In June, I went to the Church of the Brethren Young Adult Conference (YAC) in Knoxville, TN. I’m still new to the Brethren scene, so YAC was a good place to make connections. I attended several workshops during my week, and in one of them there was a discussion about worship. Hospitality was emphasized as one of the most important parts of worship. As I reflect on my experience at the conference, hospitality is an appropriate lens to view my week.
When I went to the conference, I was an outsider for several reasons
1. I’m not a member of the Church of the Brethren.
2. I’m gay
3. I’m the Brethren Mennonite Council volunteer. My job was approved in January as a Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) after more than ten years of being rejected. Then, it was rejected again only two weeks before the YAC.
I’ve grown up in the Mennonite church, so I know who is welcoming towards lgbt people in the various Mennonite church circles. I’ve learned who is welcoming through relationships I’ve formed through the years and recommendations from friends and family. Without these indications of acceptance, at YAC I went into an environment where I had not met face to face people whom I knew were lgbt supportive. Most of the people at the conference I really did not know. I found this to be a good experiment to see what characteristics made people friendly to lgbtq people.
When I arrived, I went right into introducing myself to others. Most people I spoke with would introduce themselves by saying what Brethren congregation they attended or what Brethren institution or program they were connected to. It was an interesting challenge to explain my place at the conference. Most of the descriptors I used to describe myself located me as being outside the Brethren church. I would tell them I am Mennonite, gay, and work for BMC.
I went to several workshops, and I found hospitality was a common thread connecting all of them. Trying to learn more about the Brethren tradition, I went to a workshop about the history of conflict within the Church of the Brethren. I learned about the many times when the church didn’t show hospitality, which often ended with the church dividing. I found it interesting that the first division within the church concerned the marriage between a Church of the Brethren man and a Mennonite woman. It’s interesting that marriage is still a divisive issue in the church. In the United States, there was the struggle to recognize and legalize inter racial marriage and now the struggle has extended to recognizing same-sex marriage. It is frustrating that we don’t seem to learn from the past.
At the conference, I went to a workshop about Brethren who identified as progressive. Many of the people there thought hospitality came from dismantling stereotypes of labels we put on others. In a third workshop, Circle of Oppression, we discussed the words and systems of injustice that separate people. It is clear to me that an important part of hospitality is being aware of the divisive words and systems, so that we can work to dismantle them.
Through reflection of my experience of meeting people, I found some of the friendliest people at the conference were those that understood what it was like to be different. Some examples of these were new Church of the Brethren members, lgbt, and people of color. The Young Adult Committee also did a great job of welcoming people. It was clear that hospitality was a value that they wanted to incorporate throughout the conference. While it is true that outgoing people are often known for being more welcoming, I found quiet people could be just as friendly.
I felt included by many of the people that attended. They possessed several qualities that made them welcoming. One quality was not being silent about injustice towards those that have been excluded. Several people showed their welcome by vocalizing to me and others that they were disturbed by the decision to remove BMC as a BVS placement. Several people sought me out to see if my experience at YAC was going alright, which helped me to feel included. Another factor that made me feel welcomed was being listened to and having an opportunity to listen to others.
How can you be more visibly welcoming to lgbt people? What messages are you sending as a straight or lgbt ally to lgbt people? Check out our Safe Zone training manual in the suggested reading section of this blog to learn how to be a better ally.