Book Review: “God’s Gay Tribe” by M.R. Ritley | A Groundswell of Gay Spirituality

“Being gay is not an accident . . . it is a calling.”

I read these words and quietly gasped with joy. I was on the train to New

York City passing the time by reading M.R. Ritley’s God’s Gay Tribe.

The book is only 60 pages. I could easily finish it before getting to Grand

Central Station.

Yet the book’s careful prose, often poetic in its simplicity, inspired careful

reading. And why not? After all, little masterpieces deserve to be contemplated

while read, like a devotional, like a gospel.

Tribe begins: “This is the lesson on crossing the sands. Remember

it. . . . I am a gay woman who has made that perilous and lonely journey

through the sands more times than once. I have a spiritual obligation now

to tell the story. [Gay men and women], more than most people, have a desperate

need to pass this kind of wisdom on; too much of it has been deliberately

buried, too much lost in the silence of our lives.”

Exclamations of recognition escaped my mouth as I read, surely convincing

the passenger in front of me that I was having some sort of religious experience.

In a way, I was.

The good news in Tribe is that to be gay is to be more than different — to

be gay is to be different for a reason. To be gay is to be so by heavenly

design; it is to be set apart, Ritley asserts, by God.

Many gay men and women will cherish her message as liberating and inspiring.

Ritley notes in an early section, “Because coming out involves the discovery

. . . of one’s identity in a sexual context, all things connected with it

are apt to be wrongly classified as ‘unspiritual’ in the gay person’s mind.”

She continues provocatively: a gay person’s “moment of insight” into his

or her sexuality, and very personhood, may take place “in a gay bar while

coming out.” So what? Such an event is still “fully ‘spiritual’ in character,

despite its setting. . . . [We must recast] common gay experience as spiritually

significant.”

The gay bar as revival tent? As temple? As church? Bold . . . and, I was

willing to believe, true! Ritley had me hooked.

When I got to Grand Central, I had the last two chapters left. The words

of New Testament scholar Leander Keck concerning the Gospel of John leapt

to mind: “You can’t read this book quickly; to do so would be dangerous.

It’s deceptively simple, and its simplicity is deceptive. Simple words here

say profound things.”

I would be late for my New York appointment. I sat in the terminal and finished

the book.

“I really can’t read [Tribe] without . . . well, tearing up. It really is

very moving and inspiring,” said Wayne Eley. Eley is President of Beloved

Disciple Press, a small publisher in New Haven, Connecticut, which is publishing

Ritley’s essay as the book, God’s Gay Tribe: Laying the Foundations of

Communal Memory.

I interviewed Eley in his sunny apartment which doubles as the office of

Beloved Disciple Press. He summarized Tribe this way: “It is not an

apology; it doesn’t quibble with arcane Biblical texts. It does treat coming

out as a transfiguring experience and develops it in a manner suggestive

of being born again.”

This idea of coming out as conversion carries much currency these days in

the gay community and liberal religious traditions. Frequent a gay bookstore

and you will notice the Queer Spirituality section grows rapidly. And consider

this: Tim McFeeley, former Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign

Fund, the nation’s largest gay, lesbian, bi-sexual organization, and a man

not previously noted for spiritual conviction, recently appeared at Yale

Divinity School and spoke of coming out as spiritually important. He stated,

“As gay women and men, we don’t procreate, we validate” He said that out

gays validate to straight people, and to each other, that “God is a God of

diversity”, that homosexuality is beautiful, and that hiding it in the closet,

or repressing it in others, “dishonors the Creator” and the Creator’s artful

and wonderful intentions “for human life and community.”

McFeeley unknowingly echoes Ritley’s assertions in Tribe. But

Tribe carries a different tone. Unlike McFeeley’s speech, or many

recent autobiographical pieces such as Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate,

or many of the essays in the remarkable Wrestling With the Angel,

Ritley’s writing evokes the tenor of devotional literature without the heaviness

of a prayer book. Her words carry an authority springing from both the intense

variety of her spiritual adventure and the depth of her pastoral insight.

“She’s a rising star of gay spiritual theology,” said Bentley Layton, Yale

Professor of Ancient Christianity. Professor Layton first met Ritley at Christ

Church’s Gay Christian Readings Group in New Haven, Connecticut, in the Spring

of 1994. Ritley was a guest lecturer at the Yale Divinity School and was

introduced to the Christ Church group by the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Adams. Adams,

now on Yale’s faculty, met M.R. Ritley in a queer-friendly Episcopal parish

in California. Adams knew of the Gay Christian Readings Group and introduced

them to Ritley.

Sue Bingham, an opera composer, was present as one of the few straight members

of the Group. “Her essay was just wonderful. I think she was just about to

be ordained. She was bright . . . her ‘self’ was attractive — informal physically,

in sweats most of the time, but delightful, interested, warm, multidimensional

. . . a mensch!”

Wayne Eley remembers that “when the manuscript of Tribe was read in

the Gay Readings Group, no one who read it felt less than transformed.” Jim

Papp, a high school music teacher and Group member, also recalls the

transformations of the first reading of Tribe. He lends his own

interpretation of the text: “Ritley says, really, that the process of coming

out is sacramental. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual

grace, and a permanent change. If coming out is also a major permanent change

which is guided by the spirit and meditation, then it is sacramental.”

The idea soon surfaced that it ought to be published by the Group as a tract.

Eley, as the Group’s resident publisher, helped organize the effort, along

with Layton. Over three thousand copies of the tract version have been

distributed.

At first, it was read only in Connecticut. Copies were on the literature

table at the back of Christ Church. Bingham recalls, “A friend of mine from

Zurich, who . . . [is] a gay woman, was at church and picked a copy up and

began to read it. And I thought, ‘Bingo!’ She loved it. She took it back

with her to Switzerland. . . . I felt proud that my church had done that,

and that this made her feel welcomed there.”

Eventually, Eley began distributing copies on the Internet. However, he had

always envisioned a book, convinced the essay deserved a wider audience.

Tribe, with its elegantly simple content and nearly mystical tone,

is serving as an inspirational text for the gay community.

It is like an invisible groundswell. The Reverend Dr. Rembert Truluck, noted

author, Biblical scholar and MCC Pastor, has distributed fifty copies to

friends Dr. Truluck commented “Tribe helped me to deal with my own

loneliness and isolation during a time of wilderness wandering. Many friends

who needed encouragement and inspiration have found the book to be of great

help.” It has been used as a text in Christian ethics, and a closeted Episcopal

priest ordered thirty copies for friends. And it is used as the text for

the course in Gay Spirituality which Ritley leads at Pomona College.

Ritley is humble when speaking about herself. She understates, “I’ve had

a spiritually adventurous life.” She was raised in an ethnic community in

Cleveland and spent more than a decade as a teacher, writer and spiritual

director in a liberal Islamic religious tradition. Later she worshipped with

the Quakers and eventually found her way to the Episcopal priesthood. She

currently serves as a priest at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in

San Francisco, simultaneously pursuing further theological education at nearby

Graduate Theological Union.

In addition to Tribe, Ritley has written an autobiographical

chapter in Amazing Grace: Stories of Lesbian and Gay Faith (eds. Malcolm

Boyd and Nancy Wilson).

While Tribe stresses coming out as spiritually significant

conversion, it also takes up the concern for community and communal memory,

as the subtitle states. Ritley picks up on a theme promoted by Yale Professor

John Boswell, who died of AIDS in late 1994. The gay community does not have

a communal memory of a past; it must begin constructing one immediately.

Ritley writes, “we may be born into the tribe, but we are not raised in it

. . . . We must tell the stories, weave the legends, paint the icons of another

family of saints whose lives will give us light . . . . This is the . . .

essential ministry of gay-to-gay, the only way in which, some day, we will

be able to make God’s gay children free.”

Jim Papp reiterates Ritley’s argument with his own analogy, “Ritley seems

to say that a chosen tribe of God justifies itself by proving they are chosen

by creating their own history. Just as in the Jewish tradition the stories

[of Passover] are part of the whole rite, as are the asking of questions — ‘Why

do we celebrate this?’ — we, too, must create our own stories about our own

heroes, saints, and martyrs.”

Tribe is also a book with tears. Tears of anguish, tears of recognition,

tears of relief, and tears of joy. The book begins with a quote from Judy

Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue: “The day I saw a poster declaring the

existence of an organization of Gay American Indians, I put my face into

my hands and sobbed with relief. . . . Gay is a universal quality . . . like

predicting the weather.” But, Tribe ends with tears as well. The last

section of the book harkens back to Ritley’s days in Islam as she weaves

in allegorical language the story of Hashad the Fool.

Hashad joins a Caravan which is crossing the sands. He awakens one night

to discover a fire in the inn where the Caravan is staying. He rushes in

and out of the fire and finds the Master of the Caravan, who weeps with pain

for the members of his caravan who are unaccounted for. But Hashad knows

where they are, and leads the Master to them, passing again through the fire.

Ritley writes, “For it is this, you see, that Hashad the Fool was born for:

to place his hand in the hand of God, and to pass and repass and repass through

the fire, until the fire has lost its power to burn, and until he has learned

to dance in the fire — to dry the tears of God. . . . “We [gay men and women]

are all this Hashad . . . who begins the journey of his life without the

slightest recognition of where he is bound.”

Ritley declares that we did not chose the fire, but it is the only way through

to our freedom and the freedom of others still trapped inside. She concludes,

“We are God’s fools, God’s gay people, called to bear God company on this

impossible journey . . . God help us all.”