I sat in the Tyler ISD School Board meeting last night anticipating a vote and a decision that I would support–whatever the outcome–out of respect for the leadership and authority of the school board. I came away incredulous! The motion to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School and begin the new name selection process was followed by stony silence. The board president reminded the members that seconding a motion did not infer or require an affirmative vote. More silence from the dais and the crowd of approximately 100 citizens. The motion was allowed to die for lack of a second. What was going on? In the July board meeting, just two weeks previous, board members had expressed frustration with continued focus on the name change issue and rejected the ideas of more community input meetings or a subcommittee for further study. Instead, they urged an up or down vote on whether to change the name as a means to bring closure one way or another to the entire issue. I was not the only one bewildered after the board’s refusal to allow a vote in this special meeting called for that purpose. Though not the movie setting, “dazed and confused” would be an apt descriptor for many faces in the crowd.
Approximately a year ago after the incident surrounding the controversy of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, a grassroots effort focused on changing the name of the south Tyler Robert E. Lee High School sprouted and grew. Equally as quickly a counter group took root, and Tyler, once again was a divided community. More accurately the racial tensions that have long remained lumps under Tyler’s beautiful public carpet of roses and azaleas were exposed. The carpet was ripped up and the dust flew!
In September 2017 board members initially signaled support for a name change with one member asking, “Is it fair to make African-American students attend a school named for the leading figure of the Confederacy?” Another stated in reference to the name change, “This is not changing history, this is making a positive impact today,” and urged the board to “do the right thing. . . It’s time for a change.” So what happened? What changed in eleven months?
Unfortunately as the year progressed, the public and, I can only assume, the private discourse was not always civil and respectful. Dueling Facebook groups logged on and petitions swirled. Honestly, when I saw some of the posts, my heart broke and I thought, Oh, no, no! Let’s not go there! Attendance at school board meetings skyrocketed. Items regarding the name change issue were on the official board agenda four times during the past year. Approximately 150 to 200 citizens made public comments at these and other board meetings with the numbers for and against the change fairly equal. Needless to say, it was at times ugly.
Yes, the nature and tenor of the discourse changed. It became louder, more fractured, less civil, and at times plummeted to accusation and name-calling. Regrettably, some folks on both sides allowed their emotions and passions to cloud and disrupt their reason and respect. Interestingly, as the board members spoke moments prior to the “vote, but no vote,” their primary focus, with a couple of exceptions, was on the community. They expressed, sometimes loudly, their disapproval and disappointment in the process and chastised folks for the divisiveness, the disrespect, the lack of courtesy and civility. They argued that the name change issue was a political and social issue and not germane to the function of the board—to focus on successful student outcomes. They took offense to this issue “being forced upon the board” and “the predicament that we have been placed in.” They argued that a name change would be a betrayal of the taxpayers who approved a bond to construct and renovate John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School and changing the name was equated to a “bait and switch” scheme. (Note: The actual proposition on the May 6, 2017 Official Ballot-Bond Election did not include the names of the two high schools.)
What I found even more interesting and unsettling was that again, with only a few exceptions, the board members did not talk about what they believed would be the impact of a name change or no name change on current or future students. Although they espoused their focus as a board was to work toward positive, successful student outcomes, I did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a negative/positive impact on student achievement because. . .” I also did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a positive/negative impact on our community because. . .” Logically, every issue before the board should be viewed through the lens of how will this impact student outcomes/achievement. How will it impact our community as a whole and thus our community of students? With few exceptions specific answers to these vital questions were not a large part of the board members’ discussion at this or any previous meeting to my knowledge.
Maybe, to the detriment of all, some in the community allowed their emotions to guide their discourse, and in the end, perhaps the majority of the board members did as well. As school board members and leaders of the community, they failed to lead. They failed to remain objectively focused on the issue—a school name change—and how that change would or would not impact student outcomes, now and in the future. Granted, it is a difficult, highly charged, emotional issue with prospects for a general consensus being very bleak even in the process of extended civil discourse. Surely, the board members knew this. Also, I would hope they knew when they ran for office that there would be times of difficult decisions, contentious personalities, unhappy people, and they could possibly, most probably, at some point be the target of someone’s ill-temper.
The community expected a vote. The board members had lead folks to believe that they wanted a vote, a decision. Why didn’t it happen? Why did our leaders fail to lead? I have my ideas, which are purely speculative and probably, for now, are best kept to myself. As I left the board meeting amidst the dazed and confused, I heard various descriptors–cowards, shameful, no moral courage, gutless. Well, I don’t know about all that. I do believe, in this instance they failed to rise above the fray, maintain their focus on the best possible student outcomes, measure the issue through that lens, and vote on a difficult issue. On this occasion, they failed to lead. One board member stated prior to the “vote, no vote” that no matter what the board had done up until this point this is how they’re going to be remembered. Unfortunately, I believe he is correct!
Dear School Board Members:
I was glad to see the news that a vote on the school name change is on the agenda for the school board meeting on Monday, August 6. I realize this has been a very difficult and divisive issue for our community and to some extent the school board. I agree, it is time for the board to vote on the issue and for our community to commit to respectfully abide by the board’s decision.
Unfortunately, this is one of those situations fraught with highly charged emotions and opinions with folks unlikely to come to any general consensus even in the process of an extended civil discourse and dialogue. It truly saddens me that our community’s discourse on this issue was not always civil or respectful. Thus, you seven, as members of the school board, are tasked with making a decision which will have a significant and lasting impact on our students, both current and future, and on our community as a whole. I respect your leadership and your courage as you do this, knowing that whatever decision you make, there will be those who will not be pleased.
As you consider your individual decisions, I sincerely hope that you come to the conclusion that a name change, particularly the Robert E. Lee name, is in the overall best interest of our students and community. I believe a name change would:
- assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement. This is our ultimate goal—student achievement.
- promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to the well being of all our students and excellence in their education.
- be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.
In all honesty with you, I think it is unfortunate that General Lee’s name has become such a lightning rod for issues of race in our country, but it has and that is the reality in which we must live and make our decisions. In light of this reality I think it would be unwise to carry the Lee name forward into our new school. Let’s take advantage of our new school situation and move forward with “a brand new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
I ask each of you to vote in favor of the name change. As leaders in our community, your making a unanimous vote would be a model of unity for our community and influential in promoting community healing and reconciliation. After a vote to change the name, it would be my hope that a diverse group of stakeholders—community members, school representatives, students, parents—would be tasked to come together and begin the process of new name selection and determining an appropriate means to remember and recognize the school’s history. . Perhaps this process can be the mechanism for community reconciliation—a coming together and discussing shared hopes and visions for our students, schools, and community. We have spent a year focusing on our disagreement, which never brings forth a solution. With your leadership, our community can turn its focus to the future and all the possibilities of this brand new thing.
Thank you for your service and dedication to excellence in education for all our Tyler students. I want you to know that I will respectfully abide by whatever decision the board makes on this issue and encourage others to do so. During my 38 years in education and counseling I always told my students that it was okay, and sometimes even understandable, if they did not like the rules or decisions made by their parents or teachers, and they were expected to respect the authority represented by their parents and teachers by abiding by the rules and decisions. I see this situation as somewhat similar. You, as the board, are the current elected leaders of our district and vested with the authority to make rules and decisions for the district. I hope and pray that once your decision is made Monday evening that all the good folks of Tyler ISD will respectfully accept your decision, come together, and continue to work toward providing our students with the excellent educational opportunities they deserve.
“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
Again, it is 3:04 am, and I have been awake for an hour with these thoughts banging around in my head. So I might as well get up and write it down. I am not one to bandy around scripture, and in this instance I feel a bit compelled. In doing so I claim Matthew 10:27
What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roof!
Day before yesterday seemingly out of the blue a portion of scripture popped into my head, “I am going to do a brand new thing.” I immediately associated that with our current local issue regarding changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I let a day rock on and the scripture kept coming up so I looked it up. Literally, I googled it as I have a hard time holding on to chapter and verse. Isaiah 43:18-19
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and
streams in the wasteland. (New International Version)
I found it interesting that when I went to my Bible(s) these verses were marked with dates and notes. Apparently, I had been here before—learning to let go of the old and letting God do a new thing.
At any rate, I see some application for the verses in our current REL issue as most of the arguments in favor of keeping the name center around our personal memories and traditions of the school. “It is our heritage!” claimed one proponent of saving the name. I agree! It is our heritage, and we will fondly remember some of our high school experiences and traditions. Also, it is time to turn from focusing on our history and heritage and begin looking forward to this “new thing.” The new school under construction “springs up” even now. It is time to turn from our heritage and focus on our future legacy. It is time to ask, “What will be our legacy, our bequest to future generations and our community?” In answering that question, let’s begin to truly “perceive” all the possibilities of this “new thing” this “brand new thing?” (The Living Bible)
We know the deeper context of Isaiah 43—man’s rebellion and God’s redemptive grace—has universal application. I find verses 5-7 somewhat, maybe particularly, relevant to our current circumstances. Apparently, the people have become divided and scattered, but God says he will bring them from the east and the west. He will command the north and the south to “Give them up! Do not hold them back.” Sons will come from afar and daughters from the ends of the earth. To me that sounds a bit like unification and reconciliation.
Have we become a divided and scattered people? Do we need unity and reconciliation? Could this turning from the old and moving forward with this “brand new thing” possibly be a step on our way through the desert, the wilderness? I don’t know! I only ask the questions. My personal answer is “Yes!” because I certainly don’t want to thwart or hinder the possibilities of this “brand new thing”—new school with a brand new name.
Perhaps, if we harden not our hearts and let the better angels of our nature be our guide we will come to experience all the possibilities of this “brand new thing.” Through and in it all let us remember Lincoln’s words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bond of affection,”
I went into our Tyler Public Library this morning to take some photos of our East Texas PFLAG June PRIDE Month display. In between shots I stepped away to make some camera adjustments. As I did this I noticed a young girl—the library was swarming with children for story time—maybe three to four years old, enter the library and make a beeline to the display case. Apparently she was not new to the library or the display case that is always filled with information or projects related to local organizations. Good for you, Mama! I assumed the young woman right behind her was her mother.
The little girl placed her hands on the edge of the case and stood on her tiptoes as she looked at its contents. Mama was standing quietly behind her and looking as well. Inside the case, displayed over a red cloth and rainbow flag, was an assortment of booklets and pamphlets published by our National PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) organization. Some of the titles included: Faith in Our Families, Safe Schools, Our Trans Loved Ones, Be Yourself, Our Daughters and Sons. There were also various buttons and decals with words and symbols promoting diversity and equality. Also included were a couple of family/children’s books, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, And Tango Makes Three.
After a few moments on tiptoes, the little girl reached up and mama picked her up. “Oh, you can’t see.” They continued to look at the display. I remained at a distance and overhead this bit of conversation:
“What is that?” asked the little girl.
“What does that mean?”
“It means being fair to everyone,” answered Mama. My thought, Good answer, Mama! There was some indecipherable conversation, and Mama said, “But we can’t take the bunny book (Marlon Bundo) out of the case.” They walked away from the case, and I moved up and finished the photos. I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to share what I had just witnessed.
A bit of the backstory might shed some light on why I was so elated with this small interaction between child and parent. This is the fourth year that the public library has had some type of LGBT display during June PRIDE Month. Three of these years—2015, 2016, and 2018—PFLAG has been responsible for the set up with the contents pretty much the same. The only additions this year were the two family/children’s books. In 2017 the library staff set up a display of library books on LGBT issues.
Tyler is a city of approximately 100,000 residents in conservative Smith County in east Texas. 2016 was the only year that the display was not the target of opposition from a small yet vocal number of library patrons. Other years when complaints were lodged, the city administrative personnel directed the library staff to move the display to a less trafficked area of the building. Actually, the first year, the display was summarily dismantled; however, after an outcry and a barrage of phone calls and emails to city hall, it was restored; yet still moved. Last year, there was only one complaint lodged claiming that many of the library’s displays are not informational but reflect social agendas that are not necessarily inline with community standards. After this complaint the book display had to be moved upstairs. A consistent complaint each year is the location of the display—purported to be “too close” to the children’s section.
My initial response in 2015 to the “too close” to the children’s section complaint was:
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.
That is still my opinion today, and I was thrilled to the point of joy as I watched this morning’s interaction play out before me and heard the mama’s truthful, age-appropriate response to her child’s question, “What is equality?”
“It means being fair to everyone.” Good answer, Mama! Great parenting!
Many thanks to our library staff for continuing to be a center for learning and informational resources as well as a beacon of inclusiveness and equality in our community. I wonder how many complaints will be lodged this year??
Through these past months I have listened carefully to all those speaking and sharing their opinions and positions on the issue of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I wanted to hear what those opposing the change are saying and thinking. I wanted to hear what they are feeling. I wanted to hear from those in favor of the change. What are they feeling and what are their motives for change? I have stated earlier what my initial thoughts and feelings were on this issue, and I was struggling. I was not “on the bandwagon” for changing the name!
Through my personal processes of questioning and consideration, I have moved to a position supporting the name change. As I have listened to the speakers opposing the name change,I consistently hear arguments defending the traditions of REL High School and how important those traditions are to its alumni – in some cases two to three family generations of alumni. I hear defenses of the life, legacy, and character of General Robert E. Lee. I hear admonitions that we can’t erase or forget our history. And, I hear the often-used “slippery-slope” defense. “If we change Lee’s name, what’s next – John Tyler, the City of Tyler, Hubbard Middle School, etc.? Where does it stop?” Amidst all the words I hear feelings of loss, fear, and anger. And, you know what, I get that! I hear and understand those feelings.
For now, let’s consider the feelings of loss-an intense core emotion that can fuel fear and anger. Robert E. Lee High School has a storied history that has often been stellar even though dogged at times by the legacy and accouterments of its namesake.
But more importantly, tens of thousands of students have walked it corridors and filled its classrooms. They played on athletic teams, marched and performed with the band, sang in the choirs, participated on debate teams, performed in dramatic productions, danced with the drill team, cheered in the cheer squad, and so much more.They made friends and sometimes enemies. They excelled academically, and they sometimes faltered.
They made memories. Maybe that first kiss came while secreted in a hallway corner or leaning against a locker. Maybe that high school sweetheart is now one’s spouse. Who ever forgets the first Belles Dance, Junior-Senior Prom, or the excitement of Homecoming Week? Yes, Robert E Lee High School is a place that has molded and influenced so many young lives, and the traditions and stalwart school spirit lives on in each of these lives even if they are not so young anymore.
So I think I get it! I understand that sense of loss that might come with a name change. The sense of losing a place that holds memories and so much of what was our youth. I get it! I understand! I started my teaching career at REL. I have two sons who graduated from Lee. I have albums of photos and mementos recalling Belle Dances, band performances, choir concerts, and certificates of achievement. I get it! My question is — At this pivotal point in time, and given the current context of our school and community, can we acknowledge our feelings of loss, move through them, and focus on the future of our students, school, and community? What is best for the common good, today? What is best for our future tomorrow and in the years ahead.
REL High School is no longer about us, the middle-aged plus folks. We will always have our traditions and history with REL. It is true! We cannot erase our history. We carry it with us. Hopefully, we learn from it. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we don’t. We decide, individually, and subsequently corporately, what we do with our history and whether we remain steadfastly stuck in it or allow it to guide us into new eras, new beginnings, and new possibilities. Most histories I have read are written in chapters. What will be the next chapter for our school and our Tyler community?
Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School could be like finishing a chapter in a good book. The information and events in this chapter are vital in giving context to what comes next. Hopefully, the reader is excited and eager to keep reading and discover what the next chapter holds. Or, we might want to think in terms of those inevitable “chapters of our lives.” We know them because we have lived them! Some of our life chapters are natural ends followed by new beginnings – high school graduation, college perhaps, entering the work force, career moves, getting married, having kids, the empty nest. It is my experience that coming to the close of a life chapter brings some natural feelings of loss and accompanying sorrow. Yet, I move to the next chapter with hope and anticipating the new.
In moving forward, it is the desire of my heart that all of us with meaningful ties to REL hold on to our personal memories and recall with fondness the traditions we enjoyed even while moving beyond them and focusing on our present and future young folks and our best hopes for our community. We are in a different time and place than we were in 1958. Robert E. Lee is a different school. Tyler is a different, growing, and diverse community. Can we focus on what is best for our future-for the school and our community? Can we feel our loss and move forward in support of our new school with a new name and all the new possibilities that brings to our community.
It is my hope and prayer moving forward that our sense of loss will be softened by the promise of a new beginning, a new era, a new chapter for our beloved school and our community.
Lou Anne and I were recently invited to participate in this “Who Is My Neighbor” lecture series. It was a wonderful experience, and we met lots of good, kind folks. Thanks to all those who showed up to warm the room and our hearts. It was a cold, wet Sunday morning outside. After our talk several folks approached me and asked if they could have a copy of my talk. Well here is my prepared script, which doesn’t mean this is exactly what I said, but hopefully, close enough. Namaste!
Who Is My Neighbor?
In thinking about the title for this series, it struck me that neighborliness – who is my neighbor and how do I relate to and treat my neighbor — has been an issue through the ages. After all we know from scripture that on numerous occasions Moses, Jesus, and Paul offered instruction and guidance on neighborliness. When we were first asked to speak today, I immediately thought of the November 8, 2005, Texas Constitutional Amendment Election in which Texans voted on Proposition 2 – the amendment to define marriage in Texas as only between one man and one woman. Prior to that election, I wrote a letter and Lou Anne and I distributed it to our neighbors. My opening statement in that letter 13 years ago answered today’s question: We are your neighbors!’ The “we “ of today’s discussion is the LGBTQ+ community.
Let me say first that our LGBTQ+ community as a subpopulation is just as diverse as our population as a whole. I think this is fairly evident in the “alphabet soup” identifiers. Let me assure you there are efforts afoot to remedy that somewhat cumbersome moniker. If we must label there are other options floating about — DSG-Diverse Sexualities and Genders; GSM-Gender and Sexual Minorities; and the favorite among our younger folks, Queer. For today I will simply use “our community.” Who is your neighbor? We are! Let me introduce you to a few of our folks. (Real folks, not so real names.)
Meet John and Richard—two gay men in a 20+year relationship and legally married for many of those years. Both professionals, one retired. Both Christians attending a welcoming and affirming congregation in the area. One serving on the church board of directors. A visit with them always includes conversations about church, and grandchildren.
Meet James and Sal—a young transgender man and his spouse. Both continuing their educational paths and pursuing their career aspirations while building their dream house. Both active as advocates for our community.
Meet Ron and Rebecca—a straight couple working, operating a business, and raising a family. Both fierce advocates for their gender non-conforming child.
Meet Gary—a middle-aged man with a promising career cut short decades ago by the cruelty of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. An advocate for our community, always a charming host, and a proclaimed Atheist.
Meet Betty and Julie—a lesbian couple in a 26-year relationship, married for 12 years. Both retired – a military nurse and university professor with a degree in Religious History. They stay engaged with friends, the publishing industry, and their “kids,” three small dogs, a cat, and a 38 year-old parrot. Christian backgrounds, but with no current religious affiliation, perhaps leanings toward Buddhism.
Meet Charles and Mike—Generation X gay men, medical and tech professionals. Baptist and Seven Day Adventists background. Want no part of organized religion.
Meet Blake and Slade who are queer youth navigating the uncertain and sometimes treacherous waters of school, legal hurdles, and public facilities.
And then you have Lou Anne and me. We have been together for 17 years, the last two legally married. With four children and seven grandchildren between us, we stay quiet busy. Both from the Baptist faith tradition, and only a couple of years ago choosing to leave the Baptist church.
So, our community is diverse and our spiritual/religious beliefs, experiences, and levels of participation are varied. As I share with you today, I can really only speak of my experience, yet from study and visiting with other members of our community, perhaps I can make some general comments about our faith journeys.
I believe for most in our community our spiritual beliefs have been both a solace and a source of seemingly unbearable struggle. From the Bible to the Quran most world religions-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu-espouse beliefs that being LGBTQ is wrong-a sin-and unacceptable. Thus in matters of faith and religion, Gender and Sexual Minorities folks are naturally set –up for angst and turmoil.
I know my faith journey was filled with the gut wrenching agony and heart breaking struggle between who I am and what my religion said I should be. My solace came more from my faith and my personal study and interpretation of scripture than from the institutional church/religion. After years of praying, “Lord, please remove this ‘thorn in my flesh,’” trying to be straight and do the “right” things, I finally threw up my hands in surrender and clung to verses such as “For God so loved Brenda. . .,” my adaptation of John 3:16 since I am part of “the world.” I interpreted Mark 12:30-31 “. . . love your neighbor as yourself” as Christ’s command that I love and accept myself. I was both overwhelmed and encouraged as I began to contemplate and embrace the glorious rich mystery and my only hope of glory, Christ in me. (Colosians 1:27). I began to question the doctrines and dogma of “church” and ask just what exactly does God expect of me. I found my answer: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God. (Micah 6:8)
Bolstered by my confidence that God loves me, and that I am commanded to love God, myself, and my neighbor through just, kind and humble actions, I set out on my own personal spiritual journey– a journey that took me away from traditional doctrine and dogma. Honestly, doing that felt so foreign and really scary, and this is perhaps another common element in the faith journey of folks in our community. Moving away from the familiar, even the familiar that was excruciatingly painful is difficult, yet we do it through faith. A faith similar to that expressed by Paul Tillich when he said, “Faith is the courage to accept God’s total acceptance of each of us.” Or, perhaps the faith of Martin Luther, “Faith is an active, reckless confidence in God’s goodness.”
On my faith journey I have had a few experiences that I can only describe as mystical – an experience that cannot be explained outside the realm of Spirit. Perhaps this is a third common element in our faith journeys. There are those occasions when God speaks or intervenes in our lives in ways that we could not imagine. These incidents often bring shock and awe, guidance and gratitude. They are mystical experiences that change us and the direction of our lives. I am reminded of Karl Rahner’s words, “The Christian of the future will have to become a mystic—someone who has experienced something or Someone—or he or she will be nothing at all.”
My faith journey took me away from the traditional anti-LGBTQ teachings of my Baptist faith, and I stayed away from church for several years as I was welcomed, affirmed and supported by an inclusive ecumenical community during my initial coming out process. However, I returned to the church when I met Lou Anne. It was not a difficult return for now I was grounded in my faith and spirituality and not religious doctrine and church dogma. I enjoyed returning to the customs of Bible study and congregational praise and worship. As long as the focus was on Christ and serving the Kingdom, I was content. Even though I was removed from teaching and leadership positions after coming out in the “We are your neighbor” letter in 2005, Lou Anne and I stayed in the church. When the pastor began to preach openly from the pulpit against same-sex relationships in the spring of 2015, I felt I had to leave to maintain my sense of authenticity and personal integrity. Today, I have no institutional church affiliation. I am a follower of Christ and a christian (with a small “c”) and a member of the universal catholic church (all small “c”). I am a pilgrim and a seeker on this faith journey.
All of our faith journeys are unique and personal. Some in our community through the pain of condemnation and sorrow of rejection have totally abandoned the church, yet not their faith. Some reject all things “God.” Some proclaim to be Atheists. It is interesting to note that in a Pew Research Center report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, issued in May of 2015, that more LGB Americans consider themselves Christian than ever before. (NOTE: Transgender individuals were not accounted for in this particular survey.) A reported 48 percent of LGB respondents identify as Christian, and this is up from 42 percent in 2013. This rise is in contrast to the overall decline in the percent of Americans identifying as Christian that was 78.4 percent in 2013 and fell to 70.6 in 2015. The Pew report also indicated an additional 11 percent of LGB respondents identified with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faith traditions.
Thus 59 percent of LGB respondents identified as people of faith. This high number was somewhat surprising for me and perhaps for you as well given the gay vs. religion paradigm so prevalent in our media and “culture wars.” It would appear that many in our community have stayed in, or they are returning and reclaiming their faith traditions.
So we ask, “Who is our neighbor?” We are all one another’s neighbors. We could argue that with the rapid communication and global connections—economic, geopolitical, and social–supported by our increasing modern technology we are quickly becoming global neighbors. Since we are all one another’s neighbors, let’s be neighborly to one another. Let’s love one another as we seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Welcome to the neighborhood! Or, as we say in our community, the gayborhood.
Quite good at building bridges, we are! Such marvels of engineering!
Gleaming steel, expansive cables, massive concrete
Carry burdens of rushing cars, trucks, trains, and even plodding feet
Over barriers of water-tumultuous and serene, abysmal chasms, plunging gorges.
Bridges conceived in survival, sometimes social, often economic.
Bridges born of intellect and ingenuity; completed in grit and determination.
We admire them, we dedicate them, we name them–
Brooklyn, Tower, Penang, Sydney Harbor, Golden Gate.
What bridges beckon us today to a renewed era of building?
Bridges to peace! Bridges more difficult, more complex perhaps, more urgent indeed!
Bridges of warm smiles, outreached hands, eyes that truly see, listening ears.
Bridges of understanding and compassionate hearts, minds guided by reason.
Bridges of kind deeds, gentle actions, firm commitments, and diligent compromise.
Bridges over barriers of nationalism, abysmal chasms of religion,
Plunging gorges of race, the waters of diverse cultures whether raging or serene.
Bridges to peace conceived in the roots of our humanity
Born of the kindred spirits of sacredness and dignity of every life.
Do we desire them, will we build them, dedicate them, name them –
Respect, Acceptance, Affirmation, Love?
We see our Muslim brothers, our African sisters, the fleeing Latino children,
The starving Sudanese, the terrorized Assyrians, our neighbors next door.
We look in the eyes. We hear the cries from the other side.
Eyes clouded with fear, sorrow, desperation, hopelessness, hate.
Cries filled with anguish, horror, hunger, grief, and anger.
We see and hear their hearts. We know and feel our own.
Let us heed the beckoning. Let us build bridges to peace.
Let us dedicate and name them: Respect, Acceptance, Affirmation, and Love.
Quite good at building bridges! Yes, we can be! Such marvels of our humanity!
As the dialogue and apparent divisions within the Baptist General Convention of Texas and local congregations over the issue of a welcoming and affirming stance toward their LGBTQ members continue, I encourage us all to stop and ask ourselves, individually and congregationally, this question: Who are we welcoming and what do we really want 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. Answering the question, “What do we want to be the focus of our affirmations?” may be a bit more complicated. Or, maybe not!
I sometimes wonder if we, christian folks and congregations, have not allowed ourselves to be overly focused on the sexual orientation and same-sex marriage issues. Do we really want to spend our time and energies squabbling over these issues and in the process threatening our unity in and ministry for Christ? Enough is enough already! Let’s truly practice our belief in the priesthood of the believer and respect the spiritual discernment of our brothers and sisters in Christ and our congregations in these particular matters. If we continue contentious dialogue or debate, insist on being right or winning the other side over to our “right” way of thinking, or denying fellowship, we are all wrong, and we all lose with the greatest loss being the cause of Christ. We can respectfully state our beliefs and our respect for the others discernment process, acknowledge our disagreement, and agree to disagree. When we do this, we can then turn our energies and cooperative efforts toward focusing on far more meaningful areas of affirmation.
What might be the affirmations of a welcoming and affirming congregation? Here are a few suggestions for starters:
— Let’s affirm God’s sovereignty over all our lives.
–Let’s affirm our love of God and our love for our neighbors.
–Let’s affirm the sacredness of every person – every human life. Let’s live out that affirmation by treating everyone with respect, seeking to listen to and understand their stories and struggles, and participating in their lives in ways that engender human flourishing, spiritual growth, and opportunities to reach one’s God-given potential.
–Let’s affirm the sacramental nature of all relationships for every relationship has the potential to be a portal of God’s grace in and to our lives.
–Let’s affirm and encourage fidelity and commitment in marital, covenantal relationships.
–Let’s affirm the value of our children and our families by offering support, encouragement, and guidance to parents as they nurture and guide their children.
–Let’s affirm our desire to follow Christ and be His Body and Presence in and to the world.
I believe the BGCT and local congregations can be both welcoming and affirming. I believe this as I recall the first scripture verse I ever committed to memory: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Philippians 4:13
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!
Note: In the spring of 2015 I made one of the most difficult decisions of my spiritual pilgrimage. I left the church congregation that I had been a part of for almost fifteen years. Below is the letter I read aloud to my Sunday School group and sent to my pastor and church staff informing them that I was leaving and why I was leaving as well as why it was important to me that they know why I would no longer be attending. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a truly inclusive, welcoming and affirming congregation in my area, and admittedly, I often miss the corporate worship and fellowship. My current worship usually occurs on the hiking trail, in the kayak, or while sitting in my back porch swing listening to the birds and watching the squirrels play. I find fellowship on those occasions I am blessed to sit with friends and share our lives and stories.
April 26, 2015
It is with both sadness and hopefulness that I share with you that this is my last Sunday to be with you in Sunday School and worship at First Baptist Church. After wrestling – praying and seeking discernment — with this decision for several months, my Lord has given me clarity and peace with the decision. I leave with no animosity or ill will toward anyone. I am truly grateful for my years (13 or 14, I forget) at First Baptist and the fellowship with the singles group. Each of you has blessed my life in tremendous ways! I hope and pray that blessing has been mutual.
I want to share with you the reason(s) for my leaving. Far too often in our lives and fellowship folks just disappear or quit showing up, and we are left confused and questioning as to “what happened.” I don’t want to do that. I value personal authenticity and the integrity of our relationships far too much to just disappear. Some of you know, or after fourteen years have figured it out, that I am gay. I really prefer to refer to myself as a woman and a committed christian who happens to have a same-sex orientation. Lou Anne and I have been in a loving, committed, monogamous covenant relationship for over fourteen years.
It has become increasingly difficult for me to maintain a continued sense of personal integrity and authenticity as a member of First Baptist knowing the public stance that the church, our pastor, and the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole has taken on same-sex relationships. As one who believes firmly in the traditional Baptist concept of “soul competency” or “soul liberty,” I truly respect everyone’s freedom to follow their conscience or soul dictates in matters of religion, theology, and scripture interpretation. As I shared with our pastor in May 2012, we truly have Unity through Christ – His love for us, our love for Him, and our desire to share His love with the world – and unity does not mean nor require uniformity in thought and/or action. So, to maintain my sense of personal integrity and authenticity, I believe it is better that I seek a more inclusive, affirming congregation whose beliefs and public stance regarding same-sex relationships are similar to my own than to remain at First Baptist.
Also, for the sake of the fellowship here at First Baptist, I believe it is better that I leave. Over the last fourteen years I have placed my focus on Christ, His love and His work in our lives, and I have remained mostly silent on my life and my beliefs regarding sexual orientation. The one time I did speak out in a somewhat public forum that was separate from the church, I was promptly removed from Sunday School teaching and leadership responsibilities. I cannot continue to edit my life and remain silent. I know that issues around same-sex orientation and relationships can be divisive. Families, congregations, even full denominations have become contentious and split over these issues. So, in the grand scheme of things, I believe it is better to leave First Baptist, than to stay and possibly risk creating conflict.
Be assured that my heart’s desire for us – each of you, First Baptist, and myself – is that we continue to be the church, the body and presence of Christ in and to the world.
In Christ’s Love,