It was recently reported that BMC had declined an invitation from the CLC to have an lgbtq person at each table for “dialogue.” Here’s why we said no…
Dear CLC Members:
This year represents BMC’s 40th Anniversary. Forty is an important number in the Bible. The Hebrews spent forty years in the wilderness following their exodus from captivity in Egypt. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. Each of these experiences, one communal and one individual, involved a deep and spiritual reckoning with the meaning of faith and faithfulness. The Hebrew people, and Jesus himself, were changed by their experience in the wilderness, and left that space with a clearer sense of identity and purpose.
BMC’s forty-year journey has often felt like a wilderness experience of our own. It is fair to say that throughout those decades we have offered ourselves in an almost unprecedented way for prolonged scrutiny, critique, evaluation, and judgment. Usually the conversation has been about us rather than with us. Even in the rare times when the conversation has included us, by and large the agenda has been set by non-lgbtq people, the ratio of lgbtq people to non-lgbtq people has been grossly skewed, and the pressing concern has been to define and regulate our proper place within or outside of the institutional church. While we entered these conversations with hope, we almost always left feeling empty, defeated, discouraged and disappointed.
The decades of exclusion, condemnation and alienation have taken their toll. Many of us have left or been hustled out of the Mennonite Church. Some of us have departed with anger, others of us have been broken by despair or shame, and many of us have left with mixed feelings of sadness, relief, defeat and hope. While some of us have found a home in other, more accepting faith traditions, others have abandoned organized religion completely. A number of us have moved in and out of the Mennonite church, struggling to find or create a place where we could worship and practice our faith with integrity.
We have not been stagnant. Our exile has forced us to seriously grapple with Scripture, our Anabaptist traditions, our sacred humanity, and our own experience of the Holy. In spite of the odds, together we have created a community that has supported, blessed and encouraged us in our journeys. From our shared experience of the church’s capacity for violence, denial and harm, we have gained important insights into some of the deep flaws of our church and tradition. And at the same time, many of the rich teachings and practices, the songs and simple beauty of our tradition have sustained, challenged and comforted us even in our exile.
Throughout the years, we have been joined in the wilderness by compassionate and justice loving allies who have sensed God’s presence within this movement. To date, the Supportive Communities Network of BMC lists more than 105 Mennonite and Church of the Brethren communities that have publicly named themselves as open and affirming of lgbtq members. These communities and congregations have been a sacred gift not only to lgbtq people, but also to our families, friends and those who know and love us. We continue to marvel at, and celebrate, the tremendous growth of SCN.
The Jewish Midrash suggests that the Jews spent 40 years in exile in order to rid themselves of a mentality as an enslaved and oppressed people. Their time in the wilderness represented a period of spiritual growth and development that prepared them to enter the promised land. In a similar vein, the community that began as BMC 40 years ago is not the same community that exists today. We have a better sense of who we are and of the gifts that we have to offer to the larger community. We have grown in our understanding of the diversity, depth, and experience of the wider lgbtq community. We have worked hard to shed the shame that has bound us to our own oppression as we have found our story in the ancient prophetic texts of liberation and healing, and in our tradition’s own history
For these reasons, while we are very willing to engage in conversations where people are committed to learning and sharing in a dialogue of mutual vulnerability and risk, we are no longer interested in conversations where we are expected to defend our basic humanity and worth. Stated more succinctly, the church cannot simply reset the “dialogue” button on conversations that it committed to having thirty years ago but chose to ignore, and expect that we will be eager participants.
We do, however, have some ideas about how to work towards a conversation that could offer something new and potentially be healing to CLC and to the church. We suggest:
Experience a Welcoming Congregation – Accept the offer of the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors to CLC members to come and visit the congregations that are part of BMC’s Supportive Communities Network (SCN). Make an effort to worship with these congregations, to hear their stories, understand their journeys and discover how they are being revitalized and transformed by their spiritual practice of inclusion and hospitality.
Practice Mutual Respect – Pay attention to the dynamics of power and privilege. A fair and respectful conversation requires a collaborative process that includes lgbtq people and our organizations in all levels of preparation and design. There is a brokenness and deep lack of trust that must be acknowledged and addressed. We would welcome representatives from the Executive Board or CLC to meet with our board and get to know us as people rather than an “issue.” Before attempting a larger discussion, we would encourage CLC representatives to meet with smaller groups of lgbtq Mennonites or parents or SCN pastors. These kind of conversations could prove helpful in building understanding and articulating differences, commonalities and mutual concerns. Practices like these can help to repair trust and provide a path towards genuine conversation.
Become Informed – Many people still do not know personally anyone who identifies as lgbtq. Many more are confused by an expanding terminology. Negative stereotypes persist most often because people are simply unaware of the facts. Basic, informational training for CLC could help address these deficiencies and thus enhance conversation and avoid needless harm. Our website (www.bmclgbt.org) offers a plethora of resources and we are very willing to provide referrals and options for trainings.
Have Clarity About Purpose – The conflicting resolutions passed by the delegates at Kansas City in 2015 continue to place lgbtq people in an untenable position that makes us very wary about institutional actions. It is not clear to us what the CLC hopes to gain by conversation with BMC. Greater clarity about intent, expectations and desired outcomes are necessary in order to avoid greater polarization, frustration and harm.
Mennonite colleges are becoming increasingly aware that continued systemic violence directed at lgbtq people is less and less socially acceptable, and may even incur financial and reputational costs. While we may rue the imposition of the “fallen world,” it is also true that that world has often led the church to more faithful expressions of justice and mercy. In a complementary way, the Christian tradition’s insight about the path of conversion, confession, repentance, reparations and finally reconciliation, offers to both the church and the world the possibility of a deepening of this justice and the opportunity for a genuine rather than a cosmetic reconciliation.
With this in mind, and with all humility and hope, we respectfully call the Mennonite Church to a process of conversion that begins by first focusing intently and honestly upon the church’s stated call to “confess our fear and repent of our absence of love towards those with a different sexual orientation…” and moves from there to other areas of learning, reflection, connection and action. We cannot help but think that we would be a different church if we spent even a quarter of the effort that we have spent judging lgbtq lives and instead contemplated the fears and absence of love that have so characterized our families, congregations, conferences, colleges and denomination. Ultimately, with a lot of work, a fierce commitment to institutional and individual vulnerability, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to surprise and renew, we just may find the unity that now both consumes yet eludes us. Perhaps together we can finally lay claim to that promised land that we know as the kin-dom of God.