kinds of friendships across theological and political lines.
But at the level of nationally prominent leaders in the liberal-caucus world, there was something different about Gil. And I do not mean in terms of significant moderation on any key issue dividing United Methodists. After all, he was prominently involved in establishing United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, a subsidiary of the Reconciling Ministries Network, and served as a national board member of the secular gay-rights group, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and was also connected to groups like Soulforce and the Methodist Federation for Social Action. His liberal credentials were impeccable.
But in contrast to the blind partisanship widely seen today, Gil was repeatedly willing to privately and publicly call out those he understood to be on his own side. For example, at a liberal United Methodist gathering in 2006 where I attended and he was a speaker, he declared that he was “not a fan” of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” movie (which had then been all the rage among many politically liberal Americans) because he saw Moore as engaging in the “same sort of caricatures that Rush Limbaugh does.” There he also recalled the pushback he received for raising concerns about the UMC’s liberal Iliff School of Theology pressuring out its first Hispanic president, David Maldonado. According to the UMNS, Maldonado cited faculty complaining that he was “too theologically conservative or moderate” and “culturally different” for the school. Caldwell characterized the reactions to his own concerns as people saying “Gil Caldwell’s all right when he attacks conservatives,” but when he “pushes liberals a little bit,” he became “persona non grata.”
On a more personal level, about a decade-and-a-half ago, Gil dedicated an entire op-ed to expressing solidarity with IRD’s then-president, Diane Knippers, after learning of her cancer (to which she would later succumb). He recalled a story of how after President Reagan was shot and taken to a hospital, he told the doctor seeing him, “I hope you are a Republican,” to which this doctor replied, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.” In an explicitly similar vein, Gil declared, “today we are all members of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.”
At some point after this, Gil began privately reaching out to me, with sporadic phone calls and written correspondence over the years. It was always clear that we had very different social circles, had very different theological worldviews, and both saw a great deal at stake in our disagreements. At times our private and public disagreements got a bit pointed.
And yet he remained charming, with a tone of respectful engagement, seeking to explore common ground and build bridges of dialogue, without the sort of abrasive rudeness I have often experienced from others.
I am sorry that Gil and I will have no more such dialogues.
As tensions increase within the UMC, and we all feel anxiety about what people in other factions may do to our church, the relatively friendlier approach Gil demonstrated may be increasingly rare and exceedingly fragile. It is frankly easier to have calm dialogue and friendship with people of sharply contrasting theologies when they are in different denominations, so that they have no reason to feel threatened by the prospect of my advancing my values in my own church directly impacting them in their own churches.
If Gil had lived through the split of the UMC widely expected for next year, I suppose we could have still had some of our dialogues, though without even potential pressure from back-of-the-mind concern, in either of us, for how anything may affect the chances of “winning or losing” on any particular issue within a single denomination.
I will miss both Gil and the different approach he offered as a liberal leader in the great struggle for the soul of the UMC.
Please pray for Gil Caldwell’s family and loved ones in their season of mourning.