Journey to the BMC Community

I remember being aware of the existence of Brethren Mennonite Council (BMC) early on in my process of coming out.  I probably discovered it on the internet through my own exploration on a search engine, or it was found and brought to my attention by an immediate family member. In either case, I did not expect to join or be employed by the BMC community in the future.

            I’ve grown up in the Mennonite faith tradition. My relationship with the Mennonite church has been a confusing and disorienting experience: At times I’ve been embraced and at other times I felt like I was being pushed away.  Generally, I felt welcomed by those I came out to in the church. While I’ve had those supportive people, I still have internalized a feeling of being excluded after years of knowing church statements and documents that tell me I’m not welcome if I wish to be in a same-sex committed relationship. I felt a calling to church ministry in my mid-teenage years, which I was vocal about to my home church community.  My sexuality for the majority has been kept silent, and I only came out to my immediate family during high school. I went to Goshen College, and it was there that I encountered BMC again. As a student leader, I attended “safe zone” training, which used BMC materials. For the large part of my experience in the Mennonite church I’ve remained in the closet, gradually telling friends and mentors in college and considered myself “out” my last semester.

            When I was making post-graduation plans, I decided to do a year or two of voluntary service in a church affiliated program.  I was not interested in Mennonite Voluntary Service, because I knew if I chose that program I would remain more closeted. Family recommended that I leave the church to find another denomination that is more welcoming, and they recommended that I apply for Lutheran Volunteer Corps. I was immediately excited when I found on the application that the organization embraces openly LGBT volunteers. When I searched for volunteer placements I found the Kaleidoscope Coordinator position at BMC was open for the upcoming year. I chose to apply for the position for several reasons, but one of the biggest reasons was that I felt like I hadn’t really given the church a chance. Not wanting to give up being Mennonite, a key part of my identity, I chose to serve at BMC. It is the only place I feel like I can authentically serve the Mennonite church at this point. I have spent the large part of my struggle with the Mennonite church on my own, or with the help of straight allies. One of the greatest blessings so far at my job has been the welcome from the LGBT Brethren and Mennonite Community. I thank you for your support!

            I am very excited about my upcoming year of serving BMC! I hope to promote BMC for those that do not know of its existence and bring attention to the resources we offer by working on updating the website and creating promotional internet videos. Over the last few years, I’ve been exposed to the multilayered ways that people are oppressed. The intensity of alienation becomes magnified when levels of privilege that differ from the perceived norm intersect. BMC ministers and welcomes all LGBT Mennonites and Brethren and their supporters, but I realize some may feel excluded. As a white man, I know I carry the biases and shortsightedness that contribute to the exclusion of people of color. I want BMC to be a place where people of color know that they are genuinely being welcomed. I would love to find a way to talk with anyone who identifies as nonwhite about your experience. How can BMC be helpful? What does BMC need to do to be a more just and inclusive community?  I’m looking forward to building a better community!

 -Reuben Sancken

It’s so simple

Recently I was talking to a family member about the process of encouraging his congregation to become publicly affirming. In frustration he said, “It’s so simple. Why can’t we make a statement that we welcome all people and don’t discriminate on the basis of whatever characteristic? Who could possibly disagree with that?!” Indeed.

I’d like to propose that the difficulty our congregations and denominations have in coming to this “simple” conclusion reveals an underlying problem with how we understand ourselves as a peace church. I watch as the teaching “violence is wrong” is distorted to “conflict is bad,” and the value that “community is good” distorted to “the majority is never wrong.” Conflict is neither inherently bad nor good, and is an inevitable part of genuine relationships. One need not look hard at history to find examples of times the majority has been wrong, especially in relation to minorities.

Violence and conflict:
It is our responsibility to name and challenge violence when we see it. When we stand up to people and institutions that are causing harm, we can expect to find ourselves in the midst of conflict. Often those who bring attention to historical and current discrimination and who call for restoring right relationship are labelled militant, unreasonable, extremist, troublemakers, divisive, and even bullies. This is a clear attempt to blame the victim and deflect attention away from the real problem – the bad behaviour. Avoiding conflict when we see violence means making a choice to allow violence to continue. It is time to (re)learn from the gospels and our scholars a different way to view conflict and understand power.

Community and majority:
Valuing community includes valuing all of the individuals in the community. Healthy communities, similar to healthy families, care for, nurture and protect all of their members. While being in community can require compromise or stepping aside at specific moments, this only works given equal power and mutual respect. Healthy communities do not sacrifice individuals for the convenience of the majority. In fact, healthy communities go out of their way to protect their more vulnerable members. The nature of “majority rules” decision-making is that those with fewer numbers or less power will always lose. This is why nations who believe in protecting minority rights don’t put those rights up for a general vote.

Recognizing violence:
Violence is a strong word, and I choose to use it. The ideology and rhetoric that justifies physical violence against lgbt people is an extreme form of the same ideology that justifies discrimination and exclusion in our church. Without minimizing physical violence (which we should get more riled up about), we must learn to see the violence when “love the sinner, hate the sin” goes unchallenged, when parents of lgbt people are taken out of leadership positions, when a transgender youth knows that to live an emotionally healthy life he will lose his faith community, and when a lesbian couple is grateful they are allowed to attend a congregation though they can’t take communion. Let’s get shocked, saddened and angered into action.

Walk the talk AND talk the walk:
As individuals, and as communities we can work to overcome any discomfort we have learned and internalized. We can actively educate ourselves out of the heterosexism, sexism, racism, ableism, and all the other systemic oppressions that we have been taught. We can strive to treat all people, especially those who have been treated as less-than, with love and respect. We can say, out loud, that we affirm all people, including lgbt people.

When we do these things our communities become healthier places for all of us. All members can bring all of themselves into relationship with each other and the whole. All members find the courage to bring questions, concerns, and affirmations, with the confidence that they will be treated with care and honour as whole people. Who could possibly disagree with that?

Kirsten

Proposition Hate

Tuesday was quite the night. I found my way to Grant Park (coveted tickets for the official campaign event in hand) and joined the crowd of a hundred thousand gathered to scream, cry, hug, and jump our way into a new spirit of hopefulness that is solidifying around us.

Besides Obama’s victory, there was another vote that meant a lot to me on Tuesday, and left a lingering bittersweetness to the otherwise perfect night: Proposition 8 amended the California constitution to define legal marriage as exclusive to opposite-sex couples, overturning the decision of the Supreme Court and ending the right of California same-sex couples to the legal protections of marriage for the near future.

Initial reaction: rage. I found someone who expressed this very very well:

Ultimately, though, rage against injustice must energize something else, something life-affirming.

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It Gets Better, but in the meantime, let’s make it better

Recently a campaign called “It Gets Better” started by columnist Dan Savage, has been receiving a lot of attention. To raise awareness about the recent rash of teen suicides and to try to offer hope to young queer teens suffering from bullying and homophobia, Savage created a YouTube channel where people could post videos about living through bullying and harassment as young queer people and how it gets better. I can only hope that this campaign will help some young people who feel there is no hope. Unfortunately, I feel more attention should be directed and energy spent on a message that there is no place for bullying, harassment, and homophobia in our homes, schools, churches and society and we need a strong message that, as Carol Wise, director of BMC, has written, we’ve had enough!. As she said:

“Bullying does not take place in a vacuum. The persistent targeting of lgbt youth is sustained by religious ideology and practice that is either hostile, silent, waffles in ambiguity, or retreats in the face of challenge. Enough!! It is time for people of faith to stop fueling the misery of teens. This means an end to beloved “discernment processes” that are carefully constructed to drag on for years and avoid any risk. It means no more cover for pastors who wring their hands in private but are silent in public. It means actually naming the reality that violence is specifically directed towards lgbt people and not pretending that doesn’t exist or “isn’t that bad,” or that there is “pain on all sides.” It means acknowledging that the church has participated in the suffering of lgbt teens and bears responsibility for both the harm and the healing.”

Every denomination and congregation needs to look deep into itself and ask, what have we done to fuel the misery of teens? Have we been silent when we should have spoken up? Have we tacitly supported messages that lgbtq people are less than? Have we spread that message ourselves? Telling queer kids that “It gets better” feels to me a little like telling a battered woman that it will get better instead of telling a batterer that he shouldn’t beat up his wife and currently most parts of organized religion are either silent on the battering or outright encouraging/doing it themselves. The rest of us are just trying to do damage control. When will we be able to say that religion is fighting this problem instead of religion is the problem?

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson recently published an article called “How Religion is Killing our Most Vulnerable Youth” in the Huffington Post. A few quotes:

“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.”

“Ministers who remain in comfortable silence on sexuality must speak out. Churches that have silently embraced gay and lesbian members for years must publicly hang the welcome banner. How long will we continue to limit and qualify our messages of acceptance, inclusion and embrace for the most vulnerable in order to maintain the comfort of those in our communities of faith who are well served by the status quo? In the current climate, equivocating messages of affirmation are overpowered by the religious rhetoric of hatred. Silence only serves to support the toleration of bullying, violence and exclusion. In the face of what has already become the common occurrence of LGBT teen suicide, how long can we wait to respond?”

And one more:

“These bullying behaviors would not exist without the undergirding and the patina of respect provided by religious fervor against LGBT people. It’s time for “tolerant” religious people to acknowledge the straight line between the official anti-gay theologies of their denominations and the deaths of these young people. Nothing short of changing our theology of human sexuality will save these young and precious lives.”

The “It Gets Better” campaign could be a powerful way to raise awareness and give hope to some. We can all feel a little stronger as we watch the videos and drop a few tears. But let us not be satisfied simply with the adage that “it gets better.” For if we look at ourselves, our actions, our inaction, and our churches without getting a little angry and doing something to make it better, we’ve failed the youth we wish to help.

Why become publicly affirming?

Over the past year I’ve heard a lot of reason why people don’t think they or their congregation should become publicly affirming of lgbtq people. I thought about writing a response to each reason – there really aren’t that many. Maybe I still will, but before laying out counter-arguments, I decided it was important to start with why I think becoming a publicly affirming congregation is the necessary ethical action to take.

Why your congregation should become publicly affirming and join the Supportive Communities Network:

Premise 1
All people are loved by God. It is our responsibility to treat every person with respect and dignity. Our responsibility increases when a group of people is systematically marginalized and oppressed.

Premise 2
When religion is used as a tool to exclude, discriminate, harm, or promote fear and hatred, it adds a layer of spiritual abuse on to the harmful action. Additionally, it damages the reputation of the religion and the ability of religious followers to be a witness for love and justice in the world.

Premise 3
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have been treated poorly by our institutional denominations, and by individuals acting in accordance with what they have been taught at church. At best, we have been treated as second-class members – at worst as sub-human.

Conclusion:
As (Mennonites or Brethren), as Christians and as human beings, it is time for us to end all discriminatory policies and practices, promote lgbtq inclusive theology and education, and engage in (personal and institutional) reflection about how we Christians once again managed to use our religion to support our bigotry.

Joining the Supportive Communities Network means doing these things and standing with other communities who are doing the same.

Kirsten

Good Cheese

I refuse to support an organization that actively or passively contributes to my own oppression.

This is a recent realization, and I still often feel compelled to be apologetic about this choice.

But I’ve tasted something better. You see, I thought I knew what an “lgbtq-friendly” congregation or organization was. Then I found some that were actively non-heterosexist. It’s like stumbling upon an array of gourmet cheeses when you didn’t know there was anything other than those individually wrapped slices.

The next time I walk in to a place and someone offers me a sandwich with the rubbery stuff, I’ll be saying “no thank-you” and spending my time where I am nourished. It’s true I may go back occasionally, but only to witness to the poor souls who haven’t heard that next door everyone’s enjoying cheddar, brie, and gouda

As the secular and religious lgbtq movement grows it’s getting harder and harder for people, congregations and institutions to serve up believable excuses for continuing discriminatory practices. If your group is thinking about how to become welcoming, check out one of these short papers:

Doing Process Well: Recommendations for Brethren Congregations
Doing Process Well: Recommendations for Mennonite Congregations

And bring on the feta.

Kirsten

Context and history matter

Minority groups understand that context and history matter. A progressive congregation might wonder why they need to bother saying “we welcome lgbt people” – can’t that be assumed? An lgbtq person knows the answer is no. The progressive congregation (whether they like it or not), exists within the context and history of the church, and none of the BMC denominations have ended their discriminatory policies and practices. Right now, an lgtbtq person is likely going to assume a congregation is not welcoming unless shown otherwise.

It will take work to shift the assumption to the opposite. In fact, it will take not only ending discrimination, but also acknowledging past harm and showing over time that attitudes and actions have indeed changed. That’s reconciliation 101.

I say these things recognizing that it is hard to see the effect of context and history when on the privileged side of an equation. I thought I was pretty with-it, but I had some eye-opening experiences when participating in anti-racism training over the past several months, especially when learning some usually un-taught history related to race. (An introductory article I found helpful is Historical Development of Institutional Racism by Robette Ann Dias. Go to crossroadsantiracism.org/working_papers/ and scroll to the bottom.)

I am, hopefully, open to learning about how I’m not as with-it as I’d like to think. I don’t understand when people who have experienced one type of oppression aren’t able to translate that experience to recognizing the oppression of another. How is it that there are lgbtq people who can pinpoint heterosexism, but can’t see their own white privilege? What prevents women (especially those whose lived memory includes the women’s movement) from recognizing their straight privilege? Why do transgender people face oppression not only in wider society, but also within “lgbtq” circles? It sounds like I’m saying I understand when bigotry comes from straight wealthy white guys – which isn’t exactly my point – I don’t want to let them off the hook either.

It would be great if we challenged ourselves to take what we learn from personal experiences and extrapolate to lessons that can be broadly applied; lessons about power, privilege, structures and assumptions. And when you start connecting the dots for yourself, be a good friend and share what you’re seeing with others.

Kirsten

Where’s the middle?

When you ask someone where their congregation is in terms of being affirming towards lgbtq members, the response is predictable. Usually some humming and hawing, and then a “well, some are on one side, a few on the other, and most people are somewhere in the middle.” You will get this same response, no matter how welcoming a congregation is or is not (unless of course, the congregation has made a public statement).

What I want to know is, what does “the middle” mean in this context? Am I, or am I not, a sub-par human being? Where exactly is the grey between being created as a child of God or as an abomination?

Additionally frustrating is that the middle is viewed as neutral, and being neutral is seen as better than taking sides. This is especially true when our pacifist beliefs get distorted to the point where they mean nothing more than the avoidance of potential conflict.

When a congregation has an internal dispute about sanctuary décor or music selection, it is understandable and appropriate for some to find themselves on middle ground, neutral, and possibly taking on a mediating role. But this is not about paint chips or praise bands, this is about people’s lives and how we judge human worth. Besides, how do you mediate a conflict when one party is actively excluded from the table?

When our context is an institution that has historically persecuted and continues discriminatory policies and practices towards particular groups, being “neutral” supports the status quo. This same pattern is repeated throughout history. Silence in the face of discrimination is never viewed as ethically justified when we look backwards in time, yet during each “today” we continue to look for reasons to justify our silence and inaction.

This unwillingness to learn from our past scares me. Until we do some serious self-examining, this pattern will continue. Who will be tomorrow’s marginalized group? Will it be you or someone you love?

Those of us working towards welcome and affirmation sometimes fall into the trap of arguing against those few who are actively working for exclusion and condemnation. Engaging in that argument takes a lot of time and energy, and is unlikely to change that person’s mind. Engaging in that argument also allows the self-proclaimed middle off the hook – they don’t have to do anything, and get to feel good that they’re not as bigoted as those people quoting Leviticus.

It has become clear that the institutional church isn’t going to end its discrimination of lgbtq people until it’s forced to by individual members and congregations. This means the people in “the middle” are going to need to find some moral courage and speak what they are thinking and feeling. Yes, I know there may be some who are uncertain what they believe, but time and time again, individuals share that they are “personally supportive” but can’t say so “publicly” for reasons a, b and c.

We need to ask the people in the middle, and the people in the middle need to ask themselves:

1)      What are the core values of my faith?

2)      What do these values tell me is the right thing to do?

Then do it. I want you to do it even if you come to a different conclusion than I have, because at least you’ll be acting with ethical integrity. When we compromise our own values, we do harm to ourselves and our ability to witness to others on all other issues. This is the true danger the church should be trying to avoid.

 

Kirsten