Death at a Time of Division


July 7 was unusually pleasant weather for what would be a hard morning. The crowd gathered early for the funeral outside of the historic country church that was named for the locust trees that shaded the grounds. 

The funeral was for a Chief Information Systems Technician who had served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, including deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The service was a hybrid of military and religion, with Taps ringing out clear from the bugle player and a presentation of colors to the spouse, who had also served nine years in the Navy. There was no salute from the firing of guns. 

The church choir, of which both the deceased and the widow had been part, sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” The congregation comprised largely of the family who had shared many songs together through family gatherings and camping trips, sang “Morning Has Broken,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Shall We Gather at the River.” A very honest and straightforward eulogy was given by the widow, and memories were shared by family and friends. 

Following the death of this veteran, the pastor had been very supportive. And the congregation leaned in as well, showing up at the family home with covered dishes to provide food at this time of grief as congregations do. 

But at that time, Beth, the wife of the deceased, couldn’t come to the door. She let her mother do that. Over the course of the last several months, a riff had developed between her and the church that she loved. Beth had been to three town hall meetings at the United Methodist Church in which disaffiliation was discussed. The church then voted 109 to 15 to disaffiliate because they were opposed to same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay people. The Midway Locust Grove United Methodist Church was started more than 200 years ago. With a single vote in February, the congregation took the first step to bring that era to a close.

Beth and Michelle had been married for just two days short of 11 years when Michelle committed suicide on June 9. June 9 was the same day that Midway Locust Grove officially ceased to be a United Methodist Church, with the Missouri Conference voting to approve the disaffiliation of 75 congregations that same morning. This was a tragic, ironic coincidence. Beth certainly does not link the death of her wife and the disaffiliation vote directly together in any way. But the disaffiliation process that Beth tried her best to argue against caused a schism and feeling of distrust between her and her church which added difficulty to a situation that was already horrifically trying after Michelle’s death. 

Michelle had struggled with depression for a long time. A military service-connected disability brought about her retirement from her civilian job just a few years after retiring from the Navy. The pandemic caused increased isolation. Last November, she spent a month with her mother as she lay dying and was at her side as she took her last breath. Her grief brought her to a dark place. 

But things were not always dark. She enjoyed her dogs, camping and visiting her children and grandchildren. One week before she died, she was having a great time at the wedding of one of her children in Michigan. Three weeks after that wedding, Beth was back in Michigan for the first of Michelle’s two funeral services.

Michelle had discontinued anti-depressant medications and counseling. This wasn’t done lightly, and a monitoring plan was in place. She had an appointment to resume counseling and an appointment to see her doctor about medication. Beth did social work professionally and was tuned into the situation. 

Although Michelle was having a hard time, she said she did not have a plan to end her life. When Beth looks back on that last morning, she thinks that perhaps their goodbye lasted a little longer than usual, but she saw no signs. 

Beth left for work at 8:10 a.m. At 8:44 a.m. Michelle did a search online for “9-millimeter Ruger.” She found one at Academy Sports in Columbia. She went there and purchased the handgun and a box of ammunition at 10:30 a.m. Had this been several years earlier, there would have been a waiting period for this purchase. Because firearm restrictions have been loosened in Missouri in recent years, there is now no waiting period. Michelle then took her purchase to Finger Lakes State Park and ended her life. 

“When they told me that she had bought a pistol, I knew that when they found her, she would be dead,” Beth said. “With a lack of a waiting period, there is no hope in a situation like this. She was dying when I was at my team meeting that morning.”

Beth and Michelle met in 2011 and married in 2012. They bought a house in Missouri in 2014 to be closer to Beth’s mother. Michelle moved to Missouri first and started attending church at Midway Locust Grove with Beth’s mother right away. Michelle took singing seriously and had previously had voice lessons. Both Michelle and Beth ended up being part of the choir at the church. 

“We enjoyed it,” Beth said. “People were very welcoming. They embraced us.”

The previous pastor at the church had been very progressive. Rev. Ben Lee, who came in 2020, was less so but wasn’t keen on disaffiliation. When Lee first arrived as pastor and was doing home visits, Beth asked him directly about his position on the issues before the church. He described himself as a traditional compatibilist, meaning that he personally took a conservative position on the issue but didn’t feel his position should be mandated on people who feel differently. 

“I have massive respect for Ben,” Beth said. “Props to him. I love him.”

She described Lee as being more evangelical and a good, dynamic preacher, with his sermons being very Bible-based, straight from scripture. The church grew under his leadership. Some people were transferred to the church out in the country because they felt their church in Columbia was too liberal. 

In November of 2022, an email went out inviting people to a church meeting regarding disaffiliation. 

“A number of us felt blindsided,” Beth said. “We were offended that they were even having this conversation.” 

The first meeting was supposed to be one in which people arrived and left in silence, but it didn’t work that way.

“By the time people left, you could tell where the lines lay,” Beth said. 

People who wanted to disaffiliate spoke specifically about how it was an opportunity to acquire a property worth $1.5 million for $56,000. Beth asked Conference leaders specifically if paragraph 2553 could be used to disaffiliate for financial reasons and was told no, that would be unethical. 

By the third meeting, people who had been friendly to Beth in the past were less so. She said some were plastic-friendly because they didn’t want to appear to be bigots.

This wasn’t the first time Beth had dealt publicly with issues around LGBTQ rights. She was discharged from the Navy against her will. Nine years later, she was reinstated and given the opportunity to reenlist as a prior service person or have an honorable discharge. The division within the church meetings felt familiar. 

“I felt like I was being forced out of another institution that I cared about, respected and was deeply invested in,” she said.

Beth wanted to have the funeral at the church because her family is very faith-based. She said when she tries to describe Christianity, she just looks to her late grandmother and her mother as walking, breathing examples of it.

“I’ve had the immense privilege of being in a family that always loved me and accepted me for who I am,” she said. “I’ve been able to live my life openly, earn a degree and establish a rewarding career serving veterans. I’ve been able to donate to human rights campaigns. People have shown me how to live out my life and be authentic.”

Beth grew up going to Catholic school and was disillusioned with organized religion by the time she graduated high school and moved out of Missouri. When her stepfather died 25 years ago, she went to her mother’s church, Midway Locust Grove UMC, with her female partner at the time. 

“We were embraced and accepted,” she said. “I felt very welcome.” 

She now feels the United Methodist Church is caught up in a culture war. Just as some people are concerned about climate change, Beth is concerned about the changing climate in the culture of the country. 

“When you listen to the national conversation over the last several months, it sounds like fascism,” she said. “It’s demoralizing when you look at history and consider what could happen. I’m concerned about the future of our culture.”

In memory of Michelle, Beth asks people to donate to The Trevor Project (, which provides suicide prevention and crisis intervention services for LGBTQ young people.