What are you fighting for?

Riding my bike along the narrow inches of shoulder between the paved road and the deep ditch, I struggled not to fall in the water, and thought about the children I was told had walked these same treacherous trails to come to church. It was about a decade ago, and I was in my first appointment, a rural community where folks worked hard and loved harder. I would hear many stories before then and since then, but no other story would haunt me the way this one did – if by haunt one means accompany, travel with, teach, convict and inform. 

It all started when the congregation that I had come to serve had hosted a vacation bible school at their church. They had a great time and so did the kids. There were two children, in particular, that were so drawn to the love that they found that week that they began to come to church on their own. There was no one in their family willing to bring the two young kids, but they would not give up. So they walked to church along that dusty shoulder by themselves. 

Living in the marshes, where flooding was a constant and a way of life, an intricate system of ditches interlaced our landscape to control, or diminish, the interruptions that the water brought to our lives. The ditches meant that roads were sometimes narrow ribbons, curves were sometimes sharp, the shoulder was sometimes eroded, and the cars were sometimes fast. Walking to church was never the safe option, it was always the brave option. And brave they were.

The church members were overjoyed by the children’s commitment to coming to church, but as time passed some of them decided that they needed to “love” the children better by telling them what they were doing wrong. To start with, the kids were not wearing clothes appropriate for church, they were just wearing jeans and t-shirts, the only clothes they had. Secondly, with all that walking in the dust, the kids were showing up dirty and dusty and not quite presentable. Eventually, somebody took it upon themselves to sit the kids down and explain to them what they were doing wrong. 

The children never came back. 

The woman who narrated the story to me told it with so much grief. A justifiable grief. A grief that many of us have felt over similar missteps in our journey, as we mistook our own discomfort for someone else’s problem; as we mistook our need to control the behavior of others for love; as we mistook our exclusive actions for welcome and embrace. 

That was, for me, in a nutshell, the relationship between young people and the church. They come to us longing for a place that pushes them away. They walk such treacherous and sacrificial paths to get to us. And, often, as soon as they decide to trust us, they end up wishing that they had not.

At that time, a good decade ago, my solution was to protect young people from the excessive criticism and control that the church is so prone to exert by being perfect myself. I thought that if they were happy with the most visible young person in the space, then maybe they would not notice the torn jeans and flip flops worn by the rest of us. Maybe I could distract them. 

I got up each morning, in my big, country parsonage, and dressed in slacks, a button down, and dress shoes. I did my hair and my make-up. I ruined more shoes than I can count walking out into my all-too-often flooded front yard, trying to look the part  in attire that was not built for the rigors of marsh life. Some days, the roads would be too flooded to leave my house, but that did not stop me from putting on my armor. I never knew when someone might drop by unannounced to check on the young pastor. Besides, even if no one came by, twice a day, the elderly gentleman across the street could be counted on to pull his big brown sedan out of the driveway and up the street to the garage where the men gathered, to get a coke and report on the movements of the young woman in the parsonage. 

I knew I was loved and respected in that parish, and the love and respect was returned, but I still felt the eyes upon me. I concluded that if folks were happy with the young pastor and I gave them no reason to complain in how I presented myself, then the young people of the community would draw less criticism. For my part, if my appearance did not draw any complaints, then I’d have more space to stir things up with my words, as I preached about the Gospel that rejects racism and sexism on a regular basis. 

When I was commissioned and was moved north, all that began to change in my second appointment, in another rural part of another state. One day, looking out at a congregation where many young people wanted to just come as they were, something clicked. I decided that the best way to be a good shepherd and to shield the young people was not to look less like them. I decided to come to church looking like me, looking like them, looking like us. I decided that if people wanted to be mad and complain about the young person in blue jeans, that young person should be me. 

So I put on my blue jeans before I walked into church the next Sunday.

I decided, if you want to judge someone, judge me. 

If you want to complain about someone, complain about me. 

If you want to push someone out, make it me. 

Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me. 

I learned that distance and respectability and authority will never be so transformative as solidarity. That is why Jesus gave up all of those things to come and walk amongst us, to look like us, walk like us, love like us, break like us.

We often do not have any idea what a young person has gone through before they walk through the doors of our churches. Maybe they have walked for miles in the dust along the narrow shoulder of a country road. Maybe they have spent three years in therapy trying to get over the ways they were rejected the last time they trusted a church, before walking in that morning and giving yours a try. Maybe they did not have the “right” clothes, or the “right” hair, or the “right” look, but they came anyway because they knew that this was the right place for them and they hoped you agreed. In so many different ways, they risked themselves, they risked their lives, they risked their hearts… on us

In November, after more than a decade in ministry, two decades if we start before licensing, I had listened to more tears and broken hearts and shattered dreams than I could even begin to count. I had ministered to too many mothers of gay sons, and brothers of Queer sisters, and non-binary youth.

I finally realized that it was time to put on my blue jeans again. I acknowledged to myself and to others that I was Queer, just like so many of the young adults I had ministered to from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to the poetry events of Houston, Texas, to the college students of Tucson, Arizona.

It was not enough to tell them, “God does love you” while wearing my armor, when I had it in my power to say, “God does love us.”

So I put on my blue jeans.

I decided, if you want to judge someone, judge me. 

If you want to complain about someone, complain about me.

If you want to try to push someone out, make it me.

Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me.

I will not let them be pushed out onto the street alone. 

I’ll be there. You’ll be there. We’ll be there.

When the final vote came in at Special Session of General Conference, I thought of all the millions of dollars, and countless hours and thousands of initiatives that had been launched to create new places for new people. Could it be true that they were all rendered null and void with the push of a button?

In her book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene Caruthers reminds us that we must not get so caught up in thinking about who we are fighting against, that we forget to ask ourselves what we are fighting for… 

…I am fighting for those kids walking along the dirt road to get to church because it is a place they believe they will find love. I am fighting to make us worthy of the trust they offer us, the risks they take for us, the sacrifices they made for us. I am fighting because I want our promises to ring true again. I am fighting for love. I am fighting for them. I am fighting for me. 

What are you fighting for?

3 thoughts on “What are you fighting for?”

  1. I am fighting for persons like you, lay or clergy, to be included fully in the UMC. If that isn’t possible, as looks likely, then I’m fighting for the new thing that will be born.

    Sally Watkins, CTC (Certified Travel Counselor) “The A-List: Top 125 Travel Super-Agents” Travel+Leisure Magazine, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Century Travel and Cruises, since 1982 2714 Bee Cave Rd. Suite 101, Austin, TX7 78746 512.327-8760 tel 512.327-8768 fax sallyw@century-tvl.com http://www.sallywatkins.com Former Chair, Association of Retail Travel Agents/ARTA

    My business depends on referrals – I’d appreciate yours!

    >

  2. My next Mantra now begins – “So I put on my blue jeans.”
    Forty years of youth ministry I’ve fought for the rising of advocates for Youth in the 21st Century
    Therefore – What I am fighting for is:
    The leaders who act upon their drive to be the person you’ve unleashed:
    That say
    “If you want to judge someone, judge me.”
    “If you want to complain about someone, complain about me.”
    “If you want to push someone out, make it me.”
    “Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me.”
    “If you want to try to push someone out, make it me.”

    “Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me.”
    “I will not let them be pushed out onto the street alone.”
    “I’ll be there. You’ll be there. We’ll be there.”

    I continue to fight this fight – and Hannah I now fight for and your colleagues and friends … Y’all are the 21st Century Liberation Theologians.
    I am so blessed to to able to be alive during this epic time.
    Michael – Peace and Grace

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