I have been particularly distressed, disappointed and saddened by the news coming out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas this week. The BGCT sent letters to Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and First Baptist Church in Austin indicating that any affirming stance toward LGBT members taken by the congregations would place them outside the bounds of “harmonious cooperation” with the convention.
This is disturbing for several reasons. One being that this action seems to fly in the face of the centuries long Baptist tradition of local church autonomy and subsequently our long held Baptist belief of soul competency or priesthood of all believers. Another concern is the question of creedalism. By drawing “lines in the sand” and delineating requirements for participation, is the BGCT leading Texas Baptists more toward a people of creed and less a people of confession? Also, the timing of the letter might be a bit suspect in that it was sent shortly before Wilshire Baptist was voting to affirm, or not to affirm, its existing bylaws providing for a single class of membership which would translate into full inclusion for LGBT members. One might view this as the BGCT’s attempt to influence the vote. (Or maybe the peculiarities of our recent national election are skewing my perceptions!) Finally, this is distressing in that it seems to signal the opening volley in what could be a very divisive and contentious struggle within our Texas Baptist congregations and community. It makes me sad when good folks, good Christian folks, bicker and argue with the end result sometimes-perhaps often-being damaged and broken relationships and congregations. Not to mention the damage this does to our mission and witness for Christ!
I was given some hope by Marv Knox’s editorial, “A welcoming way ahead for the BGCT,” and his discussion around extending grace even as I cringed at some of the comments and suggestions. David Hardage, BGCT Executive Director, is quoted as saying, “I believe a church can be welcoming but not affirming.” Speaking frankly as a gay christian woman and as a member with my partner and now wife of a “welcoming but not affirming” Baptist congregation for almost fifteen years, I have some difficulty with this statement. Although congregation and staff were respectful and kind in most ways, there were actions and words that were at times hurtful. When I made a public statement outside the church regarding the 2005 Texas Marriage Amendment, I was called in and told I could no longer hold any positions of leadership in the church. I was then chairing a church committee, teaching a Sunday School class, and answering the prayer line during our televised services. My sexual orientation, which I had come to view as a minuscule part of who I am as a person and a christian woman, and my covenant relationship with my partner suddenly became prominent in how I was viewed and what I could do to live out my calling in Christ. It hurt! I felt discounted, less than! We also were denied participation in a church family outing with the only explanation being given, “We just think it is best.” It hurt! I felt rejected! When my partner offered a copy of her recently published memoir, sharing her coming out story after decades of struggle with hiding her sexuality, to the church library, the senior pastor would not place it in the library deeming it inappropriate. It hurt! I particularly felt confusion and discord around this incident. We had been hearing much in the church, including from the pulpit, about the importance of our stories, listening to one another’s stories, trying to understand others, and fostering deeper relationships. This action, which screamed, “We don’t want to hear your story!” bewildered me. Was this hypocrisy?
Even with the incidents and the underlying feeling that we were “second-class members,” we continued to attend and participate in the work and ministry of the church because sharing the love and work of Christ remained our focus. We visited with our pastor on several occasions and though always kind and respectful of one another, we understood each other’s differing beliefs regarding homosexuality and same-sex relationships. We agreed to disagree on these matters, and continued in our commitment to work and minister together. Acknowledging and discussing our differences personally and privately with kindness and respect was the key, for me at least, to being able to continue in a “welcoming but not affirming” congregation. Sadly, this changed in the spring of 2015 when the same-sex marriage issue was being considered in the Supreme Court, and our pastor began to speak openly from the pulpit against same-sex marriage. On April 26, 2015, I read a letter to my Sunday School group (and sent copies to all the staff) informing them that I was leaving the congregation “with no animosity or ill will toward anyone” and why I was leaving. That’s my experience of “welcoming but not affirming.”
Hardage continues to say regarding welcoming but not affirming, “I believe that (it) is not only possible, but also biblical. . .” From my experience, I would agree it is possible; however, given subsequent feelings of hurt, rejection, hypocrisy, and public denigration, I am not sure the actions were “biblical.”
From my perspective and experience there is a greater question we must ask and answer with regard to “welcoming and affirming.” It is, “Who are we welcoming and what needs to be the focus of our affirmation?” The “who,” I believe, is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Period! What needs to be the focus of our affirmation gets a bit more complicated. A topic for later thought!
Last Saturday, June 11, my morning coffee companion was Henri J.M. Nouwen and Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life written and published in 1975. Much of his basic premise is that “the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer. That morning I was contemplating Nouwen’s words reflecting solitude not as a state of loneliness, but as a condition of our heart and soul that makes “it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response.” How was I to know that the very next morning, June 12, the nation and I would be horrified by the Orlando attack on the LGBT community?
I am a christian, a follower of Christ. I am also a lesbian. For most of my life I kept my same-sex orientation a secret and did everything I knew to do to not have the attractions and not be gay. It was a secret that took me to the depths of depression, the doors of insanity, and the brink of suicide. In my journeys into contemplation and spiritual solitude I have moved toward acceptance and reconciliation—acceptance of myself as a lesbian christian woman and reconciliation between that fact and my basic spiritual beliefs. I certainly identified with Nouwen’s counsel that in our solitude the events of the world around us “as well as the many personal disappointments and pains, no longer can be seen as unavoidable concomitants of our life, but all become urgent invitations to a response; that is a personal engagement.”
Faced with the burdens of our reality, the few “extremists” or “fanatics” become “indispensable reminders that no lasting healing will ever take place without a solidarity of heart.” These few “force us to ask ourselves how many games we play with ourselves and how many walls we keep creating to prevent ourselves from knowing and feeling the burden of human solidarity.” Nouwen proclaims that we fluctuate “between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility.”
Do we and how do we protest the realities of our world out of solitude? Hopefully we do as “life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.” Nouwen reminds us that, “When our protest against war, segregation, social injustice, (the Orlando attack against the LGBT community,) do not reach beyond the level of a reaction, then our indignation becomes self-righteous, our hope for a better world degenerates into a desire for quick results, and our generosity is soon exhausted by disappointments. Only when our mind has descended into our heart can we expect a lasting response to well up from our innermost self.”
Can we, in the solitude of our hearts truly listen to the pains of the world—most especially now the pains of our LGBT community? Nouwen asserts that we can for in the solitude of the heart “we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us.” When we stand in solidarity with our fellow humans, our LGBT brothers and sisters, in their suffering and pain, then “our first attempts to alleviate these pains can come forth.” Feeling another’s pain leads us to compassion, which “brings healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain.” Nouwen recalls our history “when men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” My thoughts go to the work and movement of Ghandi in India, Mandela in South Africa, and King in America.
Nouwen reminds us that spiritual “movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time.” Our acceptance, affirmation, and welcoming of our LGBT persons has been an issue in our nation for decades. Does not the senseless, violent attack targeting the LGBT community known to frequent Pulse, prominently known as a gay club, elevate the issue to that of “burning issue?” Must we not respond and engage this issue from the solitude of our hearts!
And then Sunday morning, June 12, 2016, happened! With my shock and horror of the attack, with my heart both numb and yet heavy with sorrow and compassion, and with Nouwen’s word fresh in my heart, I was moved to engage, to seek a creative response — to bring our local LGBT community as well as our community at large together in a gathering to remember and honor the Orlando victims, and to stand in solidarity in our pain and sorrow as well as in our hope and resolve for positive change and a brighter future. Over 200 people gathered at a local park on Thursday evening, June 16, and we did just that. My words to that gathering and to everyone, everywhere:
On behalf of East Texas PFLAG and our other sponsors – Tyler Together, Pineywoods Voice, Tyler Area Gays, Tyler Transgender Support Group, East Texas Islamic Society, and Life Covenant Church – I want to say welcome and thank you for your attendance and participation this evening. We are gathered here as a community to stand in solidarity with Orlando and the families and friends of the victims in the horrific attack on the LGBT community there last Sunday. Earlier this week, our president called for our nation’s flag to be flown at half-mast in memory and honor of the victims in Orlando. Tomorrow our nation’s flag will return to full mast “normal,“ if you will. But life will never be the same for friends and families of the Orlando victims, nor for the LGBT community, most especially for those whose lives were murderously taken last Sunday morning. They have no life to live. We want to take this time to remember and honor those killed and reflect on 49 lives, 49 sacred souls with names and faces that were snuffed out by an act of senseless violence fueled by hate and terrorism. As we seek to come to grips with, and process the shock and horror of the attack, we grieve and we support one another. For those of you who may not be an integral “part” of the LGBT community, we want you to know that your presence and your shared grief and support is important, desperately needed, and much appreciated.
Now, we will remember and honor the victims, their families and friends as we join one another in the bonds of our common humanity – our sorrow in loss and our hopes for positive change and a brighter future. John David Creamer, pastor of Life Covenant Church, will lead us in prayer.
(As each name and brief bio of the 49 victims was read a volunteer from the crowd walked to the front carrying their picture. A bell was rung.)
As we prepare to leave this place may we carry these sacred lives with us. May the light of their lives continue to shine in us and through us and may their light guide us and give us courage. Courage to act in ways that champion acceptance, not accusation; courage to seek out and participate in conversations and community, not condemnation; courage to speak and act in ways that foster love and compassion, not hate and violence. Courage to know, not just in our heads, but also in our hearts, that every human life is sacred and to live respectfully of one another and our beautiful, God-given diversities. In doing these things, then, and only then, will we truly remember and honor these 49 beautiful, sacred lives.
Join me in 49 seconds of silence as we remember these, reflect, and resolve to act and live in ways to honor these 49 and ultimately ourselves and our community.
Anwar Khalifa with the East Texas Islamic Society will close our gathering.
It was an outpouring of community solidarity, grief, compassion, and love. In his closing, Anwar asked all the clergy present to come to the front and join him for the closing prayer. A very moving and much needed gathering together. It is my hope and prayer that as a local community, a nation, and a world we will seek the solitude of our hearts and that our hearts will change in ways that nurture our compassion and desire to live in solidarity with all humankind.
With the recent Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all of our United States, we must move forward in a reasonable manner balancing two of our most important national principles: 1) religious liberty and 2) citizen’s right to due process and equal rights under the law. As opposed to drawing battle lines let us be respectful of one another even, and especially, as we differ regarding the “moral rightness” of same-sex marriage.
With regard to the religious liberty of those in positions to issue same-sex marriage license, we would not want anyone to be coerced into doing something that they could not do in good conscience. If any governmental officer, such as a county clerk, because of his or her religious belief, cannot in good conscience issue a same-sex marriage license, then let’s just make sure that there is someone within the county clerk’s office who has the authority, and can in good conscience issue the license.
Also, even before the Texas Clergy Protection Act of the 2015 legislative session, clergy have had the option of refusing to officiate a wedding. Honestly, I don’t think any same-sex, or opposite-sex couple for that matter, would want a clergyman, or any other legally authorized officiant, conducting their wedding if the clergyman could not officiate in good conscience and with complete affirmation of their union. Anyone in the wedding business, be it venues, cakes, or flowers, who can’t in good conscience provide the services to a same-sex couple can state that in a kind respectful manner and perhaps even offer referrals to those who can and will provide the services. And in the same fashion the same-sex couple on the receiving end of that message can and should respond with respect and kindness, “Thank you for your time,” and move on.
Perhaps, we have become too caught up in the religious right – as in “I’m right and you are wrong,” and in demanding our religious rights and liberties. It is not too late to begin focusing more on our religious calling – to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.
Given the occurrences of the past few days regarding the City of Tyler pulling its sponsorship of a local author’s, Lou Anne Smoot, scheduled Adult Summer Reading Program presentation and taking down the display of information and resources set up by East Texas PFLAG, a local affiliate of PFLAG National, I’m asking myself, and our Tyler community, what is the REAL concern here and what can we do to make our community better and stronger – a true community with common unity.
It might be said that this is a done deal. a dead issue. Corrective action was taken by the city. I applaud that action. The PFLAG display is back up, and Ms. Smoot’s talk will continue as planned, albeit without the sponsorship or promotion from the City and Tyler Public Library. The reason given for that action being the City’s perception that Ms. Smoot’s talk would be “political.” Purportedly, the fact that the news release announcing the event, written and published by the city/library staff, contained a quote from a current politician gave City Hall the perception that the talk would be “political.” Although some may question City Hall’s “political” perception and their reasoning behind it, we all can, out of respect for the persons, authority, and policies of City Hall, accept the decision for non-sponsorship of the event.
Some concerns regarding the PFLAG display focused on the proximity of the display to the library’s children’s area. The display was and is in the main check out and information area of the library, adjacent to, but not in the children’s area. The display is not of the sort to draw children’s attention – – no colorful pictures, stuffed animals, or dangling ornaments. It contains books, brochures, and pamphlets with words on them. Some of those words are faith communities, gay, family, lesbian, ally, transgender, safe schools, homosexual, bible, and healthcare. In reflecting upon this concern, I would think that if a child were old enough to be inquisitive and ask a question, then this would be a wonderful opportunity for parenting. The parent(s) could answer the child’s questions and offer information and guidance as they, the parent(s). deemed appropriate.
This “library incident” has brought me, and I hope all of us, to a greater concern and questions. How do we perceive, approach, behave toward and relate to other people, especially those we believe to be different from that which we perceive ourselves to be. How do we get to know the “other?” Do we want to know others, to seek to understand, and to strive to live with respect and acceptance of those we perceive as different? If we answer, “Yes” to these latter questions – and I hope we do – I would propose that the best thing for us to begin doing is to share our stories with one another and listen to one another. It is in the sharing of our stories that we as a people and a societal community are able to know and gain some understanding of each other. Hopefully, a knowing and understanding that will better able us to relate to one another in a more positive, accepting, respectful manner regardless of our race, culture, religion, sexual orientation or any other aspect of our being that may be different. It is in sharing our stories that we find our commonalities and the threads that can truly unite us together as humanity and a community.
I applaud Ms. Smoot for her courage and willingness to be vulnerable in sharing her story. I equally applaud those who take the risk to listen and especially those who might perceive Ms. Smoot as different from them and still take the risk to listen. Regardless of the differences we perceive in one another — race, culture, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability or disability, gender identity, economic status, or gender expression — we are all human and have in common the most basic aspects of our humanity — life, family, relationships, the gamete of emotions — from joys and sorrows to love and anger – and ultimately death. Can we not share our stories and listen focusing on these common aspects of our lives that we might all grow and live better together. Can we not celebrate the diversities that enrich our communities and our world?
I conclude with a quote from Christian ethicist, David Gushee,
We will honor creation and human life together, across religions, nations, and cultures, or we will perish together. Treat life as sacred! This is God’s command – to all humanity. The response is up to all of us.
From The Sacredness of Human Life by David P. Gushee,
Maybe we need a story telling hour for adults at the Tyler Public Library.