WOW 2000: Welcoming Churches Spread the Fire of Inclusion

“We are under fire,” proclaimed Rev. Dr. Joan M. Martin at the opening session of Witness Our Welcome 2000. Knowing nods spread through the 1,000 or so attendees. As members of the Welcoming Church Movement whose goal is to move denominations to openly welcome GLBT Christians without reservation, they each are intimately acquainted with what it’s like to be under fire.

The conference was held at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, outside Chicago, August 3-6. The conference attracted people from 8 countries and 27 faith traditions, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church USA, Unitarian Universalist Churches, Metropolitan Community Church, the Roman Catholic Church and many independent churches.

Strategy sessions, worship, fellowship and workshops highlighted the weekend, aimed at energizing those under fire to move their congregations toward full inclusion of GLBT people. Every denomination represented at the conference has struggled mightily over the past few years with the issue of homosexuality in one way or another. For mainstream churches the issues debated and legislated range from ordination of openly GLBT people to whether GLBT people can have Holy Unions performed in the sanctuaries of these denominations. GLBT people are not fully included in most denominations and continue to face an uphill battle toward that inclusion. Those working for that inclusion are constantly under fire from those who seek to keep GLBT people on the margins of society in general and the church in particular.

For MCC and other independent denominations already open and welcoming to GLBT Christians, becoming more inclusive means struggling with issues especially surrounding bisexuals, transgender people, women’s issues and issues from people of color. Even in churches where “inclusion” is seen as a given, there are still many who may feel excluded.

By coming together, participants hope they can find ways to open the doors of all churches, whether in mainstream denominations or independent churches, to GLBT people. Through networking, fellowship, and workshops, participants discovered new ways of looking at the issues at hand, and new ways to challenge the old guard on how things are currently being done in their denominations.

Rev. Jimmy Creech, a United Methodist pastor defrocked for performing a same sex holy union, sees inclusion of GLBT people as a justice issue. “The metaphor that best describes my experience is that I’m a simple surfer riding a great wave and all I’m trying to do is hold on with my bare feet and stay upright as long as I can before I get sucked under,” he told a press gathering at the conference. “I believe this is God’s movement in history and I do not think that the church can resist it. Ultimately God will prevail and justice, compassion and unity will be established and it will be one that fulfills the vision of Jesus … a vision of a welcome table for all.”

Be the Fire

To make the table welcome for all requires action. Rev. Martin, a Presbyterian minister who now teaches at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reminded the congregation that even though they are under fire from official church bodies, they must act. They must “be the fire” that will ultimately destroy the barriers that keep GLBT people out of the churches.

“We cannot avoid the fray,” she emphasized, “we must stand up and let the tongue of fire of God fall upon us and we must act. We must be the fire.”

Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, the dean of Episcopal Divinity School, likened the mission of those in the Welcoming Church Movement to rolling away the stones that cover the tombs of churches closed to GLBT people. Those stones keep people entombed in their fear and robs them of light and joy. He urged participants not to dehumanize those who may dehumanize GLBT Christians through their actions, but to realize such people are simply trapped in their own fear. The conference was about learning how to roll those stones of bigotry and oppression away and release people from their fear.

Those stones can only be rolled away though by “the power of God through each of us,” he said. That requires commitment.

Sit in the Fire

That commitment requires those in the Welcoming Movement to “sit in the fire,” Rev. Martin said. By sitting the fire — by continuing to engage in the struggle to have the stories of GLBT Christians be heard, understood and finally accepted by the church — others are empowered by the example and will join the cause. When we sit in the fire we must be ready to hear the stories from the other side, from those on the side of exclusion, and try to understand them. But when sitting in the fire we must be tireless in telling our stories, teaching those on the other side of the debate that we too are God’s children.

But, Rev. Martin warned, sitting in the fire is by no means easy. “Each of us [are] tired of hearing you can’t serve in positions in your churches. You’re tired of knowing that if you speak up you may lose your friends or that the church may suffer financial losses. We’re tired, but keep coming back when the other folks tell us to go away. We’re tired, but we have to sit in the fire. It’s a basic definition of discipleship.”

Many of the workshops offered at the conference were designed to help people keep up their strength and commitment as they continue to sit in the fire with those who would exclude GLBT from the church. Workshops, most of them filled to overflowing, tackled such hard topics as ordination of GLBT pastors, tips on how to make churches more welcoming, overcoming racism, transgender and bisexual issues, coming out and challenging the religious right.

Worship services centered on the theme of Pentecost as the Holy Spirit descended to the people. Each service was designed to welcome the Holy Spirit to give the participants the strength and knowledge to sit in the fire over this very hot topic within the mainstream churches.

That struggle will not be easy, Rev. Martin said, and it’s a struggle with no end in sight. “We are called to sit in the fire not to ever think we can leave the struggle for God never leaves us.”

Drawing Strength from Differences

“To be the fire and to sit in the fire, we must draw strength from our differences,” concluded Rev. Martin.

The Welcoming Church Movement has a common goal, certainly, but the diversity within the conference itself was amazing. There were both young and older people, people of color, heterosexual people, transgender and bisexual people, all who came together to strengthen their commitment to open the doors of the church for everyone.

It’s this sort of alliance, this drawing together such different people that will ultimately transform the churches. We must come together, Rev. Martin said, “not that we become one but that we share our strength and our power and our flame and our fire because God created our differences as much as God created our similarities.”

However, even in a group dedicated to building strength from differences, feelings of exclusion can occur. On the night of the opening plenary the range of diversity was being explored as different groups shouted out their presence — the gays, the straights, the transgender people and bisexuals. Someone shouted, “people of color” to which the reply came swiftly, “which color?”

The tinge of racism from those words reverberated throughout the entire weekend as those offended tried to state their case and again find their place in the conference. Extra workshops were designed, talks were held, with the goal of helping everyone understand the offense, and point up the need for even more inclusion within an already inclusive movement. Others, too, spoke of feeling excluded by the gathering, especially those in churches outside denominational structures. Independent churches, too, are in the welcoming movement, and some members felt they were being ignored because they didn’t have denominational battles to be fought. Despite that, their call to be welcoming is no less challenging than for those within denominations.

Conference officials, as well as attendees, seemed to address these issues quickly and appropriately, giving those with grievances time at the podium to express and explain them, and giving space for independent churches to hold joint sessions. By the end of the conference, it seemed those who had been excluded at least felt as though they had been heard, if not totally understood. For conference leaders it was a learning experience, and one they can put to use as they plan future welcoming conferences.

Rev. Martin’s words on the opening night of the conference seemed to hold true through the experiences of exclusion. “We are called to be the body to have the capacity to touch all that comes within our reach. Not to be consumed or not to destroy it but to reach out and make it welcome and grant it its respect and reality for what and who it is we touch.”

But when a group preaches about diversity, they should be ready to back up those words of respect, especially when they find a particular brand of diversity offensive. Such offensive diversity showed up Saturday night in the form of protestors. A handful of Fred Phelps’ family and supporters led a small picket outside the conference hall … a reminder to those gathered just how much hate must be overcome before churches will fully embrace GLBT people.

To the conference members’ credit, the Phelps protest went by without fanfare. A handful of media showed up to interview the protestors and take pictures. None of the conference participants came by to gawk or give credence to the protest. Instead, the conference let them have their say. The protestors were not consumed or destroyed, but granted respect for the reality of who they were.

Give the Fire Away

With the reality of such fierce opposition to GLBT people, not just within the church, but within society at large, still fresh on their minds, the conference ended with the charge by Rev. Janie Spahr to “go out and do the damn work” to make the church inclusive. To do that is to, as Dr. Martin instructed, “give the fire away” by spreading the inclusive message to every church and denomination.

Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, an Episcopal priest and professor at Episcopal Divinity School, encouraged the participants to become part of the “queer conspiracy” to give that fire of justice away. “To be queer is to refuse to collude with injustice, any injustice. To be queer is to refuse to participate in our own or others’ oppression. And this we do by learning to conspire.”

Such a conspiracy, Heyward envisioned is one in which we are “actually undercutting the systems and structures of injustice in the churches and in the world.”

That conspiracy, Heyward instructed, begins by advocating for one another not only within the denominations but also on the larger scale of social justice. In addition, Heyward said, we are called to be “exorcists” to “dispel the fear that causes us to hold back who we are, what we are and what we have.”

As exorcists we cast out our fear of one another, of diversity and of our fear of God, as well as our “fear of actually showing up, fear of being with and for one another in our souls, in that fire Joan Martin spoke of,” Heyward noted. “We can cast out this fear or we can open up to it together.”

A queer conspiracy also calls us to be healers and liberators. Casting out that fear those in churches and denominations have of opening their doors to GLBT people is to heal, Heyward emphasized. As healers we are called to be “agents of transformation” in areas of gender, sexuality, race, economics and environment.

Heyward’s “queer conspiracy” designed to give away the fire of inclusion and transformation is a tall order to fill, even for over 1,000 fired up conference participants. The work before the Welcoming Church Movement is enormous — the barriers are many and strongly fortified. Heyward reminded the conference participants that healing and liberation within the church and society takes time and patience. No one expects overnight change within the churches or society at large.

While the struggle to open the churches goes on, while the Welcoming Church Movement works to give away the fire of inclusion and justice, Heyward urged the audience to practice a “conspiracy of compassion.” In practicing that compassion, we may begin to see those who want to keep the church closed to GLBT people as God sees them. “They are vulnerable, they are hurting, they are confused and tired.”

Though the task of opening the church to everyone is daunting, Heyward reminded the group they are not struggling alone. “There are many of us and many will follow us and pick up where we ourselves leave off.”

When participants left the conference, they were no less under fire from the forces of exclusion than when they arrived, but now they had the tools and the determination to begin to make changes in their denominations. They were ready to “do the damn work” as Rev. Spahr had instructed them. Armed with the fire of determination, love, compassion and hard lessons of how hard true inclusion is each became a member of that “queer conspiracy” to open the church to GLBT people. Giving that fire away in such powerful ways, Heyward predicted ultimate success for the Welcoming Church Movement.

“The denominations, if they are closed to us should be trembling because the power of this conspiracy will not be overcome.”