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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Postcards from the Edge

So a Certain Party, in his duties as Archwarden, received a postcard in the mail co-authored by two well-known anti-gay organizations. The message therein frantically warns all churches and synagogues that their tax-exempt status is in imminent danger. Apparently "pending court cases and legislation" will restrict same from "preaching scriptural truths" without fear of IRS agents beating the doors down.

The postcard breathlessly instructed all recipients to visit a website for a "Judeo-Christian Voter Guide" which they could freely print out and distribute to their congregations. "It's perfectly legal," we are assured, to attempt to sway voters in this manner.

When I was done laughing, there was no way in hell I was going to said website, so I would remain in the dark about what "scriptural truths" may soon be illegal to discuss from the pulpit, except that they are listed for us right on the card, and they include the usual suspects of same-sex "marriage" (can you see James Dobson doing air quotes?) and "the sanctity of life" e.g. abortion.

I am pretty good about following the news, and I have yet to hear anything said about it becoming illegal for churches to preach whatever moose-caca they want. The only "threat" I am aware of was in fact made to a progressive church during the reign of George the Younger which dared to suggest that Jesus was against war.

I do know that said organizations have tried to make religious groups worry that -- were same-sex marriage to be come legal -- they would be forced to conduct such weddings whether they agree with them or not. Case in point, the "gathering storm" video which was so immediately and effectively lampooned here, and here... oh and here.

Locally this paranoia has been fueled by the debate about the Methodist Camp Meeting Association in Neptune Township, which refused to rent a public shelter on the boardwalk in its Ocean Grove enclave to two lesbian couples on the grounds that it is sometimes used for religious services and would be somehow desecrated by a same-gender wedding ceremony. This despite the fact that it is an open structure on a public walkway and has historically been rented to couples of all or no religious background for similar events at which its clergy did not officiate. Just not gay ones.

One of the two organizations whose names appear on said postcard tried and failed to escalate the skirmish to the Federal level. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Association has received about a half-million dollars of "Green Acres" tax money for maintenance and repairs on its facilities, stating in the process that they are open to the public. This, says Congressman Frank Pallone (who coincidentally helped them get the money during his tenure as a state representative) means the Association should be subject to the state's anti-discrimination law, which protects on the basis of sexual orientation. While this is battled out in court, the Association ceased allowing any weddings on its property. Also left out of the argument is the fact that dozens of LGBT-owned homes and businesses lease land from the Association, and in fact the New York Times went as far as saying the gay community helped the area's resurgence.

The couples in this case were not asking for the church to give its approval to their relationship or the decision to solemnize it. They simply wanted to avail themselves of a facility that had been rented to numerous other couples (about whose fitness for marriage the Association had no knowledge when it accepted their check) for the same purpose.

Pardon me while I apply some window-treatments to the bus-sized hole in the theory that the free exercise of religion will be lost if same-sex marriage is made legal:

As far as I know, it is legal everywhere in the U.S. for persons who have been legally divorced to remarry. In New Jersey, as I assume in most states, marital status is already a protected class under non-discrimination law for places of public accommodation.

However, the Roman Catholic Church, among others, will not marry a couple of whom one or both parties have been divorced, unless they have also obtained an annulment, which is a church procedure. Technically, one could argue that this violates the law, by discriminating against divorced people (a marital status).

Have you ever heard of any court trying to force a church to marry a couple it didn't see as fit for it? I sure haven't.

Belonging to a church is a voluntary thing, and by doing so one would assume you are either willing to live within its rules or follow whatever internal procedures there are (if any) to get those rules changed. You wouldn't ask a court to intervene on your behalf, because you could just leave and find a church that agreed with you. The state has no interest in making churches marry people they don't want to. It receives no free toaster for each couple that ties the knot, and it has its own agents in place to handle what is -- from its perspective -- a legal contract that simply requires someone it has verified is not a crackpot to witness it.

The thing that continues to stymie this conversation is that none of the "anti" folks has managed to articulate exactly what it is that will change in their lives if the same-sex couples around them are allowed to wed. During the Perry v. Schwarzenegger Proposition 8 hearings in California (I still giggle when I think of the Ahnold being a party in this case, and in fact the state put very little effort into defending the proposition which Schwarzenegger personally opposes), the defense was unable to produce a single concrete argument. The American people are slow to accept change, but watching these bogeyman tactics in contrast to current culture and mindset is becoming increasingly comical. Seriously folks, if an eleven-year-old gets it, what's your excuse?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Believing Out Loud

Matthew Shepard*

This past weekend, I was in Orlando, Fla., along with 300 other Christians from twelve denominations for the Believe Out Loud Power Summit.

Believe Out Loud is a cooperative effort between members of twelve Protestant denominations to identify and develop places of universal welcome (including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people) among their member churches. To be identified as "welcoming and affirming" a congregation must have a conversation about what this means, deal with any discomfort that individuals or the group may have, and take steps to be visible and intentional about making anyone (including people of all affectional and gender identities) feel at home in God's house. Among these lessons, we discussed the kinds of assumptions even allies can make about a person's relationship status, gender, or attitudes.

Believe Out Loud is the product of unprecedented cooperation between a number of religious and secular organizations to get the word out that God loves everyone. The conservative camp has been far more coordinated in its message that the Bible condemns homosexuality as an "abomination" and thus Christians should do nothing that could be seen as promoting that "lifestyle". We learned important tips for how this conversation gets "framed" within themes that resonate with people, such as "traditional family values".

Among the moments that stood out for me was the sermon by the Rev. Debra Peevey, a minister in the Disciples of Christ. Rev. Peevey quotes the passage in the Book of Esther where the is implored to beseech the king to rescue her people from a decree of annihilation at the hands of the evil Haman:

"Do not think for a moment -- silently within yourself -- that within the king’s palace you are safer than any other Jew. But if you persist in silence in waiting at a time so crucial as this, the Jews will still be delivered, yes saved in another way, by another hand, but you and your family will pass away like a moment of truth turned away from. For you are only yourself for a reason and who can know if you were not brought splendidly into favor in the palace for such a moment like this—of action."
- ESTHER 4: 13-14

That passage can strike a chord, if we let it, with those of us who have "arrived". For folks in a diocese that was way out in front on this issue, it's very tempting for us to stand under that "Mission Accomplished" banner and Purell our hands. After all, over fifty percent of our congregations feel strongly enough about LGBT inclusion to financially support the work of our OASIS ministry to those communities, a model which has been replicated in four other dioceses around the country. We count among us clergy and people in leadership roles at all levels. We could easily sit in our churches and feel included and valued and blithely assume the same is true everywhere.

However -- as evidenced in the news and in the witness of some of the people I met this past weekend -- it's very clear that there is much more to be done. It's wonderful, and I won't discount it, that many of our churches are welcoming once someone is in the door, but that does no good to someone who doesn't know they are, and which ones are. If your congregation welcomes LGBT people, does it say so in your literature? On your website? From the pulpit?

This can feel scary. The topic of homosexuality, or sexuality at all for that matter, is still somewhat taboo in our church culture. We agree in principle with the notion that God loves all of us equally and calls us to do the same, but we really don't often go out on a limb for that belief in the public forum. We're not marchers and banner-wavers, generally, for ANY topic, preferring a place of comfortable moderation. We are not unkind, and we will write a check, but ask us to stick our necks out and we start to get itchy. To do so might unveil notions and discomforts we didn't know we had, and wouldn't it be better if we just sang the hymn, had some cake and went home?

As The Right Rev'd. Gene Robinson, the first out gay bishop in the Episcopal Church stated in his recent Huffington Post column, the recent string of violence against those who are LGBT or just fit the stereotype is a reminder that this truth is not yet evident to many of our brothers and sisters, and we are called to respond:

It is not enough for good people -- religious or otherwise -- to simply be feeling more positive toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Tolerance and a live-and-let-live attitude beats discrimination and abuse by a mile. But it's not enough. Tolerant people, especially tolerant religious people, need to get over their squeamishness about being vocal advocates and unapologetic supporters of LGBT people. It really is a matter of life and death, as we've seen.

I learned this in my dealing with racism. It's not enough to be tolerant of other races. I benefit from a racist society just by being white. I don't ever have to use the "n" word, treat any person of color with discourtesy, or even think ill of anyone. But as long as I am not working to dismantle the systemic racism that benefits me, a white man, at the expense of people of color, I am a racist. And my faith calls me to become an anti-racist -- pro-active, vocal, and committed.


For some congregations, there is a position against being more vocally welcoming that goes something like this: "We don't want to become known as 'the gay church'". In other words, "we do not want to allow this one issue to define us as a faith community." That is understandable, but taking on one issue and really unpacking our notions and discomforts about it often leads to a greater awareness of ALL social issues and involvement in the community.

In a 2008 study of welcoming congregations by the Institute of Welcoming Resources:
  • Over half of the pastors of Welcoming congregations agreed that their work on LGBT issues made your congregation more active on other justice issues.
  • Just 7% of the respondents indicated that their congregants have difficultly talking openly about LGBT issues.
  • Less than a third (29%) reported any significant conflict within the congregation within the last two years. Among these, the most common sources of conflict were pastoral leadership, finances and worship, not homosexuality or gender identity.
  • Nearly three-quarters of the respondents disagreed with the statements, “Our congregation risks losing members by talking too much about homosexuality” (73%) and, “Becoming more welcoming to LGBT persons could hinder our congregation’s ability to reach racial/ethnic minorities” (72%).
From my own experience, having learned what it means to live into universal welcome, we as a congregation moved on to look at what other barriers we unknowingly put up against some members of our community. Five years ago we undertook to remove many physical obstacles from our building and added an individual gender-neutral restroom that can accommodate a wheelchair user and offers a private place to change a baby.

We have out gay and lesbian members, including in positions of leadership, and have had transgendered people visit us and feel welcome. But they are by no means the majority, and in fact most of the growth (yes, growth!) we've seen in the past few years has been heterosexual families, many of whom felt drawn to us because of the deliberately inclusive way we promote ourselves.

I am not trying to imply that we are perfect, but intentional inclusion has been a success story for us. I realize that much of what I said here will be "preaching to the choir," but when you look at the headlines, it seems obvious that those who believe God's love is universal need to be doing more, because the message our country is getting from the majority of religious voices is a destructive one, and it's having a deadly effect on our kids. Quoting a vocal proponent of inclusion, the Rev. Susan Russell, past present of the Episcopal Church's national LGBT organization (Integrity) whose blog is on my roll:

Thirteen- and fifteen-year-olds are not 'adopting a lifestyle,' they're trying to have a life! They're trying to figure out who they are, who God created them to be and what on earth to do with this confusing bunch of sexual feelings that they're trying to get a handle on. They need role models for healthy relationships -- not judgment and the message that they're condemned to a life of loneliness, isolation and despair.


If your congregation is "already there" on the issue of LGBT welcome, congratulations! I invite you to take the next step and add yourselves to the national Believe Out Loud database of welcoming and affirming congregations. If you have some work to do, there are workshops and educational materials on the site to help start the conversation. Who knows? You may save a life.

NOTE: I observe Matthew's anniversary on my personal "kalendar" in memory of all the LGBT victims of violence.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Francis of Assisi - Friar (1226)

I am supposed to be going through the giant jumble of CD's, shucking them from their jewel cases and installing them in a giant album, along with the little booklet that accompanies most of them. Needless to say, tedious work. I have the attention span of a fruit fly under the best of circumstances, but this is just plain eye-crossing, and the little booklets really don't want to fit in the little pockets, so instead I keep getting up and finding other things to do. Then there is the problem of what to do with the jewel cases, which have an annoying tendency to slide off their stacks into a jumble of 'eighties synth-pop chaos that fuels my desire to eject them from my home. But do I just throw them out? Surely someone, somewhere can do something with them, since they sell new empty ones in the store. There must be a market, but who? Where? Thus, the project has been oft-delayed.

And if I didn't feel bad enough about the entropy that surrounds me, I see that in a New York Times interview, folk legend and community activist Pete Seeger, 91, feels guilty if he stays in bed past 8 a.m. "There's letters to answer," he explains, and in my head I hear it in the voice I know so well. "There's logs to split." My association with the Seeger and Guthrie families goes way back, so of course I let Rhythm Nation (don't judge!) slip off the pile and sat down to read.

Grabbing whatever is handy from the "icebox", Pete is out the door to tackle whatever project the day brings. He is still writing and recording music, and active at the Beacon Sloop Club, which he "tricked people" into helping him build several years ago by promising (and presumably delivering) a pot-luck dinner. "Food is one of the great organizing tools," he confides.

Seeger's association with boats goes back a long way: in the 1960's he and Toshi-Aline Ôhta (his wife of 67 years), along with Don "American Pie" McLean and others raised the money for the construction of a handcrafted sloop, the Clearwater, which they sailed from her birthplace in Maine to the South Street Seaport and then up the Hudson in 1969. The Clearwater Foundation has had notable success in driving the cleanup of industrial contaminants, and a report two years ago noted a "significant decline" in the mercury found in sampled fish. The Clearwater is now joined by the gaff sloop Woody Guthrie and at times by the schooner Mystic Sailor, in providing educational cruises to schools, environmental groups and the public. Funded in large part by the annual two-day Clearwater Festival, the organization is credited with influencing much of the progress in local and national environmental policy.

G.E. (the company who bore much of the blame, and the cleanup expense, for the Hudson River mess) notwithstanding, Seeger is not without his critics: His early concerns about the rights of workers drew him to a brief involvement with the Communist Party. That and some recordings he made prior to WW2 landed him in front of Joseph McCarthy in 1955 and eventually in contempt of Congress, although the ruling was later overturned. In 1995, Seeger told the New York Times Magazine, "I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it."

Politics aside, it's difficult (and probably unwise) to argue with a 91-year-old man who heats his house with wood he chops himself. I couldn't help but notice the coincidence of reading this on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian who shunned the comfortable circumstances into which he was born as Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, choosing instead extreme poverty and charitable work. We know from his writings and the folklore that surrounds his legacy that he loved animals, referring to them as brethren.

The life of St Francis is of course enacted and vivid theology. To understand him we must be careful not to detach him from his context and refashion him as a kind of non dogmatic, leftist eco-freak. He was nourished by the praise of God as seen in his creation which is one of the great themes of the psalms and the canticles which he used in daily worship. Francis does not use the word “natura” and instead talks of the heavens and the earth, the world and all creatures under the heavens. Unsurprisingly he does not have a modern concept of nature as a complex of scientific laws governing the universe. Instead he was profoundly aware of the communication between creatures and their creator as we participate in the God-spun web of life."


Francis exemplified putting the greater good ahead of personal desires, sacrificing much in the process. According to a 2005 sermon delivered by The Right Rev'd Richard John Carew Chartres (Anglican Bishop of London), in the early 1200's, Francis traveled to Egypt in the midst of a Crusade and attempted to win the conversion of the present Sultan. While unsuccessful, he did earn the leader's respect and a trusted role for the monastic order which he established that remains in the region to this day.

Seeger and his family are not churchgoers, but "we use the word God quite often. One of my most recent songs has God in every verse. Every time I’m in the woods, I feel like I’m in church." Wherever he is, I like to think St. Francis would look with approval at all he has managed to (and continues to) accomplish.

Now, can either of them clue me in on what to do with these CD cases?