Knowing Our Place

I miss my mother, who passed away a year and a half ago after wasting away with Alzheimer’s disease. I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever love me again as she did: unconditionally, and with a deep respect for who I am. I see those nativity scenes this time of year – the Baby Jesus in Mary’s arms, content in the knowledge that God’s love is the Source of it all – and the sight, which once made me glow with assurance, now sometimes makes me very sad.

I turn, of course, to my church for comfort. A year and a half ago, a turned to it with an urgency like never before.

In anticipation of yet another coming of God into the world, I had written a one-act Pentecost play. It featured five vignettes, in which a church’s prayer group, overcome by the Holy Spirit, takes to the streets to welcome to its own Pentecost service people it ordinarily ignored: a homeless man, a Latina janitor, an African-American single mother and her child, an ex-convict and a lesbian couple. It was to be performed by my GLBT-welcoming and “inclusive” Lutheran church, at that year’s Pentecost service: the first bilingual worship celebrated jointly with our Anglo and Latino congregations combined.

But our pastor, who had her own ideas about what inclusion meant and what it didn’t, got nervous about how the Latinos might possibly react to the presence of gays in their church. First I was told that they would cut out the vignette about the lesbians. And then, right at the very beginning of my mother’s memorial service, the pastor informed me that the entire play had been scrapped.

I was disappointed – even shocked – but at the time, I was far too numb to know what to do about it. I was in no condition, emotionally, to go looking right then for another church, so I simply had to accept the news. I had to finish burying my mother, and I needed my “welcoming” and “inclusive” church right there with me.

At a church council meeting not long after that, the pastor announced that “the gays must step back.” In other words, we had to hide our gayness, so that the Latinos (certain as she was that “those people” couldn’t stand gays) would not be scandalized by our presence and leave.

In addition to being offended, I was puzzled. How could it possibly have escaped the Latino congregants’ notice that the Anglo congregation was at least a third GLBT, especially since (A) we were mentioned in our welcoming statement in the English bulletin – which many Latinos, being bilingual, could read and (B) the Latino congregation itself included several GLBT members?

Did Latino gays not count? Did our pastor not know that they existed? Could one, in her world, simply not belong to more than one minority group at a time and continue to matter? Not only was this clearly homophobic, but racist as well. It insulted not only the GLBTs, but the Latinos, too.

Shouldn’t those in the Latino congregation who might have had moral objections to homosexuality have been treated like grownups and told the truth, so they could decide for themselves whether they wanted to go to church with gays or not? Instead, we were all being heavy-handedly managed, like pawns on a chessboard. The Latinos were being treated like simple-minded children, and the gays like something considered even less consequential than that.

I was afraid to make waves, still not feeling strong enough to speak up to the pastor. Ever since I had come out as a lesbian, I had been searching for a church home. When I’d found this church, I’d been sure I’d finally found one. I had boasted of my great find to others. It was humiliating even to think about pulling up stakes and starting all over again.

Not only was I unsure I even had the strength or the will for it, but like a battered wife, I was embarrassed to admit what was happening. This was, quite simply, the craziest thing I’d ever heard of. The pastor seemed driven by some notion of multiculturalism, but, at bottom, it was no more than cultural chauvinism. She seemed to credit Anglos – and Anglos alone – with all the tolerance, open-mindedness and generosity in the world. Latinos, however, might well wish to challenge the assumption that Anglos have cornered the market on any of these virtues.

I waited for our straight allies on the council to get properly outraged and do something about all this. They did seem embarrassed and somewhat shocked, but other than squirming in discomfort, they seemed to do nothing.

We were, however, a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) church, meaning that we had committed to welcoming all people, including GLBT’s, as full and equal members of our congregation. Surely – surely the heterosexuals in our church understood just what that meant. I and the other lesbian on the council met with a few fellow parishioners, people we knew we could trust not to get hysterical and blab it all over the place, to discuss the matter. They were concerned, but like us, they seemed to trust that the majority in our congregation understood what being RIC meant and would be willing to do the right thing. Surely a stand would be taken.

On the Day of Judgment, after all, Jesus will not ask us if we were comfortable enough. If we had enough pillows, or found the right setting for our sleep-number bed. He has made it clear, in Scripture, that He will ask us how we treated others – especially “the least of these.” How we treat these “least” in the eyes of the world – the marginalized and the oppressed, those usually relegated to the end of the line and the bottom of the heap – is, Jesus has told us, how we will have treated Him. And how we have treated Him is how we have treated the One Who sent Him.

The other lesbian on the council tried to speak with the pastor – hoping, as I did, that she and I might have misunderstood what she’d said. The pastor all but snarled at her, leaving no doubt we had heard her exactly right. If anyone else besides a couple of the gay parishioners spoke to the pastor, I never heard about it. We were walking around on eggshells, afraid that word would leak out to the rest of the congregation – and that the trouble that followed would be “our fault.”

None of us wanted to leave the congregation that we loved. Still trying to deal with the aftermath of having lost both my father and my mother in less than two years’ time, I simply had to set this ugly business aside. And the wonderful people who had welcomed us there in the first place? Would they not, surely, stand up yet and – pun entirely intended – straighten the pastor out?

My fellow council lesbian, a member of the GLBT-advocacy group Lutherans Concerned (who had bestowed the RIC label on our church to begin with), told them what was going on. Other than being “horrified” that the pastor had told a couple of us that if we didn’t like how she handled things, we could “just go to a gay church,” they seemed unwilling to do anything, either. At this point, an obvious question presented itself. What the hell does the RIC designation really and truly mean?

What does being Lutheran really mean, to that congregation? Luther taught that we, the Church, were “a universal priesthood of believers.” Which means that the congregation has as great an obligation to minister to the pastor as she does to the congregation. Did they do that? If anyone did, they didn’t seem to think we GLBT’s had any right to know about it.

No one seemed to want to keep us up on what was going on, and certainly they expressed no desire to hear from us. We simply were not considered credible. Though everybody has a bias, only we seemed to be regarded as “biased.” The attitude seemed to be “Whattya want from us, anyway? Didn’t we welcome you here in the first place – and isn’t that enough?”

They seemed to resent that we weren’t sufficiently appreciative of their welcome. We gays and Latinos – getting to go to church with straight White people! Why, what more could we want out of life, anyway? Is it any wonder, fifty years after the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, that there are still so many Black churches? So many Latino churches? And – yes – gay churches, too?

Not only did we gays not count, but the Latinos really didn’t, either. We were charity cases, there strictly due to the saintly benevolence of our straight, White benefactors. And we’d all just better shut up and be properly grateful for it. We had better “know our place.” The sad thing is that many of us GLBTs have such low opinions of ourselves – are so grateful for having been let onto the bus at all – that we are perfectly content to be kept in the back seat of it.

But it is our Church, too – every bit as much as it is anyone else’s. Christ invited us, and that is all that matters, as the Church is – first and foremost – His. All the back-patting and “good-for-us” attitudes of our fellow church members – as they congratulate themselves for merely doing what Christ told them to do in the first place – insult not only us, but God. When they treat us like charity cases, they are not glorifying God. In that attitude, they glorify nobody but themselves.

We must have enough self-respect to realize this, whether others do or not. And especially when others don’t. The pastor was counting on our lack of self-respect – on the idea that we had none, and deserved none. Like Caesar Augustus, ordering the tax and census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where Jesus was to be born, she scrupulously counts all in her little empire. We are counted the way Mary, Joseph and Jesus were counted. We are counted – but we don’t really count.

And of course we want to help keep the peace, which we are told we can only do by keeping to the place assigned to us. No room at the inn – stay at the back of the bus. The peace that exists in the Church right now is like the Pax Romana under the caesars. It is a false peace, based upon fear and oppression. Its religion worships not God, but mere human beings who have deified themselves.

I put the matter aside for a whole year, unwilling to say anything (I let my twenty-one-year-old lesbian fellow-councilmember do the fighting for me). And I hoped and prayed that the pastor would change her mind. I though all the things that I have said here, and I knew in my heart that they were true. Yet I was still afraid to act on them. I had gotten comfortable at the back of the bus, myself.

A whole year later, in another council meeting, the council president timidly brought up yet another aspect of the controversy. Shouldn’t our welcoming statement, at long last, be translated into Spanish so the Latino congregation would have it in their bulletin, too? This was explosive stuff – it mentioned the homos, don’t you know? And the pastor clearly didn’t want to take such a “big” step.

“They still don’t have a clue,” she chuckled darkly, warning us that we were making waves, again. Neither, it seemed, did most of the rest of the Anglo congregation know, even then, what was going on.

We were getting ready to vote on whether to change our church constitution so that we could call an “un-rostered” pastor when this one retired. Meaning, specifically, a pastor participating in the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) program, which supported ordained ministers in committed same-sex relationships. This would, for us, be the biggest step of all. And the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) had been known to punish congregations who took that step. It didn’t seem likely, to me, that we would vote in favor of such a measure.

Quite simply, I gave up on them then. I left that church, and found myself another. And I am happy in my current church, a United Church of Christ congregation that is Open and Affirming, in the truest sense. We have not only an openly gay pastor in a longtime committed relationship, but an openly gay associate pastor, too. It will take me some time to heal and to trust again, but my new fellow church-members are lavishing upon me all the love and patience I so sorely need.

Godly love is a seamless garment: of love and respect for God, for others and for self. We need not pit consideration for one against that for another. God is bigger than we are, and though we cannot always meet “His” standard, God lavishes upon us all the love and patience to meet us more than halfway – if we will only try, and continue to believe.

For GLBT Christians, especially, a clean heart and a right spirit involve something we have been told is not only unfathomable, but sinful. We must have respect for ourselves. We must trust that God is bigger than all of us, and that Christ will be the bridge over troubled water Who comes across to meet us, and bear us across, when we cannot make it by ourselves.

I debated long and hard about whether I ought to write about this for Whosoever. I didn’t want to discourage anybody. But we must know how to deal with situations like this. My not having written about it would not magically make it not have happened.

“We’ll show them,” many of us are prone to say when these things happen. But really, who are we “showing” – and what are we showing them? That those who say we don’t belong in the Church have been right all along? Those who belong in the Church have often had to fight for their right to be there, and to belong somewhere other than merely the back pew.

We must accept that even our allies are flawed, and often scared or overwhelmed. It does no one any good for us to over-idealize them, or to expect them to be heroic all the time. No one is always heroic. Not even us. Sometimes we must all stand up – step forward, instead of back – and be heroic together.

On Sunday, September the 28th, my former church voted on whether to call an un-rostered pastor. And, much to my surprise, they voted – all of them, Anglos and Latinos, gays and straights, the whole church together – to take this bold step forward. Not all of them, by any means, ever knew about the council skullduggery over whether to make the gays “step back” for fear of scandalizing the Latinos. I have no idea what everyone would have made of that. All I know is that, when the time came to vote in favor of full inclusion in a way that really costs something and takes a genuine risk, they were willing to cast that vote.

The pastor got up in the pulpit, thereafter, to announce that she would be retiring early. She felt compelled to assure the congregation that it was not because of the vote that they had taken. I don’t know why, since I’ve left that congregation and am now out of the loop as far as the news there is concerned. That people – and perhaps many of them – did stand up to her after all is likely. It is also very possible that she has done as much thinking and praying about the matter as I have.

In retrospect, I know we should have opened the matter up to the whole congregation. We could have trusted them to make the right decision, after all. I should have had the courage to refuse to stay on the back seat of the bus, or the rear pew of the church. I knew I had the right understanding of the situation all along. All the pretty words I’ve said in this essay are true. Too bad I didn’t have the strength to trust them, over the past year and a half.

I should have had more faith in the other members of my former church, too. The hard words I have said here about “welcoming” straights are, indeed, true of many of them. They are true of some in that church, as well. But I know they are not true of anywhere near all of them. I can’t preach to anybody else about how to have a clean heart and a right spirit. I can tell you what you ought to do – but I still have to do it, myself.

Those who reject faith like to say that we “created” God out of our wish for a Parent Who truly is all-loving and unconditionally accepting. What they cannot explain is why we have such a deep-seated need for unconditional love in the first place. Either it results from random chance, or as a part of Someone’s plan. I believe it takes far more blind faith to believe the former than it does the latter.

In the God revealed to us in Christ, we do indeed have such a Parent. God loves us even after our own parents have left us. And even when our own parents have failed to love us unconditionally all along. Parents are hard-wired to love their kids no matter what – to love us, as much as humanly possible, as God does, and the Church has been commanded to love us this way because no parent lives forever, or always loves the way a parent should.

We are part of the Church, too. That commission has been given to us, as well.

Christ came that we would not be afraid, because God’s love is great enough for all of us to have it in abundance – and to share it, besides. God counts every hair on our heads, and in God’s eyes, every one of us counts. I’m looking forward to the first Christmas season at my new church home. May we all face the season with clean hearts, right spirits and true peace with all. Amen.