“Church never felt safe to me,” he said, standing at the microphone of New Day UMC’s Harlem Open Mic night, his gentle face revealing a soul made beautiful by struggle. “The church was always a place that made me feel judged and unwelcome as a gay kid… but I came out to this event tonight because it really means a lot to my partner.” And with those words from the young veteran of four tours of duty overseas, giving testimony to his partner’s witness of faith and love, every argument against inclusion and compassion was brought to its knees before a Christmas light bedecked microphone… or, rather, it should have been.
Unfortunately the debates upon which our future metaphorically hinges are based more upon theory than practice – based more on principles than people. Competing ideologies waging war with innocent bystanders hit on both sides. Words like bullets piercing the armor of those whose scar tissue has not yet hardened enough to make them impermeable.
Although I walk with a good coating of scar tissue, I can still testify to the courage it takes to walk into a spiritual space that has not been safe for you. When I walk into the church I grew up in, although it is a different place under different leadership, I cannot forget being taught there that women should not be the ones holding authority.
My declaration of calling was one that people responded to with politeness – “oh that’s nice” – rather than the exuberant excitement reserved for men entering the ministry. Polite was the best they could muster, but we both knew what it really meant, and it ached inside. I cannot forget the funeral of the pastor I grew up under, and seeing every man who had entered ministry during his tenure seated on stage as a sign of his legacy; while I, as a woman, was not a legacy he wanted to claim. I certainly cannot forget when an email exchange among church leaders culminated in a mentor asking when we would cease our “adultery with these false prophetess Jezebels.” No one was able to convince me that those words were not intended for me, because whether he meant to hit me or not, his aim was true.
Word bullets. We do not intend them for the people we love, but sometimes we have a hard time accepting that the people we love are also the things that we hate – and when we fire at the things we hate, we will hit the ones we love. We think we are fighting over principles, but when we make our churches a war zone, it is people that are being harmed.
Both the principles and the people are important, but Jesus seems like he kept giving people precedence over principles when he healed on the Sabbath, saved the life of the woman caught in adultery, spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, allowed his disciples to glean from the fields on the Sabbath… you get the idea.
Living a life of faith is more than following the rules; it is about having an intimacy with God that helps you to live with such extreme discipline that you have the courage to do the right thing, rather than the obvious thing or the expected thing. The rules for living in such a way cannot be scribbled on the palm of your hand so that you can peek at them like a crib sheet; neither can the memorization of lists of do’s and don’t’s give us the answers to all of life’s dilemmas.
We live in an era where the fear of the slippery slope reigns supreme; where those who do not put much stock in “perfect love casts out all fear” broadcast the terror that if we let one thing slip, then everything will fall apart. This is the world that told me as a teenager, struggling with a call to leadership, that if we let the women in, then next it would be “the gays,” and then the pedophiles – somehow linking all of us, against all reason and logic, in a continuum of crime.
Yet, it is in fearing this mythical slippery slope, that they themselves create the very danger that they fear by leaving our communities exposed, without the ability to discern responsibly; without the ability to honor love that is healthy and monogamous, of any variety, and separate it from that which does harm.
A more responsible choice would be to recognize that we are living in an era where we have to come to terms with the fact that the lens of privilege – through which the world has been labeled, divided, judged and structured – is ultimately broken. The only way to move forward, knowing this, is to come to terms with the crimes that lens has led us into; and carefully, prayerfully and honestly examine the situation through many lenses and voices, rather than only the most powerful.
There are lines, there are limits, but lets find them together through respecting one another’s voices. Let us not sever from the body and the conversation a huge segment of our population and label them as “headed down the slope” and, thus, not legitimate conversation partners. This is not only counterproductive, but also harmful and abusive itself. I cannot agree with this viewpoint, because the world it wishes to preserve is not one that I feel comfortable inhabiting.
Whether the word bullets we have delivered, buck-shot style, were meant to strike our own children or not: they have. They were not meant to harm the ones we love, but their aim was true and they hit their target, leaving many as the walking wounded. Nothing short of a verbal refutation of previous statements can undo their existence in relationships, can take down the walls of guardedness they build. Only when you are told that you can truly be all that you are – and you will still be loved – can you believe it. Niceness is the necessary evil when truth and vulnerability are not an option. Politeness becomes an unsatisfying placebo for the authentic, real, vulnerable, honest, life changing experience of community you need.
When I look at my beautiful generation, with so many invisible battle wounds already present and new ones inflicted every day, where do we even begin? We start by creating the real in response to the placebo.
We may disagree about how to do that, but it has to involve spaces where people can feel safe to fully divulge, fully emerge, fully converge. Niceness and politeness do not have the power to create those kinds of spaces; they only have the power to create half-people living half-lives in half-communities. Courage and honesty, compassion and kindness, truth and justice have the power to create whole-people living whole-lives in whole-communities. That is why you will see those words in the scriptures rather than “nice” or “polite” or “sweet” or “well-intentioned.” That is why you will see the word “embrace” not the word “tolerate.”
These kinds of courageous, boundary breaking communities are what New Day is striving to create in the Bronx and in Harlem. Spaces where young adults, with the support of the Rev. Doug Cunningham, are being empowered to lead and to speak and to explore creatively how to “connect with God”, “cross boundaries” and “confront social injustice.”
The words “crossing” and “confronting” are not in the category of polite discourse; but they are necessary. Because, you see, polite is an insult when you are starving for truth. And nice feels like emptiness when you need courage to fill you. And good intentions are merely a placebo when you will surely despair for lack of justice.
What we need is truth, honesty, vulnerability, courage, authenticity, healing. What we need is the ability to be whole – but you do not need to wait for anyone’s permission to become whole. What you need is the courage to speak your truth, and the intimacy with God that assures you that no matter what your truth may be, you are still loved and still a person of sacred worth.
Listening to all of the amazing, heart-wrenching truths that were told with such mind-bending precision and eloquence at the Christmas light bedecked microphone of New Day’s Open Mic, I had to keep reminding myself to pick my jaw up off the floor as my mouth hung open in wonder and horror and celebration. Such an intense experience of community leaves you changed and wanting more – and that is exactly what church should be.
The kinds of things we say at open mics are the things we would never say in polite company otherwise. We bare our souls.
That kind of honesty hurts. It is not polite, but it is true. And so we take the risk to be honest, and we become whole.
That is church, and there is nothing safe about it. It is dangerous; not because of the voices it excludes but because of the voices it includes. It poses a threat to our complacency, and offers us the opportunity to change.