Revive us again;
Fill each heart with thy love;
May each soul be rekindled with fire from above.
— Revive Us Again (William P. MacKay and John J. Husband)
Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure.
— Walter Wink, The Powers That Be
The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is in sore need of revival. A weeklong, pew-captain assignin’, half-hour long altar-callin’, “Just As I Am” repeatin’, sweatin’, shoutin’, singin’, Lord praisin’ revival.
This revival needs to fill us all with the love of God, rekindling our souls with fire from above!
The revival is needed not only within the church but also within the general GLBT community at large ≠ on both a corporate and an individual level. The movement for GLBT civil rights has plenty of momentum, plenty of dedicated workers, plenty of guts, but it’s clearly missing a heart ≠ a spiritual center ≠ that will inspire GLBT people and their straight allies, to face even the most daunting challenges.
Our opponents, on the other hand, have plenty of heart and soul. Their entire base is a spiritual center built on their own sense of piety, traditional church doctrines, and a sense of scriptural authority. They basically go unchallenged on the public stage. Each televised “discussion” about GLBT rights ends up being couched in religious terms with conservative opponents railing that homosexuality is against the Bible. The hapless GLBT civil rights supporter is left spiritually unarmed and is only able to counter with secular arguments.
The secular arguments, no doubt, win the day when a reasoned, fair debate takes place. There is absolutely no secular argument that can be made for continuing to deny GLBT people all the rights and privileges enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. An argument made only on secular terms comes out in favor of equal rights for everyone every single time. But, as Walter Wink so rightly states, “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure.” We cannot transform our society without our spirituality.
Of course, it’s often the religious argument that muddies the water and turns the tide against the GLBT movement ≠ a tide the GLBT movement is totally unprepared to turn aside simply because we either do not have, deny or hide our spiritual center. The church does not play a large role in working for GLBT civil rights. Churches in the GLBT community are marginalized within the community as much as they are marginalized within society at large. Often GLBT people of faith are seen as “traitors” to the GLBT community ≠ trying desperately to fit into a heterosexist institution that would be just as happy to see them vanish all together.
Our opponents have so effectively cornered the market on church and scriptural authority that they have convinced many GLBT believers to abandon their faith. The old adage of “tell a lie long enough and it becomes the truth” applies to the six Bible passages used by mainstream churches to cut GLBT believers off from their faith.
Reclaiming the church as spiritual center
Many GLBT people grew up in church, believing in God (and may still believe in God), but were turned away or rejected by the faith of their childhood after their sexual orientation or gender issues were revealed. They believed the lie that you cannot be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and Christian. These GLBT believers forfeited their religion and believing that God had turned his back on them, they returned the favor, walking away from their faith in God.
Over the years, many have come back to their faith ≠ embarking on an arduous journey to reconcile their shattered spirituality with their sexual orientation. Rev. Troy Perry, in 1968, founded a denomination of churches with the goal of restoring GLBT believers to their faith, and hopefully to the denominations of their childhood as the church moved from exclusion to inclusion. That move has been laboriously slow, however, and Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding ≠ giving GLBT believers some place to be while the Holy Spirit continue its work on the hearts and minds of the people that populate the church at large.
But, even this great development has not been enough for the GLBT community as a whole and individually to reclaim its spiritual center. From my experience, the church in the gay community often simply becomes the Sunday morning bar alternative ≠ a place to cruise while the pastor preaches. I certainly don’t wish to paint all gay-inclusive churches with this brush and do not intend my words as a blanket condemnation. There are some gay-centered churches doing great works, but others wither on the vine, either by being known as places to cruise, or becoming so wrapped up in inner power struggles that they become ineffective voices for change in society.
Gay-centered churches are not the only churches to suffer such afflictions. The mainstream church itself has become little more than a networking opportunity for people who want to seem “respectable” in the marketplace. Growing up in the South, I understand that a lot of the business in town is done on Sunday morning because you can expect a church-going businessman to play on the level. That’s the perception, anyway. Mainstream churches also fall victim to the inward power struggles that mute their voice in society, and they often become too wrapped up in right thinking and right believing to be anything more than a security blanket for those who are invested in defending that style of church or institution.
No matter what the shortcomings of the gay-inclusive or mainstream church, the fact remains that without the involvement of the church, the struggle for GLBT civil rights is doomed to fail. Without a strong spiritual center, any victory will be hollow. Without a strong spiritual center, both corporately and individually, few of us will be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to bring about true social justice.
All churches of all faiths must join in this struggle. GLBT believers of every religious stripe, be it Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist or otherwise must demand that their church reclaim its spiritual center and work for the equality of all human beings. Being a Christian, I can only speak about my own faith. I will leave it to others of these faiths to call their own leaders to task. I speak mainly to Christian leaders, but the call is the same to leaders of all faiths ≠ we must seek equality for everyone, for that is God’s call to us all.
An example to follow: The Black Church
African-Americans fighting for their civil rights in the 1960s faced many horrors ≠ attack dogs, Southern sheriffs ready to arrest and beat them, lynch mobs, fire hoses. What got them through these life-threatening situations? It wasn’t a reasoned secular argument for social justice. Just like with GLBT civil rights, in a secular, reasoned environment, it was clear that African-Americans deserved social equality. But this was not a reasoned fight. Those on the other side of the argument used the Bible and pseudo-science to make the case that blacks were mentally and physically inferior and spiritually stained. They used religion to muddy the water in the same way religion is used to muddy the water against GLBT people.
Those African-Americans marching for their freedom, facing unsympathetic law officers, police dogs and water hoses did not march because they knew they had won the secular and scientific argument. They did not put their lives at risk for a secular argument. No, they were working within the confines of a deeper theological belief that they were bringing about God’s justice on earth.
It was this existential faith in something greater than society’s prejudices and hatred that sustained them. It was their faith that they were God’s hands in the world, bringing about God’s peace and justice that sustained them. They could face bodily harm, economic destruction, loss, pain and agony because they were not simply fighting for the right to ride in the front of the bus ≠ they were fighting for God’s justice on earth, for God’s peace on earth, for God’s grace and mercy on earth.
They believed that they were working on the side of the angels and they learned this lesson in their churches. The black church was the center of community life for African-Americans.
Because churches were the one institution free from white influence, they became the center of the community’s self-improvement effort. Hospitals, banks, and welfare societies sprang from church coffers. Church buildings provided school classrooms, or places for lectures and meetings. It was a place for voters to meet to walk to the polls. Ministers read letters from those separated during slavery. Churches empowered the newly employed to protest unfair conditions, to renegotiate their contracts, to decide what and how much to plant, and to take time off to be with their families. They supported freed people as they acted on their will to marry, to remain with one spouse, and to raise their own children. Churches deepened the freed people’s idea of the meaning of community. They provided a place where freemen and women with shared beliefs and goals could come together and fight against the constant threat of white militia attack. (PBS, “This Far by Faith“)
The gay-centered church and all mainstream churches that welcome and affirm its GLBT members should take heed to these words. This is the spiritual center that the church must reclaim for GLBT people. It must be the one institution that is free from heterosexist and gender-biased influence. It should be the center of our community’s self-improvement effort. Our churches should be places where we can be empowered to protest the unfair conditions we face in society. It should be the place where we marry, where we are encouraged to be faithful to our partners, where we should raise out children. The church should be where GLBT people can share their beliefs and goals ≠ where we can come together to fight against the constant threat of a heterosexist society that seeks to force us back into the closet.
This is the church’s duty according to German theologian Karl Barth. The church must, he said, “bid people hope, and thus to mediate to them the promise that they need.” Barth further insists the church must “confess solidarity at every point with … people” and “show ourselves to be their companions and friends without worrying about their garb or mask, and we make their cause our own.”
Instead, the mainstream church too often looks at the garb or the mask, and insists in a change of clothing or a removal of the mask before the doors will open. Barth counsels churches to remain open to all because “those who hunger and thirst after righteousness … those who, however mistakenly or strangely or impotently, ask after and seek the right and dignity of humanity, have God on their side and will be satisfied … we cannot separate this from them no matter what name they bear or what kind of people they are.”
Feeding our community’s hunger
There is great spiritual hunger and thirst in our community. Not just the mainstream churches but the especially churches that serve the GLBT community need to be aware of this hunger and thirst and reclaim its position as the spiritual center of our movement so it can nourish this ever-present hunger. Our churches need to awaken to their mission, to their calling, to be the place where GLBT people can claim that “right and dignity of humanity.” The church must be, for our community, the place where we are assured that God is on our side and we will be satisfied. The church must be that place where we can get the larger picture and be assured that we, too, are on the side of the angels, working to bring God’s everlasting justice, peace and mercy to earth.
The hunger and thirst for a return to our spiritual center is palpable. The loss of our individual spiritual center is evident in the GLBT community. Our community struggles with feelings of self-loathing, self-doubt and low self-esteem. These feelings are deeply engrained in us by a society and a mainstream church community that has bought into the religious lie and the pseudo-science that teaches us that we are somehow “disordered” or “wrong” in our sexual orientation or gender identity.
This unmet hunger and thirst leads to many self-destructive behaviors such as abusive addictions to alcohol, sex or drugs. These addictions fulfill, even if just for a short while, the emptiness left in us when we are stripped of our spiritual center. Our community has a high rate of suicide and depression because we have lost our spiritual moorings. We often feel defenseless and vulnerable and become angry or sad when we hear the words of the church or society tell us how awful we are and how we are in need of “healing” or a “cure” of our sexual “disorder.”
On some level, we realize that society and the church are lying to us. We know, deep within, that we are not wrong ≠ that indeed we were created as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we are as God intended us to be. That’s why the lies of society and the church hurt so deeply, because we know they simply are not telling the truths about our lives. We often become frustrated, lashing out at society and religion, because we do no know how to answer their lies with the truth. We have lost our spiritual center ≠ that compass that can guide us to the center of peace, love, mercy and truth. Without that spiritual center we have no way to answer society and the church when they tell their lies. We are left only the secular arguments and our religious brothers and sisters that oppose us are handed the monopoly on religious argument in the battle. Their lies go unopposed, and our rights remain unsecured because we cannot present a coherent spiritual case for our right to exist, much less our right to equal treatment.
Just like the black churches, we must provide our own strong spiritual center, rooted in our own congregations and communities of faith. We need a revival of our faith in community and as individuals. We cannot rely on the mainstream churches to take up our cause, but neither can we allow the apathy, and often outright hostility, of the mainstream church sway us from our goal. Even Martin Luther King Jr. had to deal with his own disappointment in the moderate white church’s apathy, and often outright hostility, during the civil rights movement. He criticized the mainstream churches of his time as an “archdefender of the status quo.” The mainstream church, as he saw it, did not disturb the power structure of society, but often served as a “vocal sanction of things as they are.” It seems the mainstream church has not come very far from King’s day in the matter of civil equality for all of our country’s citizens.
King had no illusions about the progressiveness of the Christian church, calling it the “taillight” and never the headlight in social justice issues. It is not surprising then that every major denomination is going through upheaval and turmoil at the mere mention of giving “the right and dignity of humanity” to its GLBT members. It is no surprise then that these same churches that picked up the Bible in defense of slavery and segregation turn once again to the pages of scripture to defend their most recent backward ways.
For those who may doubt the importance of a spiritual center for our community in general and its members in particular, or who may doubt the voracity of the spiritual hunger in our community, we need only to look at what dominated the top of our community’s best seller list just a few short years ago. Georgia college professor and Roman Catholic priest Daniel Helmeniak published a thin volume called “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.” Published in 1994, it rocketed to the top of the GLBT bookstore bestseller list and stayed there for a very long time. In 2000, it went into its eighth printing.
Helminiak calls the success of his short, inexpensive book “astounding” and telling.
“These issues are much more important to the gay and lesbian community than anyone has ever allowed,” he explained in an interview with Southern Voice. “We, ourselves, tend to downplay religion because it’s so critical, but a lot of us, in our hearts, are still struggling with questions and we need someone to help us through them.”
In addition, the most popular pages viewed at the Whosoever Web site is our section on the Bible and homosexuality. No other section garners as much attention even though one of the stated goals of Whosoever is to move us individually and as a community beyond a simple biblical defense and into a deeper spirituality. As individuals and as a community we can’t seem to get past the issue of the Bible and how it is used against us. We study our queer reading of the Bible with keen interest, but we never seem to get much further along the spiritual path once we’ve put our biblical questions to rest.
Helminiak, Whosoever and other sites and books that tackle the biblical question have helped many people through the Bible, but what happens when they put down the book or click off the Web site? Where is the community support system they need to discuss this book and these sites, to put all the concepts together and begin to build a comprehensive biblical system of self-defense against those who say the Bible condemns us? Helminiak’s book was an amazing success, but there was no influx of new members into the only church infrastructure that exists within our community ≠ the MCC. One must begin to ask why ≠ to explore the reason why these newly spiritually empowered people found no spiritual center within the church structure that we already possess. There was no place in which these spiritual people could come together as a spiritually centered community to begin to explore their faith, live it out and bring it into other arenas important to our community, especially the political stage.
We’re left with a perplexing paradox; the GLBT community wants spirituality, but they have no satisfactory overarching structure in which to explore and practice it. Without the ability to grow and cultivate our faith, it atrophies, or remains in the closet. Our faith, therefore, rarely informs our politics. It rarely sees the light of day as we fight for our rightful place as societal equals. Our spiritual center is closeted or forsaken as we move into the public world. We need a revival ≠ a personal revival of our faith, and a revival of our church community where we can practice, grow and live out that faith.
A “QUEAR” Theory of Revival
How do we begin individually and corporately to foment that revival that we so desperately need to reclaim our spiritual center? I propose a “QUEAR” Theory ≠ Question, Explore, Action and Reflection.
As individuals we need to begin questioning the traditions that seek to keep us not only out of the church in general, but out of God’s kingdom in particular. Where do these traditions come from? How have they been handed down to us? Do they still apply to us in our modern times?
We need to begin to question how the Bible has been translated. We need to build the confidence needed to challenge those who take the Bible literally and use it to abuse our spirits. We need to come to the place where we are no longer afraid of the Bible, but begin to read it through a GLBT lens. Simply because we arrive at different interpretations of scripture than our conservative counterparts does not mean that we “disregard” the Bible or “disrespect” its authority. It simply means we have done our own explorations and arrived at different interpretations.
Not taking the Bible literally does not mean that we do not take it seriously. It is a foundational document of our faith, after all, and it must be studied, taken seriously and granted a certain amount of authority in our lives. That does not mean that we should worship the book ≠ but it does mean that we have to study it, learn it, know it and understand how others read it and interpret it. But, we must feel free to question the Bible and how others interpret it. We must feel free to arrive at different conclusions and be courageous in our honest contention with the scriptures and those who disagree with our conclusions. This must be done in community ≠ and is one of the most important roles that the church must play in our community. Churches must fearlessly explore the Bible with its members and encourage them to read the book for themselves and decide for themselves what it says.
To understand the Bible or any other spiritual issue that emerges, we must be willing to deeply explore the many attitudes and points of view available to us. We must not be fearful of reading and exploring the opinions and beliefs of those who oppose us. We should know their arguments as well as our own. In this way, we know not just what we believe, but why we believe it. We understand at a fundamental level why we oppose the views expressed by our opponents.
The church must assist this exploration, giving its members a wide berth to learn everything possible about their faith. Pastors should be willing to explore deep questions of faith with members instead of giving pat Sunday school answers about God and how God works. Pastors should be willing to enter into the paradox of faith and be ready sometimes to admit that the mysteries of how God works eludes even them. Telling a church member, “I really don’t know the answer to that spiritual question,” is often the most edifying answer that can be given, for it leads to a deeper exploration of spiritual issues.
Churches should be willing to teach members about the history of the faith, the history of the Bible and the evolution of creeds and beliefs. There should be no shying away from the hard lessons of faith that have been learned over the centuries. There should be no second thought at jettisoning those things that no longer work for members of the congregation. Exploration of faith should be a corporate, as well as individual endeavor, supported by fellow believers who are ready to admit that there are some questions that will never have adequate answers.
Questioning and exploring will naturally lead a person to a stronger faith. There may be a serious spiritual crisis or two along the way, but with proper support from the church and other believers those crisis spots should be worked through with faith and perseverance. The thirst and hunger in our community means that people who are serious about growing their faith will work their way through the tough spots and arrive at the other end knowing not just what they believe, but will be able to articulate why they hold those beliefs. A person who finally reconciles spirituality and sexuality will never again be shaken by arguments, accusations or attacks from the opposition. They will have cultivated an unshakable faith. They will have reclaimed their spiritual center ≠ but they need the community infrastructure to make it work.
As our faith grows ≠ as we begin to reclaim that spiritual center ≠ we cannot help but begin to act out of that faith. In every area of our lives, we will begin to bring that faith out into the open. Whether it’s in politics, religion, social justice issues or simply our secular work environment, our faith will begin inform our actions.
I’m not talking about the kind of public faith those of the evangelical Christian persuasion who have that in-your-face, have-you-met-Jeeezus style of proselytizing. We’re talking instead about a quiet faith. A faith that underlies everything we do with an eschatological importance; a faith that leads us to actions full of hope, grace, mercy, love and justice.
Mel White was once a ghostwriter for such conservative religious giants as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. After coming out as a gay man, his career as an evangelical Christian writer was over. He struggled mightily against his true nature, a struggle chronicled powerfully in his book “Stranger at the Gate.” His spiritual struggle led him in 1998 to found Soulforce, a network of volunteers and staff committed to research, teach, and apply the principles of nonviolence as taught and lived by Gandhi and King on behalf of sexual and gender minorities. Soulforce has staged many protests at general conferences of denominations that still exclude GLBT believers and has raised the profile of the GLBT issue within the mainstream church.
Yet, White himself remains a man of quiet dignity, a man of a deep and abiding faith. He is not out to turn all people into Christians, but to turn into Christians those who already claim the label. His deep spiritual moorings make him a powerful witness to how reclaiming one’s spiritual center can transform a person and turn them into an inspiring voice for the community at large.
The pity of it all is that the political arm of our movement does not use people like White in their push for our civil rights. We need people like White on the forefront of our overall political movement, not simply on the fringes of our community’s push for spiritual acceptance in mainstream church. It should be men and women like White or Presbyterian minister Rev. Janie Spahr on CNN every time a GLBT rights issue comes up. It should be people like these who can speak both the secular and the spiritual language out there speaking for us. It should be those who have reclaimed their spiritual center working for our community’s collective spiritual and political lives.
The church should also be on the forefront of action, organizing political events, teaching their congregations about the spiritual side of all political issues. Every gay-affirming congregation should be jumping at the chance to take action around the issue of same-gender marriage. Our conservative counterparts have made it a spiritual issue, even though marriage rites are granted by the state. Our churches should offer education about the history of marriage and how the “tradition” has changed over the centuries. We are abdicating our role in educating the public in an important spiritual and secular topic. Now is the time to act!
In seminary, there was a word used that always perplexed me, but I feel it’s fitting here. Individually and as a community we need “praxis” ≠ reflection and action. Acting out of praxis one does not act with out reflecting on that action. We must always reflect on the actions we’ve taken, or the beliefs we’ve explored, or the beliefs we’ve jettisoned.
Spiritual growth is not a destination; it is a journey ≠ a lifelong journey that never truly ends. Taking the time to reflect on the journey strengthens us. Often we can get confused or lost on our spiritual journey if we do not take the time to look back over the moves we’ve made and reflect on it.
Individually we can do this through taking inventory of our spiritual beliefs from time to time. It’s also helpful to begin a daily practice of meditation and prayer. Corporately, churches should teach people how to meditate and pray and lead workshops and retreats so people can fully reflect on their faith and their spiritual progress.
This reflection, however, should lead us full circle back to questioning, exploring, taking action and reflecting. This is the never-ending cycle of spiritual growth that should serve us throughout our lives.
Send a Revival
These are the seeds of our revival, both as individuals and as a spiritual community. But, we must cultivate these seeds if they are to grow into a revival that will indeed fill each heart with God’s love and rekindle each soul with fire from above. We can acknowledge the problems, map them out and consider them, but if we do not act to reclaim our spiritual center as GLBT believers and as a community of faith, we will never grow into the force for social action that is sorely needed.
We must learn to speak our spiritual hearts in everyday language. We must learn to bring the depth of our faith into every area of our lives. We must bring the redemptive presence of God into each situation we encounter, whether its in the line at the grocery store or in a line of protestors lobbying for “the right and dignity of humanity” that we demand from the church and from society at large.
We cannot transform our social system without attending to our own spiritual transformation. We cannot hope to make progress in the social sphere without actively seeking progress in the spiritual sphere. This does not mean that we all become screaming Jesus freaks. It simply means that the center of our lives rests in the strength, peace, justice and mercy of the living, active, creating God that is the very ground of our being. This is a quiet, strong, assured and creative faith. It is a faith that refuses to be silenced. It is a faith that refuses to sit still while anyone remains oppressed. It is a faith that can withstand setback and adversity. It is a faith that is not afraid to stand against any and all opposition. It is a faith that can bend, but will never break. It is a faith that is always in a state of flux, always changing, always growing, always open to gentle correction. It is not an arrogant faith, but it is a faith that is sure of itself and the God that centers it.
When someone with this faith asks questions, they find answers or they are content knowing no easy answers may be found. When someone with this faith speaks, the world listens. When someone with this faith acts, the world takes notice. When someone with this faith explores, they bring solutions to a world in need of them. When someone with this faith reflects, they take into account all the questions, all the actions, and all the explorations that came before in an effort to return to the beginning to perfect this faith.
We avoid revival at our own peril. If we do not reclaim our spiritual center both as GLBT believers and as a community, our outer attempts at justice will fail, and any victory will be hollow without the deeper knowledge of God’s justice, peace, love and mercy. If we embrace revival, and seek to put the roots of our spiritual center into the vastness of our God, then complete victory, both spiritually and in the world will be complete and unshakeable.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.