Remembering Who We Will Be: The United Church of Christ and LGBT People in 2057

United Church of Christ 50th Anniversary General Synod, Hartford, Conn.

It is an enormous privilege to be with you today. I am grateful to the planning committee for its invitation to share with you my thoughts on where – God being our helper – I believe the United Church of Christ and its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members can find ourselves 50 years from now.

Before I begin in earnest, though, I need to tell you that no matter how focused on issues of justice for LGBT people I might want to be, the rest of life has a sneaky way of insinuating itself into my mind, emotions, and spirit. In the last two months I have had two significant things happen in my life: the United Church of Christ helped me visit Israel and Palestine and my grandmother died.

At the same time I have been thinking and praying about coming to be with you, my family has been journeying through our beloved grandmother’s final days. At 91 and having proven beyond any doubt in our minds that her clock actually had 25 hours in a day, our Gran wound down like a fine old watch. She went home to Heaven from her own bedroom, enveloped in the prayers of those she loved.

For me and my family, Gran was the model of unconditional love, the example of inexhaustible courage, and one whose authentic way of life made us want to do the right thing, not because we had to, but because she wanted us to and we wanted so much to be like her. When people talked with us kids about Jesus, we didn’t have a hard time believing in Him. We already knew someone like Him.

I have spent my adult life trying to live up to and into, the advice my grandmother gave me the night before I left Cordele, GA for college in Ohio. She told me how much she loved me, how proud of me she was, then she locked her blue eyes with mine and said, “Now when you get up to Columbus, remember who you are.”

I told my friend, a preacher, what she had said and his response was, “Yes, Brother Harry, but also remember Whose you are – not just who you are, but Whose.”

It sort of irked me that the preacher had presumed to add to my grandmother’s advice – to attach a pious platitude to her more plainly spoken wisdom. In fact, I’m still a little put out about it. It’s only been 28 years.

You see, that preacher wasn’t just guilty of presumption; he clearly didn’t know my grandmother. That she was a Christian, and had raised us all to be, was part and parcel of who she was. It showed so much in her life that it went without saying. And she expected it to show in mine. She couldn’t live my life for me. I had to do that. We had Christ in common, but the story of Christ’s love for the world needed to be made manifest in my life. It is my unique gift, my unique responsibility.

Now, that’s good, Harry, but what has it got to do with a vision of how the United Church of Christ will relate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people when we are 100 years old, instead of only a vibrant, energetic 50?

It’s a good question. I didn’t come all this way just to reminisce about Gran, but her advice has been transcendently present with me as I have faced the difficult days of her last illness and death, which have been coincidental to my thinking about what I wanted to say to you today. And it occurred to me simply to share it with you. Remember who you are. Remember who you are.

Well, who are we?

We are the United Church – of Christ. Wow! Our leaders in 1957 really knew how to sock it to us, didn’t they? Out of all the names they could have chosen from all the rich words of the traditions of our four predecessor denominations, they chose the most basic, the most fundamental, the hardest of all to live up to and the only ones worth living into – the United Church – of Christ.

We follow Christ. The friend of sinners – the healer of the sick – crazy turner of cheeks – radical activist – redeemer – savior – sovereign. We follow the One whose mission is always to reconcile us to God and to each other as together we build community. Whew! Is that what you signed up for? Changing ourselves at the same time we are helping others to change? That’s the hardest work in the world! We’ll have to work at that all day! That work will take a lifetime! Well, yes.

Since we are called to build the Reign of God and to make it really apparent in the world by 2057, we’re going to need to remind ourselves often along the way of who we are.

We are the United Church of Christ, the first mainline Christian denomination in the United States to ordain a gay person to ministry, the first to ordain a lesbian, the inventor of a Christian approach to prayerful study and discernment that often leads congregations to become open to and affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people not because we have to, but because Jesus is and we want to be like Jesus. We are the United Church of Christ, the first denomination to affirm that marriage is a gift from God that exists to build community, not to divide the haves from the have-nots and that it should be available to any committed couple regardless of the gender of the partners.

What a reputation! What a legacy! Our historic response to the call to prophesy and to model Christ’s Reign on earth has set us apart in the minds of our neighbors. We shine like a beacon of hope to millions who have been cast aside by society. Some are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But many more look in our windows, overhear our conversations, read about us in the papers and, though not gay or bisexual or transgender or lesbian, see hope for themselves in how we love each other. Oh, behold how they LOVE one another!

The power of our love will overcome the evil that besets us. We must remind ourselves of who we are in order to engage and focus that love and never give over the field to the forces of division and discouragement and hate.

We know who we are! We are Trinitarian believers who trust the living, moving, still-speaking Spirit of God to use us for change – even as the Spirit is doing its redemptive work of change in us.

I believe we are on the cusp of a fourth great awakening. There are said to have been three great periods of revival in this country – and I believe we are seeing the stirrings of the fourth. And this one is the unique gift of transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay people to the Church. God is using us in a marvelous new way.

I see everyday in my work as Director of the Religion and Faith Program of the Human Rights Campaign the incredible faithfulness of lay and clergy believers around the country who are speaking truth to power in winsome ways that are changing the hearts and minds of religious and political leaders – and more importantly, the hearts and minds of their constituents. Friends, I get up and run to work every morning, afraid to death that I’ll miss something – that’s how exciting it is be doing this work right now.

LGBT lay people are calling the question for pastors – “Brother Pastor, Sister Pastor, they are writing discrimination against us into our state constitution, in several states they are coming for our children, the powers and principalities are looking the other way when our homes are burned, our lives threatened, when we are fired from our jobs. We are under attack. When in the name of the Great Liberator of the World are you going to speak out?”

Non-LGBT people of faith are talking with their fellow congregants, with legislators and governors and saying, “You know these people are our neighbors, our family members, and our friends. Please, stop hurting them. And for goodness sake, stop hurting them in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Brave pastors are counting the cost of discipleship – probably no big church in their future, pension will be based on the salaries small churches pay, not enough to live on, children won’t have their choice of school, they’ll always have to sit sort of toward the back at the association and conference meetings because they’ll never be the chair. Brave pastors are counting the cost of discipleship, lifting their heads toward Heaven and saying, “Here am I. Send me.”

You are those people. You are those pastors. And you are the vanguard in a movement that is changing America one heart and mind at a time. I’m supposed to be this big national gay leader, whatever that is. A person like me doesn’t lead people like you. I just hold onto your coattails and enjoy feeling the wind of your wake in what’s left of my hair. You are doing the work God calls you to do where it matters most. Not on the television, not at the Capitol, not in the White House, but in local communities, person by person, family by family, congregation by Christ-loving congregation.

It’s revival! The movement for justice for LGBT people is being kicked up a notch now that some of us have remembered what we knew – but had allowed ourselves to forget. There is such a thing as the Holy Spirit – the fabulous feminine face of God! She is powerful and makes us able to do that which sometimes seems impossible in this dark world of sin. The Spirit has been working on us and through us all along, of course. But it’s been kind of hard to focus on her sometimes with so many people beating us over the head and saying God made them do it. Many of our friends had to get away from the abuse of the church in order to get safe before they could stand in their own reality and claim their right to be fully alive – to be out and proud.

We had to have time to get safe, and then to heal a little. Likewise, some of you who are not blessed to be transgender, bisexual, lesbian or gay had to get used to some new ideas that stretched your imaginations and challenged your faith. What a gift you have received!

All over the United States married couples and those considering marriage are making an overdue assessment of what marriage means. Is it only about procreation? Has it enhanced or encumbered women’s lives? What does it mean to be a man, a husband? What are the differences between the spiritual bond between us and the legal rights and protections that come with the state’s recognition of our family?

All of us – regardless of our orientations – have been thinking and reading and talking about sex – sex, sex, sex, sex, sex – it’s generative power – it’s ability to knit souls together – the precious Godly gift of the frivolity of it. And we have been talking about sex’s power to demean and divide and destroy when abused.

How we have needed to have those conversations, to do that work. It is deep spiritual work that the Church universal has been unwilling to do until now. The larger Church has used sex as a tool to oppress, but the United Church of Christ is challenging that paradigm, listening to the Spirit, and calling the world to see the light shining down from above into our homes even, especially, into our bedrooms.

This is a “fullness of time” kind of moment. Together we are reclaiming the rich, powerful language of love, commitment, community, and justice and talking about what really matters in language people understand – faith language. We know there is great power within us all as human beings – and now we are tapping into the greater power that is the Source of all our being. We are a gift to the country and to the larger Church – neither will ever be the same – because we are living in the power of She Who Is – the Spirit of the living God – the big old girl who whispers creative ideas in our ears, nudges us up to the microphone, stands behind us while we speak with her arms crossed and her hip poked out and her pocketbook swinging, and who holds us when the crisis is past and lets us laugh or cry or both in equal measure.

Revival. That’s what I’ve been thinking about, dreaming about, as I’ve been remembering who we are – and remembering who we will be in 2057. I envision a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led movement for justice through which we so live into our reputation as an LGBT affirming denomination that we unleash the gifts, creativity, and power of the LGBT Christians among us. When we do, we will reflect the Christ whose name we bear and whose missions of reconciliation and community building are always the chief goals of the Church. What will be the hallmarks of this revival? I’d like to share just four with you in the time remaining.

This Spirit-led justice movement – this revival – will be characterized by courage. Not a lack of fear, not a flighty disregard for the consequences of our actions, but the sort of faith that allows us to just do what needs to be done and say with Queen Esther, “I will go into the King and if I perish, I perish.”

Right now I want you to hear the part of this speech that other people wrote. Ever since I received the invitation to make this presentation I’ve been asking people all over the country, “What should I say?”

Person after person – clergy and lay, LGBT and non-LGBT, diverse in every way – every person found some way to say, “Harry, tell the folks at General Synod that the LGBT justice train has already left the station. The debate is no longer about whether God demands full inclusion of LGBT folks. If they know it in their hearts, and they do, the folks at Synod should be dreaming about what they will do when they get home to make their congregation truly reflect the extravagant welcome of Christ.”

They all asked me to remind you of who you are. You are the United Church of Christ. Most people outside your doors think you love Jesus and gay people, too. Most people outside believe transgender people are comfortable in your congregation. It is past time for reality to reflect the perception. We’ve largely lost what we’re going to lose for having done the right thing. For Christ’s sake let’s don’t fail to take advantage of all the good things to be gained by not fully living into our costly calling. It is not enough for there to be more than 600 open and affirming churches when the world knows we have more than 5500 congregations.

The world is watching what we do with this historic moment. We seek to lead on many justice issues – personally, I have been moved by my experience in Palestine to become an almost daily advocate for the people there – but if we are not courageous in our advocacy for the dispossessed and disenfranchised who live next door, our advocacy for those across the sea will fall flat. If I am not willing to claim justice for myself, my work on behalf of others will always have the hollow ring of paternalism.

Right now we are wasting- far too often – the energy, talent, and commitment of LGBT people who would like nothing better than to be focusing on poverty, peace, and global warming. LGBT people in your congregations want to be turned loose to teach children, mobilize volunteers, do the life-giving work of evangelism, and raise the money for the church budget. We are tired of being focused on our navels and are ready to be put to work – indeed the record of service of LGBT folk is already long (I don’t discount that) – but we cannot be fully utilized until non-LGBT folks do their work around our issues. We have worked very hard to learn who we are. Now we need to know and you straight folks need to remember who you are – in relationship with us and in your own relationships.

Friends, it doesn’t really matter if LGBT issues are the ones we would have chosen to struggle with – they are among the issues God has set before us. We do not worship an idol called the unity of the Church; we do not serve a god called complacency. We know on which side of this struggle Christ stands and we know who we are.

When my nieces and nephews look back in 2057 on this Spirit-filled movement for justice, they will recognize that its progress was not linear, but spherical. Stay with me now – I’m going to get a little geographical-weather-like on you. Remember the Spirit has a feminine nature. Not straight up and down, but round. Not planned and perfectly executed and delivered on time, but organic, rooted, deep and wide.

Oh, so often when we are in the midst of a movement for justice it feels as if we are going around in circles, but we’re not. This movement is spherical. It builds and grows as we take one more step – make one more sacrifice – one more brave decision.

When we live with the harsh reality of how LGBT people are treated, it is easy to be frustrated because things aren’t going fast enough. Don’t be discouraged, the One who is the architect of this movement wants to remind you that with spherical growth, a point we may seem to have passed before is really being viewed from a little distance.

A Spirit-filled justice movement will be less focused on winning any one election and will focus everyday on winning another soul to God’s cause. It will not seek magic bullet messages that will manipulate a majority into voting one way or the other, but will seek to do the real, consistent education and personal outreach that will help change the way people feel – then change how they think – then change how they act.

A Spirit-filled movement will celebrate a narrow loss on an open and affirming vote because it knows that before the study only 20% were in favor of justice. It gives us all the space to know that as we win hearts and minds, we make the ultimate victory – the one that is coming – a change that will last because it will be rooted in the rich dark soil of true belief, not the shifting sands of transitory sound byte ideology.

People working in justice movements that are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led will offer grace commensurate with the grace they have received. Some of you know I started life as a United Methodist. Until it finally crumbled into dust, I carried in my billfold a little scrap of newsprint from the Georgia Wesleyan Christian Advocate, dateline 1976. It was a letter I wrote as a precocious 15-year old to the newspaper of the United Methodist Church in Georgia. In it I decried the decision of the National Youth Ministry Organization to sponsor education about homosexuality and assured my fellow Methodists that the youth of the South Georgia Conference would never go along with the national policy. There have been times in my life when I was more the oppressor than I find it comfortable to admit.

None of us started out where we are today. I am grateful beyond words to the good souls who, in my youth, confronted my homophobia and racism and sexism and privilege and argued and cajoled and reasoned and laughed at and pushed and cried with me until I got started on the journey through to the other side.

They could have said, “Humph! Another bigoted Southern white boy,” and walked away. But they stood with me when I was lousy company and offered no hope of my own redemption. They loved me with the love only the Spirit of God can provide, for I was as ugly and unlovely as you can possibly imagine. They met my petulance with patience and my lies with love.

Many of them are gone now. None of them got to sit up in a beautiful office in Washington, DC and give leadership to a national justice organization’s religion and faith program. They didn’t get to run around the country and be with the courageous people that motivate me to get up and run to work to work everyday. I cannot make that fair. All I can seek to do is to make it end in justice.

Too often we get caught up in the all-or-nothing nature of politics, whether it is secular politics or church politics. It’s all about winning – 50%+1 – who’s ahead and who’s behind. Victors and losers.

But, once in a while there is a paradigm shift. It’s economically advantageous to the powerful to keep other human beings enslaved, but the powerful fight each other to end slavery. Men have all the money and they are the only ones who can vote, but they vote to give the franchise to women. A hugely profitable company makes its profits on the backs of child labor, but sees the error of its ways and becomes the world’s largest non-governmental proponent of children’s health, education, and human rights. Check out what Nike’s doing now. The rules go out the window. The world teeters a little on its axis and things change fundamentally. Those are spirit movements.

They are predicated on a massive change of heart – on the hardest thing in the world – people like you and me, for we are all both oppressed and oppressor at various times in our lives – admitting we are wrong and promising to do better. Such movements require repentance. And repentance almost never comes at the end of a gun, or as the result of overwhelming force or displays of power. And I hate to say it because I love to talk, but it rarely comes as a result of a more reasonable argument. Repentance is almost always accomplished in an atmosphere of unconditional love – love that speaks truth to evil, but does it in ways that invite and invite and invite and rarely, if ever threaten. In such an atmosphere, the oppressors can begin to experiment with scary change and in the forgiveness offered by us, see mirrored the forgiveness of God, and begin to forgive themselves. To remember, if not who they are, then who they want very badly to be. We have received such grace from God! We must, in gratitude, offer that same grace to others – and in the process we will find that grace is more powerful in the end than all the powers and principalities arrayed against us.

Finally, when we are justice-seeking people who are filled and led by the Spirit, we can give ourselves a little grace, too. Activism is not the same for everyone and there is no single right way to do it. When you foul-up – and you surely will – act like a Soprano and “forgettaboutit” – give yourself a break

There is no roadmap for how to achieve justice in this generation. We learn the rich lessons taught by those who’ve gone before, but we must invent it anew for this time and the issues that face us now. We are ignorant in some really fundamental ways. We are ignorant in ways we cannot even imagine right now. We don’t know exactly where we are going, but in the odd Providence of God we have a sense of what it will look like when we get there.

Rejoice! You believe in and have tied yourselves forever to the One who is not limited by time and space – Who sees the whole sphere as it will someday be. Who has redeemed us out of sheer unreasonable love for us and Who has cattle on ten thousand hills. You know enough; you have the vocabulary; you will find the courage; the money will be there and so will other workers in the field. God bless you as you work and work and talk and talk and strive and strive for justice. Your effort is a constant prayer of both petition and praise.

So here is my modest prediction: In 2057, the United Church of Christ will have struggled with how to empower its LGBT members so effectively that they will be using what they and their forebears learned to work to solve the other justice issues Jesus calls us to engage. And the afterglow of that struggle will be as a light set upon a hill, darkness will cower in its wake, and Christ will be glorified.