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The cross and the rainbow: Denton resident becomes first openly gay pastor ordained in southern United Methodist Church

DUNCANVILLE — Even the light through the stained glass at Trinity United Methodist Church seemed to second the rainbow shirts, stickers and logos around the Duncanville sanctuary. Flecks of red, orange, yellow and green danced on the carpet. Thin strands of blue, indigo and violet light painted the white walls around the windows.

The congregation had just made the decision: Trinity is officially a reconciling congregation. As of now, the church doors are open to everyone — regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

And on the altar? The Rev. Jane Graner, who makes the trek from Denton to Duncanville each week to serve the congregation, is the first openly gay pastor ordained to serve a United Methodist Church in the denomination’s southern jurisdictions.

“It’s been a long time,” Graner said in an interview before the congregation voted to become a reconciling congregation. “I’m happy to be here. It’s been a lot of work, and sacrifice.”

The celebration in the air at Trinity two weeks made the bitter denominational feud over same-sex ordination and marriage in the United Methodist Church last February seem faint. During the special conference, United Methodist delegates voted to strengthen church rules that ban LGBTQ candidates from ordination — specifically “self-avowed practicing” homosexuals. The conference vote passed the Traditional Plan, which hardens church laws barring LGBT candidates from ordination and prohibits clergy from officiating same-sex marriages or even hosting them.

Kara Dry/DRC 

During a time of recognizing “blessings,” the Rev. Jane Graner prays with other members over a couple celebrating their 41st wedding anniversary on Aug. 24 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Duncanville. 

The vote moves forward to the general conference in 2020. With more American Methodists moving toward full inclusion of LGBT people, the United Methodist Church could be facing a costly and emotional split.

But just a few months after her appointment to the Duncanville church, parishioners have embraced their first openly gay minister — several longtime members said the church might have been served by an LGBT pastor in the past, but that church law and the broader culture would have required secrecy.

“It’s a really supportive congregation,” Graner said. “There are a few members who opposed our becoming a reconciling congregation, but overall, they’re ready to be a reconciling congregation.”

Graner was born into the United Methodist Church, and by the time she was in high school knew she wanted to serve the faith and God’s people. The call to ministry came shortly after she discovered she was gay.

She found a deep and profound influence in her parents’ faith — she wore her mother’s cross to every ordination interview, and stowed her father’s Rotary medallion in her pocket.

It wasn’t an easy path, given the lack of legal protections and equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. Popular culture wasn’t welcoming, either. But Graner pressed ahead, attending worship, studying Scripture and even attending seminary at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in the 1990s.

“Perkins was really more personal fulfillment,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to get ordained. I was gay. Everyone knew I was gay. It was never a secret. But there wasn’t a place for me, not as a pastor.”

Graner said she knew there was nothing ahead for her but uncertainty, but her faith wouldn’t burn out or die down.

“I prayed about it. I thought about it. I decided that God and I were going to wing it,” she said.

Kara Dry/DRC 

As a church member extinguishes candles on the alter nearing the end of the service, the Rev. Jane Graner prays over the congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Duncanville.

Winging it bore fruit. She and her partner — who split years ago after 28 years together — joined First United Methodist Church of Denton and got “deeply involved.”

“I was involved in small group study, adult study groups, and I was head of the church’s missions outreach during [Hurricane] Katrina, which was probably my biggest challenge. I wasn’t on the staff, though I wanted to be,” Graner said.

Her work caught the eye of the local church’s leadership, who asked her to apply for a new staff position to lead adult religious formation. But a group of church members who were more fundamentalist in their understanding of Scripture lobbied against her hiring, Graner said. Then, in 2009, another group of members rallied for a nondiscrimination stance in staffing.

“By then, though, I knew I’d burnt too many bridges,” Graner said. “Thirteen years I spent there. It was like family, and it was hard to leave.”

Graner moved on to Northgate United Methodist Church in Irving, where she was hired as the assistant minister for discipleship.

“I knew there was no long-term future in that position,” she said. “I was on the walkway between my office and the main building. I heard a voice say, ‘You’re going to be here three years.’ I was there two years and 11 months. I prayed some of the angriest prayers during that time.”

It was at Northgate that she met the Rev. Gregory Neal, a minister who strongly supports ending restrictions that keep LGBT Methodists from the ministry.

“We became almost instantaneous close friends,” Graner said. “He wanted to know why I wasn’t ordained yet. He was like, ‘I don’t get it. Where are you in the process?’ And I had to tell him, ‘I’m not,’ and the reason why. He sort of teared up and said he was sorry. He was a major support for me.”

With support from Neal, and as the country grew more accepting of same-sex marriage and equal rights for the LGBT community, Graner pursued the ministry again. She became a licensed local pastor in 2013 — a step away from ordination. She pastored Oak Haven United Methodist Church in Irving from 2013 until this year.

Over the years, when Graner interviewed for positions and the ministry, she didn’t keep her sexual orientation a secret. When she was asked by the committee on ordination if she was in compliance with the church discipline on human sexuality, she confirmed that she was — her long-term relationship had ended. She was self-avowed, but not in a relationship. Graner was commissioned as a provisional member of the clergy for the North Texas Conference three years ago and was on track to be ordained in 2018. But she was deferred for a year.

“I was always honest about my sexuality,” Graner said. “But I couldn’t tell you whether I was deferred because of that, or because I didn’t satisfy the committee on a theological question. It’s hard to say. But that is one of the most devastating things that has ever happened to me. I had to watch the two other candidates get ordained.”

Graner was ordained into the ministry on June 3. On the first Sunday of July, she joined Trinity as its pastor.

Kara Dry/DRC 

A rainbow flag, representing LGBTQ equality, covers a table holding information on reconciling congregations and sign-up sheets to become a reconciling member in the narthex of Trinity United Methodist Church in Duncanville. Reconciling congregations affirm LGBTQ seekers and members, offering them the full benefits of membership whether they are single, in a relationship or married.

The Elliotts are among members who count Graner’s arrival as a bright new chapter for the small church.

The family started coming five years ago, when Janis Elliott’s sister was appointed the pastor.

“When we got here, I was really frustrated with the United Methodist Church,” said Bill Elliott. “They had this ‘Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors’ thing going on. The thing is, it was anything but. We came here and it was like these people had their heads screwed on differently. We visited here and ended up staying. Everyone was really open — really friendly.”

Janis and Bill Elliott said the openness mattered because their young adult daughter, Jennifer, is part of the LGBT community.

“We wondered, ‘Are they just being friendly because they want us to stay, or are they really like that?’ Turns out they are just like that,” Bill Elliott said.

Jennifer Elliott admitted that she’s waited to join the church.

“I’m on a lot of committees for someone who isn’t a member,” she said. “But I wanted to wait to find out which way the church would go [on becoming reconciling]. The people seem to get it. They’re glad to see you here.”

Jennifer Elliott said she’s still deciding what her future in the church might be in light of the passage of the Traditional Plan at the General Conference.

“You’re saying you don’t want me,” she said of the vote. “I’m a member of the LGBT community, but you don’t want me in the church. Then when I heard about the Reconciling movement, it made me think that this isn’t the end.”

There are several LGBT members attending Trinity, among them a young gay couple rearing a child in the faith. The first Sunday after the vote, most members wore rainbow stickers or even rainbow-themed shirts. The rainbow flag stands for LGBT equality.

Carolyn Manuel and Evelyn Glass are a lesbian couple who have split their attendance. Glass, who mostly attended black churches, found her way to Trinity while leading a Girl Scout troop that needed a place to meet. Trinity welcomed the scouts, and Glass stumbled on a Bible study that hooked her. (“They didn’t have all the pat answers,” she said.) Manuel was a longtime member of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, a Metropolitan Community Church, which has a special outreach to LGBT seekers. When Manuel started having issues with her eyesight, she started attending Trinity with her partner.

“Everyone was very welcoming,” Manuel said.

Kara Dry/DRC 

Evelyn Glass, a member for some 20 years, laughs with her partner, Carolyn Manuel, as they get food during a potluck celebrating the vote for Trinity United Methodist Church to become a reconciling congregation Aug. 24 in Duncanville. Reconciling congregations affirm LGBTQ seekers and members, offering them the full benefits of membership whether they are single, in a relationship or married.

Glass has been a Reconciling Methodist for years, as the movement allows individuals to join from non-reconciling congregations. She said she urged her Sunday school class to take up the discussion about offering full inclusion to LGBT members about four years ago.

“The church was not going to take up that conversation,” Glass said.

Slowly, the pastor who served before Graner started advocating for voting to join the Reconciling movement. About a month ago, the congregation voted to take the step.

“About 50 or 60 members voted,” Manuel said. “If you look at the vote among the active members, it was almost a mandate.”

Glass said that the vote is just the beginning.

“For me, reconciling means ordination and marriage,” she said. “Anything less than that means we aren’t really welcome. It means acknowledging what it means to be reconciling. When we encounter someone who is counter to this, it means to be bold and speak up about what inclusion means, and how the church is supposed to be.”

Manuel agreed.

“It means continuing to work and educate people,” she said. “There is a deeper level of understanding to living this out. Some people are already there. But there are those who are a little more tentative. But you get there by being together and supporting each other.”

Kara Dry/DRC 

Worshippers listen as pastor Jane Graner preaches during a church service Aug. 24 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Duncanville. 

Janis Elliott said the church will need Graner as it moves forward.

“A lot of churches aren’t relevant,” she said. “They don’t speak to today. Jane gives a lot of biblical context to her sermons. Not just a short verse. She really dives in. She explains what was going on 1,000 years ago, but then she tells us why it matters now, for us.”

Graner spent years wandering, trying to find a place to put her gifts to work. She never really considered leaving the denomination.

“One of the reasons I’m drawn to Wesleyan theology is that I think it’s an incredible, grace-filled interpretation of the Christianity that needs to be out there in the world,” she said. “This church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Thousands of children and teenagers will come to Christ in this denomination. I need to be there for them. I need to be there for the young people who are in the LGBT community.”


Denton
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Denton pups make a splash at dogs-only pool party

It’s not out of the ordinary for the Denton Civic Center Pool to come alive in the summer with swimmers splashing and having fun, but it’s not every day that it’s filled with dogs.

The Denton Parks Foundation organized the city’s first pool party for dogs Saturday morning. The $15 entry fee from each dog owner will be donated to help fund the new dog park in north Denton.

Brooke Moore, executive director of the foundation, said the money they raise will help add tables, benches, shade features and anything else that would benefit the park.

“We’re helping fill that gap of funds that tax dollars can’t fill,” Moore said.

While any kind of fundraiser could raise money for this, Moore wanted to have the Splish Splash Doggie Bash because the city hadn’t opened the pool to pups before.

After she got the OK for the pool party, organizers had two months to plan it out so the pool party would fall on the weekend after the city closed the pool to humans for the fall.

A few minutes before 9 a.m., people and their furry friends were lined up outside the gates. Dogs started to get to know each other while they waited for their owners to show proof of vaccination to get in.

Dogs lingered around the pool edge and in the shallow area for the first few minutes. A white Siberian husky named Snowy was the first dog to really go in and doggy-paddle around, and others soon followed.

Snowy’s owner, Heydi Vanegas, and her younger brother kept an eye on Snowy and followed around as he swam and played with other dogs.

“He’s a crazy dog so we just want him to be outside with other dogs,” Vanegas said.

Splish Splash Doggie Bash 2019

Lifeguards who had been trained in animal rescue techniques kept dogs out of the deeper ends and kept a watchful eye on everyone.

Tennis balls were provided for people and their dogs to play with. One excited dog knocked over the bucket containing all the balls and set them free for the dogs to chase.

Although most of the dogs in the event’s first session weren’t small, two tiny pups named Lucy and Lola enjoyed some time keeping cool and chilling out with their owners, Luis Torres and Carina Villeda.

Torres said they’re glad a dog park is opening up in northern Denton, closer to their home.

“The only other dog park we know of is down south. ... To have one closer is great — hopefully sooner rather than later,” Torres said.

Moore said they’re hoping the park will open later this year.


Kara Dry/DRC  

Shake! A pup dries off at the Splish Splash Doggie Bash on Saturday. Denton’s first pool party for dogs helped the Denton Parks Foundation raise money for amenities at the city’s second dog park.


Denton_city_council
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Talks to cover collecting past-due utility bills, leadership on Denton appraisal district board

Denton’s credit collections practices will get one more round of scrutiny this week as the City Council puts the final touches on the fiscal year 2019-20 budget.

Back-to-back City Council meetings this week will end with two public hearings Tuesday night. The council is seeking feedback on both next year’s budget and the proposed tax rate to support it: 59.0454 cents per $100 valuation.

Tuesday’s agenda also includes an update from customer service staff on the new “pay-as-you-go” program for utility bills, including the effect it has on delinquent accounts.

The new program helps customers who want to more closely manage their utility bills. While it costs an extra $8 per month, the program has none of the other fees associated with a traditional, credit-based account. The new program helps customers who are tight on cash avoid amassing big balances with past-due amounts, late fees and other charges associated with credit-based accounts. The program could eventually lower the city’s noncollectable debt from past-due utility bills.

The council is also expected to discuss its nomination to the Denton Central Appraisal District Board of Directors on Tuesday afternoon. Such nominations have been a perfunctory matter in the past but take on new urgency this year.

First, the Texas Legislature considered bills this year meant to put more distance between the appraisal districts and the government entities they serve. One bill was passed and is forcing Rudy Durham to step down as Lewisville’s mayor or lose his job as the Denton district’s chief appraiser.

Another bill would have forbidden dual service by elected officials, but it didn’t become law. The potential for conflict in that dual service remains a concern for many— council member John Ryan has previously supported independent nominees for the board and has said he will do so again.

Second, the district recently sued the Texas Attorney General’s Office to block the release of documents related to an investigation into its management practices, citing in part a U.S. Department of Justice interest in the matter. The lawsuit was triggered by what otherwise appeared to be a routine open-records request. The federal law enforcement agency has not indicated whether its interest in the district’s management practices is civil or criminal.

The lawsuit was filed June 5, and there have been no new actions recorded in the case since a Travis County district judge signed a motion to seal court documents in the case at the end of July.

The back-to-back meetings begin with a luncheon meeting Monday between the City Council and the Economic Development Partnership Board. They resume at 1 p.m. Tuesday with a council work session and continue with the council’s regular meeting Tuesday night.

More information on Monday’s and Tuesday’s agenda can be found on the city’s website, cityofdenton.com, by following the “agendas” tab.


The_watchdog
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The Watchdog: Finally, Texas officials answer your burning questions about changes to your driver’s license

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

No wonder the state of Texas can’t fix a problem every other state knows how to handle.

Others provide driver’s licenses in a way that doesn’t inflict cruel and unusual punishment on people.

Recap: lines at most driver’s license centers often start forming in the morning heat even before the doors open.

It’s not unusual to hear stories of people who wait three, four or five hours to get their driver’s license renewed.

Here’s to the lucky few who get in and out in 15 minutes and write me to brag about it. Bully for you.

And here’s to those of you who can renew online without making a visit. Enjoy it now, because one of these days, they’re going to call you in for your once-every-12-years in-person visit: a new photo and eyesight check needed.

This is more important than ever because starting in October 2020, if you don’t have the image of a star on your license, TSA won’t let you use your license as ID at an airport. (A passport would still work.)

40 days and 40 nights for answers

In a stunning dereliction of public duties, the Texas Department of Public Safety took 40 days to answer several simple questions from The Watchdog about the new setup. These questions all came from readers. I didn’t know the answers, and I wasn’t about to guess.

The Watchdog was so annoyed at the ridiculous wait that I wrote a protest letter to Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We sincerely apologize for the delay in this response,” wrote Sheri Gipson, assistant chief of DPS’ Driver’s License Division.

Let me share her answers (slightly edited for brevity) to readers’ questions:

Q: If you live in one county, can you renew and update a driver’s license in another county? (Can you avoid long lines by visiting less populated driver’s license centers.)

A: You can renew a driver’s license or ID card at any county in the state. (Note from The Watchdog: I hear things are slow in the Corsicana office.)

Q: Can seniors or disabled persons get special privileges and move to the front of the line?

A: Customers who need special accommodations via the Americans With Disabilities Act may contact the office in advance by submitting a request at a DPS website. (Watchdog note: The URL to find the form is long, so I’ve created a short version for you: http://bit.ly/ADATX. There’s a phone number on the page, too, but good luck with that: 512-424-2600.) DPS employees make every effort to assist those needing help as soon as they are made aware of the need. ... Employees work the line as often as possible to identify those who are elderly or may need special assistance to get them into the office as quickly as possible.

Q: At some centers, why must applicants wait outside in the heat for up to two hours or more before they get in the front door to get their documents checked? Why not have someone go outside and talk to everyone on the line to make sure they have the correct forms of ID and, if they don’t, avoid the wait?

A: The ability to check documents in the line is based on available staffing. Each office may not have the staffing to provide this additional service. With the additional funding provided by the Legislature (more than $200 million), we will be increasing staff at the mega centers and severely crowded offices. ... The majority of these new positions will be filled by the end of the year.

Q: Is there a workaround to the star on the license? (There’s a rumor out there that having a Texas map that shows up in the light will do the trick.)

A: The Texas map is a design feature of the current license and ID. This does not indicate REAL ID compliance. Real ID is the name of the federal law requiring tighter restrictions on ID cards. That indicator is the gold star in the upper right-hand corner.

Q: Why is the star in at least three different places on a license? (The upper right, beside the photo and on the left side.)

A: The reflective stars are a design feature in the card lamination. The star in the gold circle in the upper right-hand corner is the REAL ID compliance indicator.

Q: If you go to a center and get a license to update it before your expiration date, does the expiration date stay the same so you don’t lose that time?

A: When you renew early, the new expiration date is determined by adding six years to the current expiration date of your license.

Q: Who can renew online vs. who must come in?

A: Customers who are U.S. citizens who did not renew online at their last renewal may renew online. Other restrictions may apply, such as if a person is 79 years or older or is a registered sex offender. These may prohibit a person from renewing online. Customers can go to Texas.gov to check their eligibility to renew online.

Q: I heard from a DeSoto man who presented his voter card, selective service registration, auto insurance card, existing license and his Social Security card. He was turned away and told to bring back his original birth certificate or certified copy of his passport. Is this correct?

A: Under REAL ID, the birth certificate is crucial. A full list of acceptable documents is here. (Here’s a short link I made: http://bit.ly/TexasIDocuments).

Bottom line: Most folks don’t know about the requirement starting in October 2020 for an updated driver’s license with a star in a gold circle. Check your license or ID card for one. If you’re missing the star, you can still travel with a passport, military ID or other federally approved ID.

DPS offers an online appointment setting function, but it doesn’t always work, customers tell me.

If you want to get an updated license, and you’re lucky, you might be able to renew online. That’s worth a try.

If not, go to a license center. And bring a book.