ON SEPT. 3, Asbury Memorial Church made history by being one of the first churches to disaffiliate from the Methodist denomination over the issue of gay marriage.
But anyone who knows Asbury and its senior pastor, Rev. Billy Hester, knew the move wasn’t out of the ordinary for this one-of-a-kind church.
When Hester came to Asbury in 1993, it was in a bad way. The church, founded in 1909, sits on the corner of Henry and Waters, which was then a fairly rough part of town.
After the white flight to the suburbs in the 60s and 70s, Asbury hadn’t been able to recover. Their congregation had dwindled to about 30 people, the youngest of whom was 66 years old. As a result, the denomination was considering closing the church.
But in came Hester, a vibrant Methodist minister who was a little different.
Hester grew up in Savannah as a “cradle Methodist.” His stepfather and uncle helped get a statue of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, up in Reynolds Square. Methodism is thought of as a more progressive denomination, but Hester said he grew up fairly conservative.
“I had that view of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner,’” remembers Hester.
After high school, Hester went to New York and got involved in both theater and church, where he met plenty of gay people who were in leadership. For a conservative Southern kid, the difference was quite eye-opening.
That sparked Hester’s decision to go to seminary at Princeton, with the goal of having his own inclusive church. After Hester pastored as an associate minister at the same church he’d attended, he moved back down to Savannah with his wife, Cheri, and their new family.
“I was ready to take on a church,” remembers Hester. “Growing up here I knew about Asbury Memorial, and I heard that the denomination was about to close it.”
Hester asked about taking over the church, with no luck. But, almost by divine intervention, Hester knew the bishop of the South Georgia Conference of the UMC through his daughter, an actress who Hester knew in New York.
“I knew him before he became a bishop, and here we both end up in the South Georgia Conference!” laughs Hester. “[It was] one of those wow moments. Knowing him, he said, ‘Okay, Billy, we’ll let Asbury have one more try.’”
With Hester at the helm, Asbury was poised for a resurgence. But how would he reinvigorate the church and grow the congregation?
The answer seemed pretty clear: theater.
Cheri, an actress herself, got involved in the local theater community and got to know her fellow thespians. When Asbury started putting on productions, she encouraged her friends to audition for the shows, and some ended up coming to Sunday services to sing in the choir.
“The cast members helped develop the church,” shares Hester. “A lot of the people knew we were a social justice oriented church. We’re about 35% LGBT, and it’s great to have that many, but we’ve also got a lot of straight people. It’s usually people who want to be a part of place that’s very inclusive.”
Another initiative Asbury launched in the early days was the AIDS Interfaith Network, which consisted of several congregations in Savannah who wanted to offer a more compassionate approach to people living with AIDS.
The congregation also voted in 2015 not to have any weddings at the church until everyone was able to get married, not just heterosexual couples.
Despite Methodism’s reputation of being a more progressive denomination, Hester was getting frustrated with how much it was lagging behind. There were serious penalties for Methodist pastors who officiated same-sex weddings; as Hester explained, bishops who presided over more progressive areas would often avert their eyes and not follow up with punishment if they heard of same-sex unions. But in Georgia, that was not quite the case.
“We felt like the denomination would get there eventually,” remembers Hester.
But in 2019, the United Methodist Church called a global conference to address the increasingly tense issue of gay marriage. There were two plans on the table: the One Church Plan that would allow for same sex weddings in the church, or the Traditional Plan that would ramp up punishment for people who broke the rules.
Excited about this historic moment, Hester and other Asbury folks traveled to the conference in St. Louis. But against their expectations, the conference voted to uphold the Traditional Plan.
Despite the progressive stance of many Methodist congregations in the US, Hester notes that Methodism is growing exponentially in Africa and Asia, where conservative attitudes about homosexuality prevail.
“I guess the missionaries have done a good job overseas!” laughs Hester. “But that’s very frustrating here because we can’t take this more progressive step.”
When Hester returned, he knew that Asbury had to do something. He asked the congregation if they’d like to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, and the vote ended up being 309 to 7.
After the South Georgia Conference of the UMC approved the split, and Asbury bought their property back from the denomination, it is now Asbury Memorial Church, a nondenominational church that continues to serve as the accepting haven it always has been.
In fact, Hester says the only real difference at Asbury will be that he’s now able to perform same-sex marriages.
“I’m a big fan of John Wesley, and Wesley was big in social justice issues,” shares Hester. “The last letter he wrote on his deathbed was to William Wilberforce who was in Parliament to try to encourage him to keep fighting against slavery, when other clergy people weren’t even talking about it. I really feel like he’d be where we are. I almost feel like more of a Methodist now.”
Asbury has concerned itself with other social justice issues as well, including gun violence, systemic racism and climate change.
“There are other issues we really want to get involved in, and this was really tying us up emotionally in our energy,” says Hester. “We’ve been dealing with this thing with the denomination for so long, and now we have it past us and can look ahead and try to start working harder in these other areas that are so badly needed.”
Hester also hopes that this historic move will help attract more people to Asbury, including some who’d been wounded by the church before.
“We’d have some people say, ‘Gosh, we love this, we want to be a part of the church,’” recalls Hester. “Then we’d have these new member classes and I’d have to tell them about the denomination and what its stance is, and then, ‘That’s not us—we’re different.’ But some of them said, ‘You know, I’m sorry, I love Asbury, but I can’t join it if it’s affiliated with this.’”
One of Hester’s plans is to host a vow renewal ceremony for all the Asbury couples who weren’t able to have their weddings in the church, but the plan to host it in person is not able to happen just yet.
Instead, the church has been hosting special events on Sundays in September, from the first communion to the consecration of the new church to honoring what Hester calls the Elderberries, the 30 folks who were in Asbury’s congregation when he arrived in 1993.
Asbury’s future is bright because of its inclusive past, and Hester is ready to lead the way.
“We remind people of this all the time, that Jesus said it in two sentences: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” says Hester. “If we focused on those two things, what an incredible world we’d have.”