I had been at First Christian Church of Oakland for a couple of weeks when I went out to lunch with one of the elders of my small, predominantly African American congregation. I asked her about her vision for the church, and she painted the picture of our massive facility being used to feed and maybe house homeless people and do ministry that met people’s needs. She also, almost out-of-the-blue, said, “My daughter is gay and I’ll drop kick anyone who says that’s a sin.”
I hadn’t seen the comment coming from this kind and gentle woman (I’ve since learned what a powerhouse and a spiritual rock she is, but at the time what I saw was kind and gentle)—and I didn’t know where everyone in the church stood on GLBTQ inclusion at the time.
My assumptions about who was an ally were pushed starting from my first day at the church, when one woman explained to me that Hurricane Katrina happened because men were sleeping with men and women were sleeping with women and the bible proscribed that, whereas another woman said judgment was left to God and the only thing people are supposed to do is love, so why were all these Christians judging gays instead of loving them.
Truth be told, it wasn’t hard to move from a “we’re open but let’s not make an issue of it” church to a church with significant gay and lesbian leadership where GLBTQ inclusion is regularly lifted up in prayer, in sermons, and in the streets (we marched against Prop 8, in the rain). It started about 5 months in with me saying, “I know this isn’t a priority issue for the congregation, but I’ve been asked as a pastor to sign onto a letter supporting gay marriage, and I wanted to check in with you to see how you feel about the fact that I plan to sign it.” They agreed that I get to do what I want, and they were also glad I had told them so that, according to one of the oldest members of the church, “if a neighbor says, ‘I saw your pastor on TV supporting gay marriage!’ we can respond, ‘Oh! What was she wearing? Did she look nice on camera?’”
Gay members who joined and led and whose marriages we wanted to celebrate made the transition an easy one, so that I knew I didn’t have to “warn” folks when one and then another student minister were gay, or when my co-pastor preached about the culpability of our culture in relation to a transgendered woman ending up in jail for defending herself against a violent attack, or when the trans community asked to use our building for the memorial service for a transgendered woman murdered in downtown Oakland. The denomination knew we were inclusive. The community knew we were inclusive.
But we aren’t officially O&A. And I sometimes grieve it, and I sometimes hope it’s because O&A is too small for us, and I sometimes wonder if I asked for a show of hands, that’s all it would take since it’s saturated into how we function.
I’m not going to justify. I’m just going to explain and willingly receive whatever criticism comes from it for being a bad ally (a legitimate criticism, for sure).
When I came to FCC Oakland in May 2006, as I mentioned, I was having trouble getting a real pulse on where the church stood on GLBTQ inclusion and tested the water with the then board chair. “We had a member with AIDS in the 1980s,” he said dismissively. “We had a cross-dresser. We’ve had gay members. In fact, [name withheld] left the church for a while because we embraced a member after that member had come out. But,” he went on to say, “we’re also a mostly Black church and a church that embraces homeless people, and the O&A churches I know only care about that issue. We want to be known as the all-inclusive church, not just for including one group.”
So I left the O&A conversation there. Instead I opened up the conversations that tied GLBTQ inclusion to all the other issues of faith and justice (all of which were new for the congregation to hear from the pulpit but not at all unfamiliar in practice—practically everyone in that church has a lived experience of marginalization in some fashion or another, new members and long-time folks alike). And it became part of who we are, with only a few hard conversations that I introduced to the leadership in the early days, and even in those hard conversations, laypeople were the ones naming why we needed to be fully inclusive of GLBTQ members and leaders.
I regret that we are not on a formal register so that people visiting know that we are a safe space. (Although if they visit on Pride Sunday, the rainbow streamers might be a giveaway.) And at the same time, I understand that former board chair’s spoken and possibly unspoken concern: we want to be known for all of our forms of inclusivity, but also, underneath that, we are afraid that our struggles will get displaced, since we don’t see any O&A churches who put our struggles as poor people, as people of color, as people with disabilities, at the top of their list. I didn’t know what to do with that tension, and so I didn’t push as I maybe should have. Or maybe I didn’t push us because I have the same unspoken concern—that O&A churches don’t work as hard at racial justice or critique of capitalism and materialism, and I didn’t want to be responsible for making us less of a liberationist congregation overall.
Funnily enough, when I was in a prayer triad recently with a woman who’s been a member for 50 years and a 19-year-old woman who’s been a member since birth, I said, “I think most of our newer members think we ARE officially O&A,” the 19-year-old said, “aren’t we?” even though she would have been a part of any conversation that would have involved such a vote.
I’ll be ending my tenure as pastor at FCC Oakland at the end of June. In the next three months, I will help and support them as they determine what great new thing they want to claim as their mission and purpose in the community. As part of that process, I won’t be encouraging them to become an O&A church. What I will do is encourage them to affiliate with the Fellowship, Bishop Yvette Flunder’s pan-denominational Radical Inclusivity network, which lives at the intersection of all of the “–ism’s” and recognizes God guiding us to lead from the margins. I have no small amount of shame that I didn’t encourage them in that direction sooner (my only excuse being, “I was busy” as a very part-time pastor leading them through huge huge shifts). And yet, I’m excited about the fullness of who they can be and what it would mean to connect with other churches dedicated to living out that same radical vision. And while I know that the Disciples remain committed to a path that means we’ll never all be the same type of church, I’d love for my own devotedly Disciples congregation to feel a little less lonely in that radical inclusivity identity. Maybe they’ll see some of you in the Fellowship.