Exercising Their Faith
Eric Elnes had a vision last year for the development of a truly progressive Christianity-and he promptly tried to forget it.
“It was the plum from heaven that exploded like a hand grenade,” Elnes, pastor at the gay-friendly Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ in Scottsdale, Ariz., chuckles. “I wondered what would happen if someone developed a new set of Christian principles, walked them across the United States, and nailed them to the doors of America.”
After taking long walks from his home to the outlying suburbs of the Phoenix metro area to get the idea out of his system, he says he accepted that he wasn’t going to rid himself of the vision, and began sharing it with others. Elnes’s vision has blossomed into the creation of the organization CrossWalk America, which will present a 2006 event aimed at connecting progressive Christian organizations and introducing the country to a set of Christian values rooted in love of God, neighbor and self. The 12 principles being promoted in the walk, known collectively as the Phoenix Affirmations, are resolutely pro-gay, although the pro-GLBT segments of the document are far from the only controversial part of the document.
The walk itself is slated to begin in Phoenix, Ariz., on Easter Sunday (April 16) and conclude in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 3, where a rally and celebration is planned. Although only six to eight core walkers will complete the entire route, Elnes and Rebecca Glenn, who are co-presidents of CrossWalk America, expect thousands of walkers to join them for at least part of the journey.
The affirmations being promoted through the cross-country walk are 12 declarations that articulate a set of Christian values that include the following:
- Openness to wisdom from other faiths;
- Care for the earth and its ecosystems;
- Valuing artistic expression in all its forms;
- “Radical inclusiveness” of all people-including God’s LGBT community;
- Opposing the commingling of Church and State;
- Seeking peace and ending systemic poverty;
- Promoting the values of rest and recreation, prayer and reflection;
- And embracing both faith and science.
Elnes developed the Phoenix Affirmations late last year, with input from lay persons and ministers in the Phoenix area. Much of the clergy input came from the pro-gay group No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, of which he is a member. He noted that No Longer Silent had formed with the intent of serving as a broadly progressive response to fundamentalist Christianity, but the organization had chosen to focus “like a laser” on GLBT issues in the church, since they had seemed the most pressing. This year, the directors of No Longer Silent expressed a desire to expand into other areas, while keeping the focus of their group, so clergy participation in CrossWalk America represents an expression of that original idea, he said.
While the pro-gay language of the Phoenix Affirmations is sure to challenge some Christians’ idea of following the path of Jesus, Elnes also noted that people also struggled with the affirmations that validate other faiths, or express a desire for a strong separation of church and state. Glenn noted, however, that for every person who came to CrossWalk America expressing difficulty with certain affirmations, there were others who found those assertions the key to their embracing the document. Glenn and Elnes encouraged GLBT Christians to participate in the Walk, whether or not they lived along the route. Elnes said that some of the GLBT persons and allies he had talked with liked the Affirmations because they covered issues beyond that of gay and lesbian spiritual dignity.
“The exciting thing about the affirmations for GLBT people is that they give an entire set of beliefs,” Elnes said. “(Gay people) are so used to getting shot down for one thing – they can take these and say ‘this is my Christianity.'”
Approximately 40 to 50 volunteers have been working with Elnes and Glenn to plan the walk. The group is promoting a series of fundraisers this winter and next spring to raise the $1.3 million needed to cover walk logistics, produce and distribute a video documentary about the walk, and create mechanisms to link and strengthen progressive Christian groups across the country. Many mainline, evangelical and other Christian groups are in conversations with CrossWalk America about participating in the walk- either through walking the route, donating logistical support, discussing the walk and the Phoenix Affirmations at their home churches and in their communities, or designing miniature walks in their own communities designed to raise the profile of progressive Christian values.
The organizers of the walk expect to encounter a spectrum of reaction to the principles they are promoting. Elnes said that he’d rather face an angry church than have no response at all from a community.
“We want to reach out to people who disagree, find out what their assumptions are about GLBT people,” he said. “We aren’t coming at it from a polarized angle, but looking at why they believe what they believe-not fighting them.”
Beyond reaching out to Christians who feel “spiritually homeless,” Elnes said, and respectfully listening and dialoging with those who disagree, he and the other walk organizers hope to change the way Americans look at so-called “Christian Values.”
“I hope that Christianity is nudged a couple of inches towards the love of God, neighbor and self,” he said.
Glenn said, “How will we know if we’ve succeeded? If the news media, when talking about Christian values, is talking about love, hope and progress.”