Top Ten Reasons for Being an Open and Affirming Congregation

This speech was given by Anita Smith Buckwalter at BMC’s luncheon during the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, July 5, 2010.

 

The Lansing Church of the Brethren has been a publicly open and affirming congregation for 13 years (1997). We have been marching in Michigan Pride parades for the last 7 years. A dozen of us walked this year. However, it was our first year to have a booth at the diversity festival after the parade. We handed out 240 cups of cold water. Then we had to resort to refilling water bottles. We also had water available for dogs. The most popular give away was a button, “God Loves me just the way I am.” We subsidized the booth by selling doggie bandanas we had made at a sewing bee the previous week. The bandanas had rainbow peace signs on one-side and rainbow stripes with polka dots on the other.

 

I asked the congregation to help create what I would say today, and we came up with our own top 10 reasons to be a publicly welcoming congregation.

 

10. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because we enjoy conflict and making others feel uncomfortable. Nothing could be further from the truth, but many other religious folksget angry and accuse us of being strident, pushy or showing off – you know, “Why do you have to flaunt it?”

 

I’ve heard sincere people say, “We can be an open and welcoming church, we just don’t have to make a big deal about it or call attention to ourselves that way.”

 

And yet, when it comes to combating injustice like homophobia by proclaiming the gospel of the transforming love of God, we are called to build a city on the hill where everyone can find it. In order to reach people who are often afraid of the church due to their previous experience- it is important not to hide our light under a bushel, but put it on a stand so the light fills the whole house. When we are called to be prophetic, making others uncomfortable just comes with the territory.

 

9. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because we like to feel uncomfortable. No, we aren’t good Christian martyrs. We believe one purpose of the Christian Faith is to stretch us to grow beyond our comfort zones. It is a great experience of sensitization and solidarity for straight people to learn “just a little” about what it feels like to “come out.” When we “came out” as a congregation 13 years ago, those of us who were new to the process found ourselves thinking about issues like – “Who are we going to tell and how do we bring up the subject? Who will it be safe to tell and when will we just not mention it?” Of course for those of us who are not lesbian or gay it was only our church life that was affected, not our jobs or our family life. Our contingent in the parade this year got our picture in the local newspaper, likely because I was in fabulous clergy garb- a beautiful white robe and colorful Latin American stole - walking under our banner, “All God’s children gotta place in the choir.” I was a little edgy the week afterwards wondering who might talk to me about that photo. My biggest worry was my hair cutter who is an evangelical. I was relieved when she didn’t say anything – maybe she doesn’t read the paper.

 

8. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts." It is a relief to have this issue settled, so there is an end to the debate and dialog. Then the congregation can give its energy to other important issues like poverty, racism, war, and other forms of violence. Now this may feel very counter to our Anabaptist heritage of unity in the Body of Christ, and I know we are talking about forbearance here at annual conference. I welcome a special process to talk about difficult issues. We certainly need to practice a covenant of civility in the church, although that’s difficult everywhere these days. However, not all of us are called to be bridge builders. Some of us are called to be the advance survey crew and road builders on the other side of the chasm. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham jail, there comes an end to patient waiting and talking. You can’t please all the people all the time. When will we learn that part of unity is to agree to disagree or sometimes go our separate ways? Jesus acknowledged that there are times to shake the dust from one’s sandals and move on to those who want and need to hear your message.

 

7. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because LGBT folks and their allies have more fun. It is often true that oppressed, marginalized folks know how to party and have a good time. When much of life is fraught with tension and stress, times of celebration are even sweeter - in contrast to those of us who have mostly comfortable, privileged lives. Pride weekend is certainly one indication of that. The concerts of Sistrum, the Lansing Women’s Chorus, and the Greater Lansing Gay Men’s Chorus are always joyful times of superb entertainment and inevitably end with dancing. Song and Story Fest is another of such celebrative time. I have fond memories of our SCN (Supportive Communities Network) Conferences in the 90’s: Dancing at the Wall, Dancing at the Table and Dancing at the Water’s Edge.

 

6. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because we don’t want the armed forces to get all that committed dedicated talent and capacity. The church has already lost too many gifted pastors, theologians, artists and musicians, due to our “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, as well as for our outright hostility to those who are lesbian or gay. How much poorer our congregation would be without Deb’s fierce advocacy and beautiful, heartfelt songs, Judi’s easy, outgoing connecting, Marie’s thoughtful questions and perceptive insights, Anne’s advocacy for children and evocative prayers, Elizabeth’s enthusiasm, practical skills and encouraging community building!

 

5. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because my queer family members and friends need a church where they can relax and be ordinary people – where their lives and their love are not items on the congregation’s business agenda or topics of study groups and forums, especially ones where “both sides” have equal representation. Who wants to constantly be defending one’s every action and have one’s family life be the center of such scrutiny? Not even Presidential candidates and those running for Congress should be subjected to such an invasion of privacy.

 

4. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” This is a basic theological orientation. An amazing number of people believe that change, healing, and love for God are motivated by threat, fear of eternal pain, and punishment. I am amazed at how few people can wrap their minds around radical love that is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude, that loves neighbor as one’s own self, that loves even enemies, that intentionally gives of self – sometimes even to the point of death. Radical loving that motivates growth and transformation is not patronizing or manipulative but engaging and freeing. Such loving requires a major investment in relationship.

 

3. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because “the Bible tells us so.” We refuse to let one type of Biblical interpretation set our agenda. Rather than focusing on a few texts, questionably referring to sexual orientation, we prefer to emphasize major Biblical themes of hospitality, justice, and reconciliation – the foundations of God’s “new community project” here on earth.

 

Our favorite scriptures beyond the two great commandments articulated by Jesus include:

 

Acts 10 - a powerful story about Peter, Jesus’ number one right-hand man, learning that the religious rules he had observed all his life were not the will of God. He was told three times in a dream, “Don’t call anything profane that God has made clean - if God says it’s o.k., it’s o.k.” Peter came to the conclusion that “God shows no partiality.” Peter’s issue was whether he could visit the home of Gentiles and eat with them because his religious tradition labeled them and their food unclean abominations. It seems very clear that this text has strong contemporary application.

 

The Apostle Paul learned a similar lesson. He wrote to Christians in Rome, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Paul was responding to an intense disagreement about what kind of meat faithful Christians could eat! And in another letter to the house church in Galatia, Paul proclaimed, “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” Race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender and sexuality are not to be barriers to membership in the Body of Christ. 

 

2. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because it is following our call to “another way of living” along a road less traveled. This way is described in Romans 12 verse 2: “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you can judge what God’s will is – what is good, pleasing and perfect.” As only a handful of churches are present at the Pride Festival, we are very aware of how much ours is a “road less traveled” – one that is not popular or conforming to much “Christian” thinking in the present age. And yet, our way was affirmed at the Pride festival as we heard over and over how good and pleasing it was to have the presence of churches who were welcoming and affirming and not condemning. It certainly seemed we were laborers sent to a ripe harvest of folks hungry for the Bread of Life.

 

1. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because it is how we continue the work of Jesus and follow his example. As a denomination, we were asking “What would Jesus Do?” long before it became trendy. And it is still a primary question for us. Jesus’ ministry was and is all about living in God’s commonwealth beginning right now. Jesus was about bringing wholeness, freedom and justice for all, no exceptions. Jesus was criticized for hanging out with those on the margins of society, those the religious establishment named as tax collectors, lepers and sinners. When much of the church and society puts similar labels on our lesbian sisters and gay brothers in an effort of exclusion, we think Jesus would not agree and instead would invite himself home for dinner. “Christian” has become an adjective that in this age carries a narrow political/religious agenda based on a selective reading and simplistic interpretation of scripture. As Jesus-followers we are determined to reclaim the compassion, justice and reconciliation evident in the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth. We are a publicly open and affirming congregation because we take Jesus seriously.

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