“God is love! God is love! God is love!”
I found myself chanting these lines over and over again at the recent Witness Our Welcome conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But, I was not enraptured by these words during a worship service at the ecumenical conference that brought more than 1,000 representatives from welcoming and affirming congregations from the United States and Canada.
No, I chanted these words as I passed by one of the small, but vocal, bands of protestors that made their presence known at the conference.
A small group of protestors made their presence known outside of each worship service at WOW 2003.
My partner and I were headed back to our room under the tree canopied walkway on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania when we encountered the protestor, preaching repentance to homosexuals.
This was not the first protestor I had seen over the course of the weekend. I had ignored the small group that picketed earlier worship services, holding up their signs proclaiming homosexuality and sodomy to be sinful. I even smiled and cheerfully thanked one of the protestors who pushed an anti-gay pamphlet into my hand as we entered the church for one service. But, something about this man’s words of hate stirred something deep inside of me. My response was automatic.
“God is love!” I said simply. My partner looked at me in horror and encouraged me not to provoke the man. She began singing a hymn, but I smiled at her and said it again, only louder. “God is LOVE!” It sounded so good. “GOD is LOVE! God IS love!” I couldn’t stop. I briefly drowned out the hateful teachings of the protestor as passersby stared at the display. When I stopped chanting for a moment, a few feet past the man, I heard him behind me yelling, “You don’t know anything about love!”
They were words that hit me like a fist – not because they convicted me, but because they rang so false. I immediately wanted to turn around and tell the man about all the love in my life. I resisted and kept walking but I prayed to God that this man, and all those others who oppose the presence of GLBT people in God’s realm, would know just one moment of the immense amount of love that my life contains. The love of my spouse, the love of my family, the love of my pets, the love of my co-workers – I am surrounded by an amazing amount of love. My heart ached for this man who would rather preach about God’s vengeance and hatred instead of acknowledging love wherever he saw it.
And he was surrounded by it at the WOW conference. Every participant I met smiled and said hello. The passing of the peace at each service was a wild event of God’s wonderful love being poured out in the form of hugs, smiles and laughter. Love was in the air all weekend, but none of the protestors would acknowledge it, since it didn’t match up with their idea of love, or grace or mercy. It made my heart ache for them.
“You are God’s people”
To those protestors and other detractors of the GLBT Christian community, we are in no way a people of God. Instead, we are imposters in their eyes, claiming God while “remaining in sin.” The conference sought to unmask this for the lie that it is, claiming for GLBT people the promise made in 1 Peter 2:9-10:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of the shadow into God’s marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Our enemies tell us we still are not God’s people, no matter how much we say that we are, but our experiences of God and God’s love, mercy and grace prove otherwise. The gifts of the spirit were no more evident than in how WOW participants reacted to and treated the protestors.
After the first worship service on Thursday, August 14, at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, the conference choir led the congregation out into the street and ringed the protestors, bathing them in song and God’s love.
Saturday at the Philadelphia Cathedral, Soulforce members formed a line in front of the protestors and sang songs of love and peace as WOW worshippers entered and left the service. One WOW member even tried to give the protestors a hug after the service, but was told they would not accept a hug because they “might get AIDS” from the woman, who, for the record was not HIV positive. The experience, however, spoke volumes about the attitude of the protestors and misinformation that guided their actions.
“First be reconciled”
The presence of the protestors made one of the workshops I attended at WOW even more poignant and relevant. Peggy Green and Rev. Steve Brown hosted a workshop entitled “Common Grace: Creating Reconciling Dialogue with Evangelical Christians.” Through their ministry, First Be Reconciled, they have brought together groups of GLBT Christians and their supporters with evangelical Christians who are on the opposite side of the issue.
The ministry bases itself on Matthew 5:23-24, that advises Christians to “first be reconciled” with brothers and sisters in Christ before offering their gifts to God. During the ten week reconciliation process, participants do not engage in problem solving, conflict resolution or persuasion. Instead, they tell stories of how God has moved in and through their lives.
In this way, Green said, GLBT people see Christ in their enemies and their enemies begin to see Christ working in the lives of queers. The dialogue helps both sides but Green warned that it is a slow process, but one that is worthwhile.
“It takes time to remember that we have more to share than hate,” Green said.
Green, a graduate of the Pacific School of Religion and Brown, an ordained pastor in the evangelical Church of the Nazarene, said their initial groups have been very successful and they are working on making the model available for wider use by other groups.
Green and Brown said they’ve learned a lot about “the other side” in their dialogue. Brown, after reading Rev. Mel White’s book, “A Stranger at the Gate” said he began to see the depth of spirituality in the GLBT community. Green said she realized that “evangelicals are not monolithic” and that Jerry Falwell doesn’t speak for all of them. “In fact, there are many who don’t know what to believe!” she said. Both she and Brown hope First be Reconciled can help them decide what to believe on the “gay issue” confronting the church at large.
In the workshop that I led for the conference, “Spiritual Self-Defense: Responding Constructively to Persecution,” participants used the time to talk out their anger, fear and sympathy for the protestors that were present and the other detractors they have met.
The heart of spiritual self-defense, for me, is not in knowing all the responses to people who shout about homosexuality being a sin. Instead, we can only effectively defend ourselves from such attacks when we are so strong and centered on the inside that any attack will not shake our confidence in God’s love and acceptance of us as GLBT Christians.
Based on 1 Peter 3:15, the workshop focused on learning how to answer any attack on our faith with “gentleness and reverence.” We can only do that when we’re so secure in our faith that no one can penetrate it, no matter how hard they try or how severe the attack may be. Using the Prayer of St. Francis as a model, the workshop tried to teach participants to be instruments of peace by sowing love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness and joy where there is sadness. Instead of seeking our own consolation, we must seek to console. Instead of seeking to be loved, we need to learn how to love others and open our hearts to them. Most importantly we must seek to understand those who oppose us instead of insisting that they understand us. It is in giving these peaceful things in return for hatred and attacks that we truly receive God’s grace, mercy and love. This is the heart of spiritual self-defense.
The participants of WOW seemed to know this almost instinctively. Of course, each of us wants to respond from time to time with the same hatred with which we are attacked, but as Peggy Green had pointed out in her workshop, there must be something more we share in common with our detractors than hatred. Spiritual self-defense seeks that common ground while at the same time reaffirming our own worth in God’s eyes.
God’s Deliverance is for All
WOW’s theme that “God’s deliverance is for all” rang true in my workshop as well as other workshops offered at the conference. Attendees learned about how best to push for same-gender marriage, how to integrate the transgender person into their congregations, how to approach local activism and how to best integrate our sexuality and our spirituality.
Conference coordinators also hosted a forum specifically designed to address racism. “Our Silence Will Not Protect Us,” was co-facilitated by Rev. Irene Monroe and WOW Co-chair Rev. Wanda Floyd. The plenary covered topics generated over the two-years it took to plan WOW 2003.
Speakers and presenters at the conference included such well-known community leaders as MCC founder Rev. Troy Perry, lesbian activist and author of the ground-breaking 1978 book, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?” Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Presbyterian lesbian evangelist Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr and Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder, pastor of the City of Refuge Community Church in San Francisco.
The powerful witness of these children of God offset any negative thoughts or doubts that the loud protestors might have sought to sow at WOW. Instead, the conference did its best to live truly to the words of Paul in Ephesians 2: 14-22:
“For Christ is our peace; who has made both groups one and destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. Christ’s purpose was to create a single self out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body, to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, which put to death their hostility. By coming and preaching peace to you who are far away, and peace to those who are near, we both have access to God by one spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but citizens with God’s people and household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. In Christ, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in God. And you, too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God’s spirit lives.”
WOW participants preached peace in the face of hatred and misunderstanding. WOW participants sought to destroy that barrier that keeps us divide from our brothers and sisters in Christ. WOW participants were assured that they are no longer foreigners and aliens, but citizens in God’s household. The one spirit gives us access to God just as the one spirit gives those against us access to God. WOW seeks reconciliation and God’s deliverance for all believers, no matter what their differences.
Participants left the conference vowing to continue the fight for acceptance within mainstream churches and asking God to “grant us the peace that passes understanding and empower us to live our belief that your deliverance is for all.”
May it come to pass.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.