If an elephant has its foot…

As the current Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests (BMC) Board President, a founding member of Pink Menno, and a young queer Mennonite involved in the movement for a more inclusive and welcoming Mennonite Church for the LGBTQ community for 10 years, I received Ervin’s most recent letter as a more savvy and carefully crafted message than some we have seen in his previous messages. While I appreciate a thaw in tone and a shift towards more respectful language for the LGBTQ community (from “non-celibate gays” to “LGBTQ” for example), this abrupt shift indicates to me a continued need among church leadership for more education led by those in the LGBTQ community who have been immersed in this work for years, some for almost 40 years, such as BMC. As self identified members of the LGBTQ community, we know our own experience intimately and are familiar with the dynamics of privilege and marginalization in church structures, policies and practices. Yet we are rarely called upon to provide training, information and a voice in decisions being made about us.

I continue to see a strong tendency from Ervin and others in leadership to portray this as a struggle between equal and opposing groups with strongly differing theological beliefs.  This leaves our church leaders caught in a morally neutral middle ground trying desperately to hold on to church unity and searching for a magical third way. I would suggest that the search begins by recognizing that privilege and power lie with the status quo, the leaders who continue to uphold it, and those made most comfortable by that status quo. This struggle is not about equals with strong opinions arguing about whose theological beliefs are correct. It is about how we treat each other in the church, and in this case, it is about how some are mistreated by the church. LGBTQ brothers and sisters and our families and supporters have been kicked out, pushed out, shamed, silenced, fired, not hired, refused education, credentials and ordination, told that our love was sin, and generally been treated in a shamefully unChristian way. Meanwhile, our church leadership has portrayed themselves as neutral in this struggle; as if they have not been actively participating in the marginalization of the lgbtq community and our families and friends. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Ervin recognized in his message that there is “growing evidence that the consensus forged on the Membership Guidelines in 2001 during the church merger processes is fraying.” I would argue there never was real consensus, but rather an agreement that was built upon the exclusion and vilification of the lgbtq community, who did not consent but were treated as expendable in the effort to forge a merger in the name of unity. Ervin is correct that the lack of consensus is growing more evident.

Ervin laments that the LGBTQ community and our allies in the church “are no longer willing to be in patient forbearance” as we “disregard the church’s written guidelines.” He desires  “a renewed commitment to…respectful conversation with those who differ with our own stance, and to prayerful, Spirit-led discernment in communities of faith committed to God’s mission in the world.” While for Ervin and some in the church, it may feel like this is a time for renewed patience, forbearance, commitment to conversation and discernment, the LGBTQ community has been in patient forbearance to the dialogue and conversation about the morality of our lives and the value of our gifts in this church while simultaneously absorbing the brunt of hostile and discriminatory policies and practices for nearly 40 years. What is reasonable to expect in terms of “patient forbearance?”

At least once a year I try to sit down to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King was responding to “A Call for Unity” from eight white clergymen who were critical of King and his methods. Their “Call for Unity” lamented the nonviolent demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement as unwise, untimely, extreme, and inciting hate and violence. The religious leaders called for patience and negotiation. If it’s been a while since you’ve read King’s letter, I would suggest another look. While much of the letter rings true to me at this time, one quote seems particularly fitting in our current Mennonite setting. “For years now I have heard the word ’Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ’Wait’ has almost always meant ’Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I would argue that now is not the time for more conversation and dialogue among uninformed members of the privileged leadership class. Rather what is needed is a time of education about the lives of the LGBTQ community within the that is led by the very individuals who know most about that experience, the LGBTQ community ourselves. Brethren Mennonite Council has represented that community for nearly four decades and has experience and resources to offer the church at this time. We can begin this work by taking bold measures to abolish discriminatory policies and practices in denominational structures and agencies so conversation and education can take place not just about the LGBTQ community but with the community.

Unity is not forged by scapegoating and excluding a whole group of people. We will be closer to a genuine and just unity when we realize that we may not all have to believe the same thing but we do have to commit  to treat each other humanely.

In closing, I must borrow once again from A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” MLK
Katie Hochstedler

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.


World news and other minor things

As the BMC volunteer/ Kaleidoscope coordinator I know I’m supposed to be filling my mind with thoughts about Brethren and Mennonite stuff in North America, but I keep finding my mind wander to secular issues or world politics.

Maybe it’s because I’m bombarded with emails about the latest state marriage law campaign. Maybe it’s because I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that moving a measly 500 miles south to be here in Minnesota resulted in my loss of a long list of civil rights and protections. Or, maybe it’s because of last week’s news story out of Uganda about proposed legislation that would impose the death penalty on the crime of homosexuality (Read the NY Times article). That story certainly makes the connections between religious beliefs and secular laws.

Do negative stories motivate you to action, or paralyze you with frustration? Just in case, here’s a happy world news story, about young queer activist meeting in Scotland last month for the International LGBTQ Youth and Student Organization’s General Assembly (www.iglyo.com).


Richardson’s Gaffe

I’ve put off writing about the HRC/Logo debates from last week but I think it’s time to add my two cents. I just read an editorial by Jonathan Capehart, one of the panelists for the event. He focuses on a response New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson gave when Melissa Etheridge asked him if he thought homosexuality is a choice or if it is biological. It’s a pretty good editorial, but I think we need to go a little deeper.

Let me set the scene. I was watching the debates with around 300 other lgbt and allied folk from Minneapolis/St. Paul at the HRC and OutFront Minnesota sponsored location, a local lesbian restaurant/bar. The place was packed and by the middle of the debates, everyone was getting a little punchy from the huge crowd, not being able to flag down a server, and from hearing exactly what we were expecting from the candidates. When Etheridge asked that question, I rolled my eyes (“what a softball”), but then had to gasp when Richardson completely whiffed it, “it’s a choice.” The entire crowd had the same reaction Capehart described having, “Oh, no, he didn’t!” The poor guy then proceeded to grab a shovel to try to dig himself out of the hole. Richardson had committed numero uno faux pas for anyone trying to show the lgbt community how lgbt friendly they are. Etheridge, aghast, thought he had misunderstood the question and so she repeated it, which is when the shovel came out. As far as most in the lgbt community are concerned, he might as well have said he thinks the sky is green, up is down, and the US occupation of Iraq is going just swell. Continue reading

Kill the Indian, Save the Man

So, as it happens, I didn’t manage to keep writing throughout the week at San Jose or even give a report from the San Francisco conference. For that, I am sorry. If you are hoping for regular posts on this blog, I’m afraid I will have a hard time filling that bill on my own. If other voices want to add their two cents, we might get closer to regular posting. Sign up or email me if you want to share – kaleidoscope@bmclgbt.org.

I do want to share one little bit I found interesting during one of the presentations at the Mennonite Conference in San Jose. One of the items that the delegate body voted on was a resolution (pdf) in support of bill in the US Congress to “acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the United States government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” Part of the presentation before this vote included some words by Steve Cheramie Risingsun, a Chitimacha Indian who leads Native Mennonite congregations in Louisiana and Alabama. You can read more about it at the Mennonite Weekly Review article.

The thing that I found particularly interesting about this was a comment made by Risingsun. He was talking about the various ways white colonizers mistreated Native Americans and tried to take away their culture and were generally pretty nasty. He said that there was a phrase that was often used by these white folks: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

Continue reading

First Blog from San Jose

I’m writing from the Mennonite Church USA Churchwide Assembly in San Jose. I’ll try to keep some updates coming as I have time and content. I’m here more as a delegate from my congregation than as BMC staff but of course I still have similar concerns whether I’m wearing a BMC hat or just the Katie hat.

The speaker at tonight’s adult worship session was Juan Martinez. I didn’t know of him before but you can read a bit about him here. As I listened to him speak, I was reminded once again that the church has a long way to go. The reason I say this isn’t because I disagreed with much of what he had to say, I felt he was right on as he spoke of the need for the church to deconstruct boundaries and break down walls. He spoke of the church needing to able to change and deal with diversity and I was there with him. I wish I took notes at these kind of things because then I would be able to give a better idea of his words to those gathered tonight. I’ll try to get my notebook out more the rest of the week so I can give better synopses.

The thing that bothered me was that as he was talking about deconstruction and breaking down walls, and boundaries and such it was clear he was talking about language, race, and culture boundaries (maybe even gender, wish I had those notes that I didn’t take) and anything outside of that gets a little fuzzy. When I hear a good speaker talk about themes like this, I tend to apply the inspiring words to my own experience and think how well it all fits but, as far as I could tell, he wasn’t talking about some walls the church needs to deconstruct (or if he was, he wasn’t making that clear with his words). He wasn’t talking about the boundaries that push lgbt people out or tell them they are unworthy. He wasn’t talking about the walls for heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia.

I’ve begun to notice that in so many church situations, people say as much with what is left out as they do with the actual words that come out of their mouths. If a church person (especially a leader) is talking about diversity or justice, I can’t assume they are saying anything about diversity and justice for the queer community unless they specifically say that. There is always a lot of talk about the church for all people and the unity of the church, but I know to always check for that asterisk and the footnote. It surely rings hollow when it doesn’t seem to be a full call for justice, or diversity, or unity.

“God’s Table, Y’all Come”*

“Live the Call, Vive el Llamado!”**

*some restrictions apply, offer only good for heterosexual Mennonites.

**not if your call is to be queer, out, and anapologetic about it. In that case, if you could just keep it hush hush, that would be just great.

I’ll be writing more later about the amazing BMC/SCN conference this weekend in San Francisco. It was inspiring and fulfilling. First Mennonite of San Francisco is truly a gift.