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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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

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

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?