My divinity school days were filled with the motto “Live the questions”. Daily, as I worked my way through classes like Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and History of Christianity, I was inundated with tough questions; questions that challenged my context, my privilege and my assumptions. My worldview was torn down until there was nothing left but sky. I was also told maybe someday, as the rest of Rainer Maria Rilke’s quote states, “live into the answers.” I am still waiting on the latter, but the view is spectacular and it’s nice to be free from prepackaged shallow spirituality. As the Chaplain of Barton College, I attempt to offer the same to my students. “Live the Questions,” I reiterate.
Barton College is located in Wilson, North Carolina, about 50 miles east of Raleigh. Wilson is a quaint town of 50,000, known for its beautiful trees that frame many of the major streets, its Whirligigs, friendly people and of course, the college. But Wilson and Wilson County also have its struggles. Wilson County is one of the poorest counties in the state and has a higher unemployment rate than the state or the nation (topped 13% in January of this year). Wilson has a 7% higher poverty rate than the state, with 36% of the children living below the poverty line. That is 14% higher than North Carolina’s average. Further, as if being poor wasn’t enough, Wilson county residents bear the burden of paying some of the highest electric rates in North Carolina, paying 50% more than residents who are able to use one of the other two leading power companies in the state. As a person of faith, these numbers make my heart hurt.
Last week there was a rally in this small college town to support the changes to the North Carolina Amendment 1, to say “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” The proposed Amendment would prohibit same-sex marriage (which the state already does); prohibit civil unions and domestic partnership rights. It also goes so far as to strip the domestic partner insurance benefits currently offered to employees by a number of local governments. Forty ministers came together at this rally. Forty ministers united their voices in support of this Amendment change. Forty.
When one of my colleagues, who happens to be a lesbian, came to share with me the news that forty ministers were uniting their voices in support for this Amendment, again my heart hurt. Her tears did all the talking, “Why, Hollie? Why, this?” Her questions pointed out the hypocrisy. Her devout faith in Jesus demanded to know why forty ministers wouldn’t unite around people who can’t afford their heating bill, but would unite around a message of discrimination. When children go home on the weekends hungry because their parents can’t afford food, why would ministers unify around a message of exclusion? “When have forty ministers united about anything? With all that this town is facing, imagine what forty ministers could accomplish if they united their voices for those who are suffering,” she proclaimed. I had no answers, only tears. I cried in solidarity but also at the profound truth that I haven’t done as much as I could to stand in opposition.
Recently at Barton, several LGBT students asked me to lead a bible study just for them. Looking for a safe space to share their faith journey, they try to reconcile what they were taught about Jesus’ love and what they experienced from their families and church when they came out. I am honored that students would feel safe sharing their experiences with me and I, in turn, share that in times of uncertainty, biblical inconsistencies, and various interpretations, when it comes to God – we should err on the side of Love. Interestingly and miraculously, even though some of them were thrown out of the church or at times, their families, each holds tight to the teaching that God is Love. They know there is an unspoken, deep and impermeable love that God has for them. Their faith and hope in this Love is a witness to me.
I was once again witness to their beliefs when one of the students shared her artwork with me. She is a gifted artist and I was theologically moved by one of her pieces. It is a screened print image on glass in three settings. The first is of a bird flying into a cage; the second, the bird sitting in the cage; and the third, of the bird exiting the cage with the quote “escape the cage”. I was moved, not only because of its beauty but because of its profound and clear Gospel message:
Our Christian faith is not one that binds us and keeps us trapped. Our Christian faith has no room to limit creativity and interpretation; no room to cage love for ourselves and others. On the contrary, if we are to celebrate the Risen Christ, we do so knowing that we are free. We are free to celebrate the fullness of life and fullness of spirit. We are free to dream, and embrace the courage to make it so! God is bigger than anything we could ever imagine and our image of God cannot be caged.