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

A Voice Sabotaging the Conversation of Welcome and Safety for LGBT People

I recently met with two members of the Elkhart Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit, their local program coordinator, and members of the unit’s two supportive congregations. A primary reason for my bus tour of volunteer houses for Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) is to make sure that lgbt people connected to MVS are in a safe environment that is open and affirming of them being lgbt.

There was a considerable amount of caution in our conversation together. Caution can be fine if it is done to be sensitive to support those that are potentially vulnerable, but several voices in secure positions were uneasy about what I would report on this blog. This sort of nervousness didn’t promote confidence that this was a welcoming environment. A particularly strong voice present was especially concerned about what I would say and held a perspective of resistance to welcome shared by others in the church I’ve encountered before.  This perspective would say they are open to inclusion, but then say things that distract and sometimes sabotage the conversation of welcome and safety for lgbt people.

One of the voices present shared that volunteers with conservative theological backgrounds have felt excluded and are leaving the MVS program. I don’t know if these conservative volunteers are not welcoming of lgbt people, but that seemed to be what was implied. This objection to a visible welcome of lgbt people equated those that feel excluded because their theology is threatened with lgbt people that feel excluded because of who they are. These two aspects of exclusion are not equal. Someone may feel uncomfortable when their theological perspective is threatened, but someone concerned about their safety is worried about their physical and mental well being. Even though there is a growing number of people and communities (including MVS unit congregations) that are declaring themselves as open and affirming of lgbt people, they are still the marginalized voice in the Mennonite church. Lgbt people and their allies are explicitly excluded by Mennonite Church USA policies and practices.

In addition, these two aspects of exclusion don’t need to be mutually exclusive. For example, one reason I chose not to apply to Mennonite Voluntary Service was because of its affirmation of the Confession of Faith, which has a section that implies heterosexual marriage as the only valid marriage. At the same time, limiting romantic relationships to a man and a woman is not supported by my theology that God blesses both heterosexual and same-gender unions. Those with conservative theological perspectives are not the only ones that have felt exclusion. I know of many MVS alums that felt excluded because they were lgbt and/or allies of lgbt people, and other people that chose to go with open and affirming Christian volunteer organizations because of the exclusion of lgbt people in the MVS program.

Mennonite agencies like Mennonite Mission Network (MMN), which oversees MVS, participate in the exclusion of lgbt people. MMN claims to have chosen not to address “issues of sexuality,” and says, it “is best addressed in congregational and area conference settings rather than in the context of mission.” Although not explicitly stated, “issues of sexuality” means gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. This claim of not addressing “issues of sexuality” is a statement in itself. When people or institutions choose to remain silent, they are not demonstrating neutrality; they are choosing the privileged voice. Just because a voice is dominant does not mean it is right. Also, directly above MMN’s statement of neutrality on the topic of sexuality is a statement saying MMN affirms the Confession of Faith. Historically, this document has been used to dismiss lgbt people in the church.

MMN chooses not to include gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other queer words in its Organization Information documents. One of MMN’s organizational values is diversity. It has a list of groups that it includes in its definition of diversity, but the lgbt community is missing. In MMN’s “personal witness” in its “lifestyle expectations” there isn’t a commitment against gender identity discrimination, sexism, and heterosexism. By saying nothing about lgbt people, MMN sends the message that being lgbt person or an ally is shameful. MMN may not be attempting to send these messages, but their silence doesn’t stop people from interpreting their silence as exclusionary behavior. MMN is not the lone part of the church that excludes lgbt people, but as the face of Mennonite Church USA’s mission ministries, they have the power to promote inclusive change in their programs.

Another reason for resisting welcome of lgbt people given by this voice present at the meeting was the “stigma” attached to people and institutions that were open and affirming of lgbt people. It was said that lgbt inclusive churches were seen as a “one topic” church. I responded that welcoming communities do not see themselves as a “one topic” church. Rather, it is those that are not open to welcome that have given them this designation. Welcoming communities are also active in other social justice and faith concerns. For example, they advocate for peace, reconciliation, and the welcoming of all people. But this begs the question of why being labeled “lgbt welcoming” is considered bad? Others gave the Anabaptist’s their name, which means “re-baptizers.” It was considered a stigmatizing word back then, but now it is proudly stated as a part of Mennonite (as well as the Church of the Brethren) heritage.

Thankfully, this was only one voice in the group. Nobody else seemed as resistant to welcome, and would challenge his statements in a respectful manner. The two current members of the house and several others encouraged more visible inclusion of lgbt people in the program. The conversation served as an introduction to what welcoming lgbt meant and included other productive conversations. Most in the room agreed that they need to have something to say to prospective volunteers about where the communities are in the process of welcoming lgbt people. This would be a statement that I suggested they would share with all their prospective volunteers, so an lgbt person looking into being in the house doesn’t need to be out to them to know where the community is. I think this would be a good idea to implement in all the houses. We ended the meeting with requests for continued conversation with how to welcome lgbt people. It may take some time, but I’m hopeful that the Elkhart unit can grow into being more welcoming.

 -Reuben Sancken

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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

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.

Another take on LTH, HTS

Hi all,

It’s great to see this blog up & running. A (very) short intro to me: I’m currently halfway through medical school at the University of Chicago. My partner and I have now been together for six years – we had a commitment ceremony a year ago.

I think that LTH, HTS is really about Christians who are good people and feel like good people wanting to continue to feel like good people. They may have heard something about the injustices that queer people have undergone, but in general their worldview is pretty clear on heterosexuality being the only possible expression of sexuality. So the idea of “loving the sinner, hating the sin” feels to them like a way of continuing to feel like they love everyone without really changing their ideas about sexuality.

The thing that just doesn’t work about it is that people can’t be separated from their sexual natures in the way that people can be separated from a “sin.” A sin is usually something you DO, usually knowing that you shouldn’t do it because it will cause others harm (I’m sure there are more profound theological examinations of sin, although I actually find the concept a rather weak way of thinking about behavior.) But someone’s sexual nature is a part of who they are that runs deep into so many areas of their life and being. “The sin” (presumably a certain sexual act) is just one small part or facet of that person’s sexuality – it becomes kind of ridiculous to fixate on “it.” So to me, LTS HTS seems like a very primitive way of talking about queer sexuality that shows only the very faintest notion of what such sexuality even is. For example, my relationship with my partner includes eating together, sleeping in the same bed together, kissing each other hello and goodbye, relying on each other for emotional comfort, sex, being each other’s main confidant, lying on the beach together, on and on… notice that sex is just one aspect of a whole relationship, a relationships that cuts through every area of life. Supposedly “the sin” in all that is exclusively the sex part, but that seems to me like trying to pick one little area of a whole picture and claiming something about that piece that ignores its relation to the whole.

Sexuality is integral to humans relating to each other. I’m not sure most straight people even understand that, probably because the way it affects their relating has always been so taken for granted that they’ve never had to think about it. That’s the main reason why, to me, the church hasn’t even really begun to address the issue of queer sexuality. The only teaching they have is a ban on gay sex (“the sin”) but they’re absolutely silent on sexuality itself.

LTS HTS

If you’ve been perusing the categories section, you may have noticed this jumble of letters and wondered, what is LTS HTS? It means “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It gets used so much in the church that I decided to just abbreviate it here.

If anybody feels inspired to write about their thoughts and feelings on LTS HTS, I welcome some comments, or even a post. I’ll wait a bit to write more about it.

For some more of my thoughts on the language of like this: check this out. Like a lot of my other stuff here, it was at young.anabaptistradicals.org first because that is where I was writing before I started this blog here.