I have a lot of respect for a friend of mine. He is a gay man, warm, charming and loving. For the last two decades, he has also been an active member in our church. Ours is a church with more heterosexual people than not. Although this church publicly and officially became inclusive of sexual minorities in the middle 70’s, it is still full of the many small discounts, slights, discriminations and injustices found in all institutions embedded in our heterosexist culture. Yet through it all, my friend has been steadfast in his involvement with our faith community.
Many times during my relatively short four-year tenure, I have wanted to run out the door, yelling and screaming. So I ask my friend, why do you stay all these years? And his response has something to do with relationships. His relationship with God. His relationship with other members. His relationship with his spouse of twenty-two years. His relationship with the church, as a preacher’s kid. Recently he turned the tables and asked me why I stay.
I found myself as inarticulate as he is when trying to answer that question. Certainly I have many treasured relationships in the church. And I am proud to be part of a faith community that tries to stand for something in the world. It is not easy being an inclusive church in Dallas, Texas. But it is also not easy being a minority in any group. So why do I stay?
We recently commissioned a young man from our church to go to Guatemala as a missionary. He used the following text for his sermon:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . .Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. Acts 17:22-25;29 (NRSV)
He then went on to explain how this scenario has been typically used as a model for foreign missions. Paul is the missionary, and the Athenians are those served on the mission field. However, our budding missionary is not comfortable with that somewhat arrogant model of foreign missions. Many Guatemalans already identify themselves as Christian. He then described, in somewhat gruesome and gory detail, the pain and suffering Guatemalans suffer at the hands of their own government. He talked of people being bussed into a military compound, gored, thrown into pits, and torched. He wondered what he could learn from people who stay faithful throughout such persecution. He concluded that he is the Athenian, and the Guatemalans are Paul.
I agree with this young missionary. The church is our largest mission field. To the extent that the church is controlled and inhabited by members of the dominant group in our culture: white, heterosexual males, the church is blind to the realm of God. When only the over-privileged in our culture define Christianity, write her stories and music, create her liturgies and images, make the decisions and preach her sermons, the church has no opportunity to glimpse God’s community arising out of common suffering. Church members mistake their privileged experience for reality. Mistaking a privileged experience for reality is called idolatry. Even when reaching out to the destitute and despised, these sorts of churches carefully keep the despised at arm’s length. Systemic-induced suffering continues to be a theoretical abstraction rather than a lived reality. Church members stay ensconced in their comfort zone.
As lesbians and gay men, our greatest gift to the church is the pain and suffering in our community. That pain can help open eyes to injustice, awaken people out of self-righteous complacency and point people beyond “the image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” to God. We are missionaries to our churches. Like all missionaries, “we” must join with “them” and become “us” in order to become church.
Becoming “us” is a struggle. When I speak of my experience as a lesbian Christian, I disrupt my heterosexual sisters’ and brothers’ view of the world. They get nervous. I get anxious. If I am too disruptive and my straight sisters and brothers get too nervous, I find myself the object of name-calling (i.e. a “one-issue person”). In order to be in good repute with people I respect, I am pulled to stay silent on issues I find hurtful and demeaning. But to stay silent is to refuse my calling as a missionary to the church. Becoming “us” is a struggle for all of us.
My most potent teachers are lesbian and gay sisters and brothers who share their pain with me. I learn from the gay man whose father told him the family could more easily deal with his AIDS diagnosis than his gay identity. I listen to the teenage Hispanic lesbian, raped by her father before being kicked out of the house. My message is informed by a gay man’s belief that God doesn’t love him as God loves others. My community is made up of people who are routinely beaten and stabbed, fired from their jobs, kicked out of housing, harassed by police and humiliated in church and the workplace. All these things happen down the street, next door and in our churches, not in a foreign country.
People like me many times drown the pain and self-hatred in alcohol, drugs and anonymous sex, thereby incurring more scorn and misunderstanding from the larger church fellowship. Yet I am nurtured by the gay community and trust its support. I find God in serving other lesbians and gay men. I am honored to be a part of the gay community.
The suffering in our gay community fuels the message I bring to my straight sisters and brothers in church. In return, I learn much from those in my faith community. I learn from my gay friend the meaning of faithfulness. I learn from a white, straight, male, (gasp) Republican’s unfailing support and nurture the follies of stereotyping. And I am humbled by my sisters’ and brothers’ patience as I work my way through my outrage at the callousness of social institutions. As a deacon, I covet the job of serving communion. Many Sundays I find God in that service. I am honored to be a part of our faith community.
Why do I stay? As a member of a despised group, I am comfortable with my rage against the patriarchy. I find solace in viewing the dominant group with distrust, suspicion and anger. Although I do not find my identity in the larger culture, I have an all-too-comfortable role as a misunderstood martyr. So I am in danger of thinking my experience is reality. Like the Athenians, I risk worshipping “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals”.
Why do I stay?
Where else would I come to make a confession of my sin of idolatry? How else would I repent?
Author of Reconciling Journey: A Devotional Workbook for Lesbian and Gay Christians, Michal Anne Pepper served as pastor of University Christian Church of Berkeley, Calif. She earned doctorate and master’s degreees in psychology from Texas Woman’s University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Baylor University.