How much evil throughout history could have been avoided had people exercised their moral acuity with convictional courage and said to the powers that be, “No, I will not. This is wrong, and I don't care if you fire me, shoot me, pass me over for promotion, or call my mother, I will not participate in this unsavory activity.”
- Joel Salatin
BMC was started by a Church of the Brethren man, Martin Rock, who had worked for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for nearly a decade. His tenure at MCC was abruptly terminated in 1977 after he was anonymously outed as a gay man. It was a traumatically disruptive period in his life, although one positive outcome was that it afforded him more time to do the hard organizing and work that accompanied the early years of BMC. Part of Martin’s commitment was to foster conversation and build understanding within the church so that what happened to him would be less likely to happen to others.
It is now more than four decades later, and MCC’s discarding of lgbtq people continues unabated. It is a practice that not only disrupts individual lives; it is also increasingly petulant and needlessly cruel.
Over the course of the 41 years since Martin’s firing, ignorant caricatures of who lgbtq people are have crumbled as courageous people have come out and made their lives visible. Serious Biblical scholarship has challenged the casual use of “clobber passages” to demonize lgbtq lives. Responsible science has fully eroded claims of criminality or mental illness. Justice minded courts have knocked down gratuitously punitive laws. Compassionate electorates have insisted upon greater equality. Increasingly, it is only those who cling to an obdurate religious ideology who fuel the rejection and judgment that functions to uphold practices of violence and harm that makes life so difficult for queer people.
Let us be clear. Those who apply to work or volunteer for MCC are overwhelmingly there because they have a faith-based vision of a kinder, more just and caring world. They are individuals who are willing to give of themselves for the well-being of others. They want to contribute to the betterment of the world as an expression of their faith and commitment to God. We are all enriched by their service.
People often learn a lot about themselves while serving in MCC. Sometimes people even fall in love there. For non-lgbtq people, this is an occasion of rightful joy that is usually acknowledged and celebrated by those associated with MCC. For queer people, however, these same feelings incite fear and an awful uncertainty. The BMC office has received far too many calls over the years from desperate MCC volunteers who lives have been shattered by an accusation, followed by a demand to pack up their things and be gone. It is an experience of deep shame, humiliation and disruption. For many, it also an involuntary outing to parents and family that can have terrible future ramifications.
It is time for this to stop.
Almost no one believes that the leadership of MCC take any kind of personal delight in enforcing rules that cause so much harm to lgbtq individuals. If you ask them, they often express regret for their actions, and I believe them. However, they also state that to do otherwise is to risk the fragile alliance that includes conservative Mennonites who threaten to withdrawal their money and support should lgbtq people be treated the same as non-lgbtq people. Queer people are deemed expendable.
Recently, a group of MCC volunteers and staff in Canada initiated a petition questioning MCC practices of discrimination and bias. In a relatively short period, they garnered over 430 signatures and numerous letters from past and present MCC workers. Representatives presented those materials directly to the MCC Canada Board, a curtesy denied by the US Board. At the joint US/Canada MCC Board meeting where human resource policy is decided, the board opted to do essentially nothing to alter the situation. Those who are lgbtq remain uniquely vulnerable, fearful, and subject to the capricious whims of exclusively straight leadership.
Everywhere, young adults are leading the struggle to change complacent and complicit systems that have been exquisitely designed for the benefit of some and the detriment of many. It is an exciting moment in history that offers new possibilities for a better world. Overwhelmingly, today’s young adults understand that discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong. They took the lead in organizing this effort and, offered the MCC Board a unique opportunity to do something novel for the sake of a different future where the dignity of all, queer people included, is protected and valued. The board blew it. Sadly, the “unsavory activity” will continue.
Former BMC volunteer Katie Hochstedler often commented, “It takes a lot of work to be an oppressor.” She’s right. One must be constantly vigilant, prepared to do distasteful things, and be willing to live with the knowledge that you have harmed another. MCC has a beautiful mission that includes sharing God’s love and compassion and working for peace and justice. For the sake of its own future, it is time for MCC to make this real for lgbtq people.