A Holy Divorce: A Queer Reflection of the Future Church Summit

July 21, 2017

On the first night of the Future Church Summit (FCS) at the MCUSA convention, we wrote down values we wanted our table to have on notecards and then shared them with each other. I took this time as an opportunity to attempt to shift the dominant paradigm present in the room as a whole and to name what I know to be values that honor and affirm marginalized people. These included: acknowledgement of privileged and marginalized identities/how we are socialized; honoring emotions as an epistemological site; honoring and valuing warranted anger and mistrust. I tried to hold myself and those at my table accountable to these. I was not always successful, but I recognize that holding these (as well as many other values) in our actions is a continual process.

 

Before I delve into the summit, I want to offer a glimpse of my background and what I was bringing into that space. In the summers during middle school, when I spent most of my time watching TV and reading, I would wake up in the middle of the night, around 1:00 or 2:00 am and turn the TV to MTV. I sat as close to the TV as I could, with the volume on as low as possible and my finger on the power button in case anyone happened to come into the family room. During that time of night in the mid-2000s, MTV showed the lesbian/gay/bi versions of their dating shows. I would weep until they were over and return to bed. I did this routinely, and compulsively. I never thought about what I was doing outside of that time until I reached adulthood. As a 13-year-old, all I knew to do with my emotions was to repress them, so that’s what I did. In hindsight, I know that this routine act was a result of a complicated interplay of homophobia, repression, and sexual shame that were all rooted in my religious upbringing.

 

Throughout the summit, I was reminded again and again of moments like this in my childhood, and intensely felt much of the same fear, pain and guilt. Thankfully, this time around, I had healthy coping mechanisms, a new framework to understand myself and others, and fellow lgbtq people and allies who I could seek safety and refuge in. As I have processed what was said at my table with others, I have been reminded of the sanctity of language and community. There are moments, no matter how strong we are, where we buckle, when something said or done to us knocks us out harder than we anticipate. I found myself at the helm of that buckling during the Friday morning session. I think it’s important that we give ourselves the grace to experience moments like that, while at the same time recognizing when we need to pick each other up. After leaving the room (five minutes before the end of the session), I talked to several people about what were painful reminders of a past I’d mostly like to forget and found myself renewed enough to return to the table. Without the community I’ve found in Pink Menno, BMC and Inclusive Pastors, I wouldn’t have had the strength to return.

 

As the summit moved forward, I sought other coping mechanisms to stay at the table and stay engaged. In between questions, I sought another lgbtq person or an ally to hug for a moment of clarity and breath, and to remind myself why I was in the summit in the first place. I also got out my notebook and started scribbling notes down whenever I had something to say and couldn’t (if someone else was talking, there was a plenary discussion happening, etc.). I also drew strength from multiple sources. The first of these is the conversations I had during the Pink Youth Summit.

 

The first conversation I facilitated at the youth summit was about how to make the case to people to challenge homophobia and transphobia. We talked about what the effects of homophobia and transphobia were in our lives or the lives of people we know and then discussed ways we could challenge that. The youth came ready to both name and challenge the homophobia and transphobia they’ve seen in their lives; there was no time needed to define terms or prove to them that homophobia and transphobia existed. In that conversation, one of the high school students talked about a gender nonconforming friend and conversations they’ve had about allyship and how allies can be on the front line of defense so that marginalized people are not put in unsafe or toxic situations. That moment made my heart sing, and gave me so much hope for the future of the church.

 

In addition to the Pink Youth Summit, I also drew strength from the example of Carol Wise, Martin Rock and others who laid the foundation for me to be at the table in the first place. I also recognized in myself the ways I survived toxic religious settings in the past; it was not as if I had not wrestled with the same questions the people at my table were asking about lgbtq justice. I recognized their fear, not necessarily always as my own, but as what I was met with growing up in an evangelical church.

 

I also continually thought about all the people who were not in Orlando but were in Kansas City, or other Mennonite spaces. I started writing down their names in my notebook as a sort of litany. When I got out my notebook when I returned to the BMC office, a blog post Tobin Miller Shearer that spoke to this list came across my newsfeed, “Fannie Swartzentruber, Ecclesial Gaslighting, and The Witness of Holy Disruption” on Anabaptist Historians.

 

In the post, Miller Shearer recounts the story of Fannie Swartzentruber, a woman who walked out of a communion service at Gay Street Mennonite Mission in Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1944 to protest the racial injustice she had witnessed in the church. Miller Shearer states, “It was not until 1955 that Virginia Conference leaders overturned their segregation dictate. In a statement that year they publicly acknowledged their ‘former spiritual immaturity’ and pledged to extend ‘the right hand of fellowship’ to all ‘true believers.’ But Fannie was not present for that conference statement.”

 

As I processed the conversation at the morning session with friends, the other lgbtq person at my table told me that the conversation shifted quite a bit after I walked out. Megan Ramer (pastor at Seattle Mennonite) was quick to name that the shift was only possible in my absence. As I read Miller Shearer’s piece on Anabaptist Historians, I was reminded of that moment, and that all of the people I stormed the stage with in Kansas City were not at the Orlando convention. I realized that my leaving the morning session and the guerilla theater action were acts of holy disruption. There were other moments of holy disruption I've offered alongside my community in Mennonite spaces and I think naming those is important in recognizing their sanctity.

 

During the timeline exercise, there was a moment when facilitator Catherine Barnes paused to ask if anything significant happened between the late 1970s and early 1980s. I shifted my weight back and forth, trying to catch the eyes of any of the people up there, hoping they would name Martin Rock and the founding of BMC. Just as they were about to move on, I yelled out BMC was founded in 1976. Luckily I was close enough to the front of the room that Barnes heard me. I felt a gutting sort of sadness that I had to do this. At the same time, I was very grateful for what Erica Littlewolf said about the question white Mennonites have asked about lgbtq justice/inclusion not being the same question many indigenous groups (including her tribe, Northern Cheyenne) have been asking. For her and her communities, it was/is a question of assimilation and shedding culture, not a question of whether to allow lgbtq/Two-Spirit people at the table. 

 

The other holy disruption I participated in was during the delegate session in Orlando. Tim Nafziger, Kate Becker and I started planning to disrupt the session as the delegate body was about to vote for the reworded resolution. We wrote down what we were going to say, practiced it once, stood up and in a rare silence, yelled, “Don’t build a representative process and then undermine it.” There was a moment where Patty Shelly paused, and it seemed like something was about to shift. It didn’t, but I will seek that moment in my search for and creation of justice in all of my communities.

 

After leaving the table in the morning session, I decided I needed to communicate what some of the implications of the homophobic ideas and thoughts that were shared have been in my life. I want to name this as a conscious decision, not something that I forced myself to do. I have learned over the past two years that not everyone deserves to hear my story, not everyone gets to have access to my vulnerability. I offered it to my table as a gift because there was another queer person at my table and because the conversation was becoming theoretical when it should have been grounded in the body and our lived experiences. At the same time, I refused to do any of the emotional labor of reassuring those at my table that they weren’t bigoted or making sure they were comfortable in a conversation that didn’t center them.

 

When I processed with friends, I was able to honor my decision to leave the table and also name why I fled and what my reaction had to offer about the truth of the situation. Because the reaction I had was familiar to me, I knew immediately that the conversation at my table involved much more risk for me than it did for most of the people at my table. Heterosexist ideas and beliefs are not abstract thought experiments about morality and the way we should organize life. They are what has shaped so much of my life and the ways I understood (and understand) myself in relation to other people. When I think about heterosexism, I think about stories, about myself, about the people I love and the people who laid the foundation for these conversations to even happen. I think about pride and shame, collectively and individually held in each of the people I love. I think about what BMC, Pink Menno, Inclusive Pastors, congregations and individuals have been able to create in spite of heterosexism’s persistence.

 

I finished the summit feeling exhausted but in some ways hopeful, at least if for nothing else than the community I’ve found through BMC, Pink Menno and Inclusive Pastors. The moment I sought solace from my table, there was always someone there to greet me with it. I had many conversations with other Pink Mennos about the process and what we might have changed about it, but I was grateful to hear that for some of us, this was a mostly positive experience and people were earnestly trying to have important conversations.

 

I also want to name that there were moments where I recognized previous (and in some ways, present) versions of myself, especially in the defensiveness and fragility of the straight white people in the room who projected their anger onto lgbtq people and people of color. I know that privileged side of things too: where I want people of color to assure me that I’m not racist, where I am trying to hold onto a worldview that ultimately requires something inhumane of me, where I don’t want to be “one of those white people.” During one of the plenary discussions, a white man got up and said he wanted to be able to celebrate his Russian Mennonite ethnic heritage alongside Latinx (although he said Latino) people because he does not consider himself part of the "unwashed white mass." I was scribbling things down in my notebook throughout the summit and allowed my anger to reveal this to me: he wants to remove himself from his complicity in racism (historically and presently) without any accountability. I know that temptation is strong, but it’s necessary to resist it.

 

Throughout the summit, much of what I wrote down in my notebook had to do with my reservations toward evangelicalism and its power in American Christianity today, especially in Mennonite spaces. As I saw and heard what the Theme Team was reporting back after each question, I felt some relief that a focus on expansion and evangelism was largely absent (although it did appear in some answers). This is part of what has drawn me to Mennonite spaces. I have very little faith in evangelicalism; partly because of my own trauma and intuition, but also because of evangelicalism’s foundations and what lies at the root of its messages and proselytizing efforts.

 

Evangelicalism inherently looks outward at expansion; modern evangelicals would agree with that assessment. Where I see a foundational flaw in this worldview is 1) that the vast majority of people know Christianity exists because of colonization and 2) that the expansion of this breed of Christianity has serious consequences for the people on the receiving end. Evangelicals in the U.S. have based nearly all of their proselytizing not on a mutual exchange of ideas but on a demand for assimilation to white hetero-patriarchal values and norms. Coming from an evangelical background, I believe that to dismantle this, we have to abandon evangelicalism altogether. Proselytizing requires more of potential converts than simply believing “Jesus is Lord” (which is, in itself, an expression of patriarchy). And I know this deeply, in my own reckoning with a community that viewed and treated me as a pariah and in the ways I participated in this narrative. This is not to say we abandon Christianity altogether, but that that expansion, at this particular moment in time, will always be mired by this history. Expansion is not a politically neutral act in our context. If we don’t want to hand over values that undermine and marginalize lgbtq people, women, people of color, etc., we need to do the hard work of divorcing white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy from our expression of Christianity. We are not there yet, as a denomination and community. To expand without that careful, intentional work, we are requiring of potential converts (and many of those already here) a denial of their humanity.

 

Although there wasn’t as much of a focus on lgbtq justice in the themes report as I would have liked, I appreciated that for the most part, the concern for expansion was absent. This was contrasted with my table, which by and large was what was discussed. We can try to theorize about why this process and the report were undermined in the delegate session, and while I think there was definite anger and fear about lgbtq issues being included at all, as well as racial justice, I think conservatives did not see their desire to expand represented in the document. From the experience I had at my table, this was what divided us along theological and political lines, not necessarily our understandings of justice (although those were embedded in this difference). It is also why I reacted so viscerally to the morning session. Evangelicalism has always meant denying the part of myself that connects me to my spirituality and community. As I continue working for justice in the Mennonite church, I want to pay attention to the ways that evangelicalism has embedded itself into Mennonite communities. I think ex-evangelicals can offer a lot of wisdom about where this is taking root and what we can do to dismantle it.

 

The delegate session undid any of the hope I had at the end of the summit. The anxieties straight white men have about shifting power were prioritized over my liberation as an lgbtq person in the Mennonite church. I wasn’t angry so much that people were expressing dissent about a fairly ambiguous document (I’m not sure what else we would expect from 660 people), but that their qualms were immediately prioritized over the FCS design team, over the voices of the underrepresented in the summit, and ultimately, over people of color and lgbtq people.

 

What persisted throughout the week, and what I know BMC and Pink Menno have been striving toward in all our work, is that attention to lived experiences, nuance and intersectionality have to be the framework from which we seek justice. This includes both a critical view of our histories as Mennonites and Christians, as well as celebrating what we’ve been able to achieve despite power structures that have marginalized us. Our attempts may be imperfect, we may fail in some ways and succeed in others, but as a community, we’ve built something beautiful from the wreckage nonetheless. And we are still a community that loves, cries, dances and sings together, despite what we have endured. We must remember to keep breathing despite all that tells us not to, to let the voices that tell us we shouldn't exist to be drowned out by our singing, to yell at the powers that be with all the fervor we can muster and to shake in each other's arms afterward.

 

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