Not One of Them

As I considered contributing to this important project, I was taken back to the same type of reflection that led the way to my Doctor of Ministry project.  My theological and ecclesiastical formation, though unknown at the time, began very early in my life.  My earliest memories of church were those of being “not one of them.” My only experience of church during the 1950s was exclusion; a place where normal families were embraced and families like mine (with multiple marriages, chemical addiction) were politely tolerated. My ecclesial experience was limited, however, as my family dropped in only on occasion; there were too many family secrets that might inadvertently be revealed. I attended church with friends and occasionally walked to the community church on my own. Although I was not treated unkindly, I always sensed that I was an outsider looking in.

Reaching my teen years in the tumultuous 1960s, I began to doubt the existence of God, and believed that if God did exist, He (the only image I held) was clearly uninvolved with the world, definitely not interested in me, and frankly, by my observation of those who claimed belief, irrelevant.  Over a twenty-year period, as I began to be seriously involved with social justice issues, my limited understanding of church folk expanded as I worked with people who had the same passion for justice as I, but from a faith perspective. This is how I became involved with the Christian Church (DOC).

Exclusion is nothing new for the Church, nor has it been successfully overcome, even with history guiding us. In the early 1990s I was part of an AIDS ministry through the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN) in Tulsa, OK; a faith-based outreach to persons affected with HIV/AIDS. This ministry of practical care and support was provided through congregational care teams. Many times the persons for whom we cared had been rejected not only by family, but also by the churches that had been a significant presence throughout their lives and who now had turned away. It was during this time that I witnessed the best and the worst of what the Church can be. The fear and hatred within the Church of those affected by this disease, often resulting in open condemnation and outright rejection was appalling and, I believe, an affront to all Jesus stood for. However, the response of the few to be the face of Christ in opposition to the dominant voice at the time inspired an understanding within me of what the Church is called to be: a voice that stands with those who are most vulnerable and powerless in society, as Jesus modeled.

The issue of exclusion came closer to home ten years later when my youngest daughter, Casey, while a junior at Drury University, self-identified as lesbian. She is a remarkable, gifted young woman who felt a call to ministry, but of course found most doors closed if she chose to live authentically. She received her M. Div. from Pacific School of Religion but chose not to pursue ordination.

Contemplating my entrance into the D. Min. program, the primary question confronting me was, “What can a middle-aged, heterosexual, female pastor do within this program that might address and perhaps change the status quo in regard to the inclusion of the GLBT community within the Christian Church (DOC)?” One of the first things I learned from my daughter is that I must not speak for the community, as I cannot, and never will be able to, understand what it is like to live as a GLBT person in predominantly heterosexual society. If I speak, it must be from the place I reside, which is as an invited guest.

Throughout the D. Min. classes, I struggled to find my way. The only thing I knew for certain was that this would be the focus of my project. How to approach the issue of inclusion/exclusion and narrow my exploration were the questions confronting me. I was moved to ask the question, “Who am I in this journey, and from what perspective can I speak authentically?” At that point, I began to get clarification.

First, I am a woman. I know something of what it is to be excluded in the Church for reasons that have nothing to do with call or qualifications. Second, I am a pastor, and it is my firm belief that it is the prophetic call of clergy and all Christians to stand with those most marginalized, as Jesus did. Finally, as a heterosexual pastor who understands heterosexism as a disease infecting the Church, I am in a position of authority and power that demands my speaking not for but on behalf of those whose voices are silenced.

It was suggested on a review of an assignment that my position might be stronger if I acknowledged the good that is being done in the movement toward inclusion, speaking of the debates within the various judicatories, and the fact that most, if not all, DOC seminaries self-identified as Open & Affirming. It was in these reflections that I received my “aha!” moment.

I was moved to wonder where all DOC seminaries stood in relation to the regions they serve.  As research affirmed, the disconnect between open & affirming seminaries and closed regions proves to be not only inadequate for ordination candidates, but has placed regional judicatories in positions of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Candidates are forced into a decision of either leaving their home regions to seek positions in an area that will openly ordain or serving in silence, and in some instances, leaving the denomination.  It seemed to me that none of these fractured responses is acceptable for a denomination whose primary focus is being “a movement for wholeness.”

Second, unlike other mainline judicatories, there have been no continuing public debates at the General Assembly level regarding this issue since it was placed in the category of “under discernment.”  The entire conversation seems to have come to a screeching halt.  The argument I continue to hear from my pastoral colleagues has been that while full inclusion within the body of Christ is surely the ultimate goal, “the Church isn’t ready.”

Historically, we know that the Church has really never been the primary movers and shakers in movements for justice.  The Church wasn’t ready for equality for people of color or for women in leadership, but prophetic voices arose (from within and without) that took the Church to task. It is easy to say “the Church isn’t ready,” when you aren’t the one waiting. I believe that our GLBT brothers and sisters have waited long enough. It is time for prophetic voices to speak this truth, and I give thanks for GLAD offering this opportunity to reopen the dialogue.