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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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

We have what they need

So occasionally I get sucked into writing on this other blog, and recently I’ve been discussing the topic of sexuality and how the church approaches it. I feel pretty strongly that the church’s problem in dealing with sexuality through history have come because the church has the wrong fundamental approach to the whole thing – that rather than think of sexuality as a part of being human that has the potential to connect us to each other and to the Divine, it all starts from (and usually ends at) coming up with the right set of rules/boundaries/prohibitions to contain and control sexuality. It’d be interesting to go into why this has happened, and continues to happen, but for now I just want to focus on whether/how it can be changed.

Because – I feel like most Christians are all tied up inside over the whole thing. Yeah, most of them can grow up and get married and probably feel less angst about it than they did as teens & single young adults – but certainly many people don’t fit into this cookie-cutter pattern. And yes, celibacy is probably a respectable option if you’re called to it. I’m not dissing marriage or celibacy. But I just think the church really misses out on this whole huge part of what it means to be a human and what that can tell us about God, how it connects us to the Divine. I can’t imagine how one can fully know, accept, and love one’s own body unless one fully knows, accepts, and loves one’s sexuality (as it truly is, not just as you think it should be) – and I really can’t see how one can foster a connection to the presence of God/sacredness/the Divine while being disconnected from one’s body.

So here’s my radical proposition: I think we queers have a special mission, here and now in history, to take this message of sexuality into the church. Being queer has allowed us the pain, the chore – but also the opportunity – of having, by necessity, to break outside the box that the church has always placed around sexuality, to venture out into strange & unknown &, to many, scary territory of sexuality without clearly defined rules/limits/prohibitions/customs to contain & define it. We’ve learned things that few straight Christians get the chance to learn. And the church really needs our message and vision now, a lot, or else it will keep getting more and more dead.

What do you think? Do we queers know something about sex & sexuality that straight Christian don’t, and if we do, should we really go through all the pain & annoyance of trying to convince them that we have something they need?

LGBT Equality – A Rich, White Person’s Agenda?

We recently received a comment from Debbie that I thought I would address with a new post. Debbie is concerned that our “agenda” of lgbt equality and an inclusive church and society is only a rich, white person’s agenda. She suggests that it is not an agenda that is supported by many Anabaptist churches of color or churches in the global south.

Debbie raises an important issue of how we, BMC and the larger lgbt rights community, talk about and think about race, class, and sexuality. Debbie is right that most of BMC’s constituency is white though there might be a little more diversity when it comes to class. Debbie is also probably right in suggesting that there is not a lot of support for lgbt equality among Brethren and Mennonite churches made up primarily of people of color and those in the global south (as it happens, there are also quite a lot of rich, white churches that don’t support our aims).

This reminds me that we continue to have a lot of work to do to reach out to all parts of the church. We can always use a reminder to look inwardly to see where we can do better at addressing all types of oppression, not just that which may affect us personally. And I hope that we continue to do that. I hope that we aren’t happy if we just make more room in church and society for ourselves and don’t look around at how our own privilege affects others. I am reminded that the language we use is often exclusive as “lgbt” and “queer” are not necessarily terms that would be used by people of color who might prefer to identify using other language, like “same gender loving.”

I am afraid that this is not just an issue for rich white folks though sometimes it may feel a bit like that. I hope those churches of color and those in the global south do not think that only rich white people can be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or same gender loving. I hope that the lgbtq and sgl youth and adults in those congregations don’t feel alienated by their own community but rather included, and loved, and affirmed. I hope that those who face the harshness and irrationality of racism, classism, sexism, and ethnocentrism are also able to see the similarly harsh and irrational nature of heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia. I hope it goes the other way too and those who suffer from heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia can see and work against the harshness and irrationality of racism, classism, sexism and ethnocentrism in ourselves and in society.

Any one have more thoughts on this?