As the current Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests (BMC) Board President, a founding member of Pink Menno, and a young queer Mennonite involved in the movement for a more inclusive and welcoming Mennonite Church for the LGBTQ community for 10 years, I received Ervin’s most recent letter as a more savvy and carefully crafted message than some we have seen in his previous messages. While I appreciate a thaw in tone and a shift towards more respectful language for the LGBTQ community (from “non-celibate gays” to “LGBTQ” for example), this abrupt shift indicates to me a continued need among church leadership for more education led by those in the LGBTQ community who have been immersed in this work for years, some for almost 40 years, such as BMC. As self identified members of the LGBTQ community, we know our own experience intimately and are familiar with the dynamics of privilege and marginalization in church structures, policies and practices. Yet we are rarely called upon to provide training, information and a voice in decisions being made about us.
I continue to see a strong tendency from Ervin and others in leadership to portray this as a struggle between equal and opposing groups with strongly differing theological beliefs. This leaves our church leaders caught in a morally neutral middle ground trying desperately to hold on to church unity and searching for a magical third way. I would suggest that the search begins by recognizing that privilege and power lie with the status quo, the leaders who continue to uphold it, and those made most comfortable by that status quo. This struggle is not about equals with strong opinions arguing about whose theological beliefs are correct. It is about how we treat each other in the church, and in this case, it is about how some are mistreated by the church. LGBTQ brothers and sisters and our families and supporters have been kicked out, pushed out, shamed, silenced, fired, not hired, refused education, credentials and ordination, told that our love was sin, and generally been treated in a shamefully unChristian way. Meanwhile, our church leadership has portrayed themselves as neutral in this struggle; as if they have not been actively participating in the marginalization of the lgbtq community and our families and friends. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Ervin recognized in his message that there is “growing evidence that the consensus forged on the Membership Guidelines in 2001 during the church merger processes is fraying.” I would argue there never was real consensus, but rather an agreement that was built upon the exclusion and vilification of the lgbtq community, who did not consent but were treated as expendable in the effort to forge a merger in the name of unity. Ervin is correct that the lack of consensus is growing more evident.
Ervin laments that the LGBTQ community and our allies in the church “are no longer willing to be in patient forbearance” as we “disregard the church’s written guidelines.” He desires “a renewed commitment to…respectful conversation with those who differ with our own stance, and to prayerful, Spirit-led discernment in communities of faith committed to God’s mission in the world.” While for Ervin and some in the church, it may feel like this is a time for renewed patience, forbearance, commitment to conversation and discernment, the LGBTQ community has been in patient forbearance to the dialogue and conversation about the morality of our lives and the value of our gifts in this church while simultaneously absorbing the brunt of hostile and discriminatory policies and practices for nearly 40 years. What is reasonable to expect in terms of “patient forbearance?”
At least once a year I try to sit down to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King was responding to “A Call for Unity” from eight white Birmingham clergymen who were critical of King and his methods. Their “Call for Unity” lamented the nonviolent demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement as unwise, untimely, extreme, and inciting hate and violence. The religious leaders called for patience and negotiation. If it’s been a while since you’ve read King’s letter, I would suggest another look. While much of the letter rings true to me at this time, one quote seems particularly fitting in our current Mennonite setting. “For years now I have heard the word ’Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ’Wait’ has almost always meant ’Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
I would argue that now is not the time for more conversation and dialogue among uninformed members of the privileged leadership class. Rather what is needed is a time of education about the lives of the LGBTQ community within the Mennonite Church that is led by the very individuals who know most about that experience, the LGBTQ community ourselves. Brethren Mennonite Council has represented that community for nearly four decades and has experience and resources to offer the church at this time. We can begin this work by taking bold measures to abolish discriminatory policies and practices in denominational structures and agencies so conversation and education can take place not just about the LGBTQ community but with the community.
Unity is not forged by scapegoating and excluding a whole group of people. We will be closer to a genuine and just unity when we realize that we may not all have to believe the same thing but we do have to commit to treat each other humanely.
In closing, I must borrow once again from A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” MLK