Yesterday I had the incredible opportunity to participate as a panelist in a festival sponsored by the Metropolitan New York Synod entitled Queer & Faithful. The name of the panel discussion I was on was called Queer & Faithful & Looking Ahead. It was comprised of younger leaders in the Synod where we were asked to envision what work lies ahead for the Queer community of faith and the Church. I shared that before we can look ahead we need to look back and at the present. Jesus tells the disciples in our gospel reading today, 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” and this, I think, is where we can start Looking Ahead as a Synod. For churches this means re-evaluating our use of a common statement that many members of marginalized communities have grown very suspicious of. That statement is “All Are Welcome” or anything similar to it. Often churches try using a blanket statement of welcome in order to bring people into their doors without realizing the true impact of what they are saying. You see, when a church claims “All are Welcome” and in the same breath tells one of us in the LGBTQIA+ community that we are going to hell for loving who we love. All are not welcome. Or if the church says that they “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” All are not welcome. If a church kicks a child of God out of their community for being their authentic self, all are not welcome and I’ve lost count of how many of my queer siblings have experienced this and more at the hands of organized religion, the ELCA included. A friend shared earlier this week “If you’ve never had a supreme court case decide IF you have the same rights as others, you have privilege.” Similarly, if you’ve never had to look at a church sign or website that says all “All Are Welcome” and question whether or not that really includes you, you have privilege, which is the vast majority of the ELCA and Christianity on a wider scale.
For Pastors and Deacons in the LGBTQIA+ community and our Siblings of Color Looking Ahead also means that the ELCA needs to take a good hard look at the call process. Allow me to share a bit about my experience: I don’t tell you these things to gain your sympathy. I name my own experiences because those are the stories I can share and they provide just an ounce of the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people of faith.
For many of you the fact that my call process can be described as…messy…at best is no secret. If my 2.5 years of looking for a call were split into time spent actively interviewing versus trying to get a response back from a synod or congregation, active interviewing would be at best 6-8 months and that’s being generous. I was encouraged by a Synod to start a Spanish Speaking mission start. While I did identify myself as Hispanic in my paperwork, I also made a point to name that I have a very complex and painful history of trying to learn the Spanish language as is common among 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants. Something that was either left unread in my painstakingly thorough paperwork, or less ignored. When I was an intern here 4 years ago I was informed by a white pastor that interns should be seen and not heard, when I spoke with fellow clergy at a meeting discussing issues that impacted my own community. I have also had to make a point of “outing” myself to congregations repeatedly, lest I be accused of trying to hide it to get a job. For Holy Trinity alone I outed myself on 5 separate occasions, at each and every interview including during the Question & Answer Session before the call vote here. I did it for my own safety, because I, like so many other clergy candidates in the LGBTQIA+ community, learned the hard way not to trust the words printed by churches, but instead to take a closer look at their actions. This wasn’t something unique to my interview process with Holy Trinity though, I did it at every single interview, with every church, in every synod I interviewed through, knowing that saying that I identify as bisexual could very well be the sole factor for whether a church would consider calling me or not.
My story is not unique and it’s far from the worst experience among my colleagues. It causes LGBTQIA+ candidates to have to wait a year and often several, to find church calls, in spite of the fact that there are stories everywhere about a clergy shortage. Until churches welcome leadership so readily that we no longer feel pressured to out ourselves for safety…all are not welcome. At the 2009 Churchwide assembly a social statement was passed that removed barriers that prevented members of the Queer community from becoming pastors. And while I am grateful for that, because the fact that I am able to serve as your pastor today is a direct result of that decision, unfortunately it feels like the denomination decided that was all that needed to happen, but as Bishop Eaton said in her video broadcast on Wednesday, “there’s still more work to be done.” I teared up hearing her admit that. I teared up because I wrote a seminary paper for the 5th anniversary of that Statement, interviewing its writers and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to see what had changed, aside from the ability to get ordained and the answer was…not much and if I put the stories I’d described side by side with the ones from 5 years ago, anyone would be hard pressed to tell the difference.
When Jesus talks to the disciples about welcome, he is sending them out into the world. He reminds the proclaimers that they are to experience this welcome out in the world beyond where they are so if we’re to experience radical welcome and truly extend it it has to be outside of our buildings, rather than hoping that people will come to us. In order to reach out we have to name that we are welcoming marginalized groups specifically, only after we’ve done the work to make sure that the statements of welcome we make are actually authentic. Folx in the LGBTQIA+ community vet churches for authenticity. We check websites, Facebook and other Social Media, ask for recommendations from fellow queer people. We look to see if a congregation is listed as Reconciling in Christ which requires the process of writing a detailed welcome statement among other criteria, rather than just claiming to be welcoming without those specifics, all before we remotely consider walking through the front door, because welcome is an action verb and we need to see proof. We need that proof, not because we’re picky, but because after years and years of harmful even abusive relationships with sacred spaces for self preservation and it’s not just the LGBTQIA+ community that needs that. A church is meant to be an authentic place where the community, however it may be gathered, is able to be together and each individual is able to unapologetically be their full and authentic self. That’s what radical welcome is, and with work it is achievable, and I pray it is, long before the next 10 years have passed. Holy Trinity gave me hope when I was pretty much done, when the only support I was getting in my call process was from fellow members of the LGBTQIA+ community. You gave me proof that radical, authentic welcome was indeed possible when YOU called ME, an openly bisexual pastor, which is still a BIG deal in this church 10 years after the possibility of ordination was opened up to me. I want to challenge you, people of God, to keep living that out into the world. I want to challenge you to think and then act creatively to continue proving that each and every person is welcome at God’s table here, because of their differences, not in spite of them. The world needs more radical welcome, and together we can be a part of making that a reality.