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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.

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