“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
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
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
“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
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
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.”