August 19, 2008

Crossroads: Where I Am Going

How I Got Here
Where I Am Now

This post has been more difficult to write than I would have guessed. And it’s because I really don’t know where I’m going. Yet.

Let me back up a little bit and tell you what I’ve done in the past year. I was privileged last fall to attend a talk presented by Jack Rogers, retired theology professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary and former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. He is the author of Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. He talked about the recent scholarly studies that examine the contextual meaning of the passages in the Bible that mention homosexuality—and how those studies changed his viewpoint. I highly recommend this book for those who need assurance that the Bible does not at all condemn same-sex relationships*.

The audience—consisting primarily and interestingly of men in their forties and women in their fifties and sixties—were gathered in tables of six for discussion. At my table were two gay men and four straight women. Our group leader was the son of a pastor; his partner of twenty years was the leader at another table. They have a nine-year-old daughter and appeared very much content with their circumstances and who they are. The other man at our table clearly was there for affirmation. He teared up several times as we talked about loving acceptance. What a crime that he had to find it among strangers. What a gift that he could find it among strangers. He grasped my hand as we were leaving and thanked me profusely for being there. My gosh. My heart aches for him and those like him who hurt so much.

This spring I learned from the Bilerico website that a seminar was being held locally about how to address the public about LGBT issues in a way that is noninflammatory. At that OUTSpoken seminar, I met a woman who said there was someone else I needed to meet. That friend is a member of a Presbyterian church in Columbus, IN, and she is taking her church through the process of becoming open and affirming. In addition to pointing me to dozens of resources, she told me about the Welcoming Church conference I recently attended in Ohio.

I am empowered by my experience in Ohio. I believe I can begin to help my church become intentionally welcoming to the LGBT community. It will be an incredibly slow process, given the starting place. That’s okay; bulldog perseverence is one quality that’s served me well over the years—to some people’s exasperation, but hey. I liken this process to turning an aircraft carrier: it takes a huge amount of energy to turn the rudder, and then the ship eventually, ever s-l-o-w-l-y, turns. But it does turn.

Within that conference I had an eye-opening experience. One of the activities in which we participated was a role-playing exercise. Each of us was given a description of the committee member we would portray to discuss whether “our church” should form a task force to create a statement of welcome. (Read that last sentence again. The discussion is about appointing another group to discuss it. Quite typical of my experience in church.)

My character was a closeted gay man who was afraid of being discovered and, as a result, being excluded from the church community where he was currently welcomed. He wanted the task force to be formed but was afraid of the conflict that might be engendered. Our “committee chair” opened the discussion. I found it excruciating to try to express my opinion as a gay man who wanted to remain closeted. Every word had to go through the filter of “Would this reveal who I am?” I had to vet each sentence before I spoke, and as a consequence said little as conversation sped past me. I had strong opinions but I couldn’t find a way to express them without revealing myself. It was emotionally exhausting.

As time drew to a close, each of us at the table disclosed our characters. Cries of “You’re gay?!” came from just about everyone. I had succeeded in staying in the closet but at great cost to myself and to the process of moving “our church” forward. What a revelation.

I don’t pretend for a minute that I understand what it is to be gay; I would never presume such a thing. But I think I had a tiny glimpse for a few minutes of what so many men and women go through every minute of their lives. Some never escape that prison while others feel free only when removed from the general population. Let me profoundly apologize here for any role I have ever had in that sentencing, however ignorant I might have been. It’s time for the end of ignorance.

(By the way: the discussion exercise illustrated beautifully how traditional methods in the church will doom this effort to failure: “discussion” devolved quickly into heated arguments; not one person changed his mind about his stance; and absolutely no consensus was met on how to proceed further. We went on to practice the method that works, a way for all to be heard without rancor—an incredibly valuable experience.)

At each of the three events I’ve attended in the past year, my initial reaction upon arrival was the same every time: Where is everybody? Why are so few attending? This is not right. But we’ve got to start somewhere.

When I tell my story it is clear that there are people I meet along the way who affect the direction I take. They’ve been there in every pivotal moment of my life, and I call them signposts. As I stand at a crossroads, trying to decide which road to take, signposts point the way. So here I stand. I think I have a path to follow for my church, even if I have to hack away at the undergrowth with a machete. But which way should I go for you? What would you have me say or do? Every single one of you who reads this blog and comments is a signpost to me. (And if you’re a lurker, I welcome your email.) So:

Which way should I go?

*For the same message using the same sources but less-formal language, read The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships by Rev. Jeff Minor and John Tyler Connoley.

Postscript: David recommends Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition as an excellent book for Jews interested in learning more about faith and sexuality.


Greg said...

Well, for humor's sake, I'll remind you with a wink that a famous and wise Scarecrow once pointed out that "people do go both ways".

But seriously, I like the path you're on makes me smile and warms my heart and brings a tear to my eye to know there are people who care so much about moving beyond the way things have been.

You don't mention it, but I assume that after the revelation of your character for the roleplay there was some discussion of your feelings of frustration. I hope everyone in the group could take a little of that lesson you learned about what it feels like in that closet.

Over the years, I've found my own path as regards spirituality and I find my comfort and joy more in the natural world than in any church. But I enjoy and appreciate your journey.

Smooches to you. : )

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that I don't have the answer of where you go from here.

I greatly admire the work that you're doing and hope that it continues to bear fruit. My experience with the church lead me to abandon my faith for almost ten years.

I still don't know what kind of faith I have, which I find to be irrlevant. What I have is gratitude and acceptance. Gratitude when my life makes sense, acceptance when it doesn't, sprinkled with a little hope that something somewhere knows what's best for me.

Bear Me Out said...

Straight advocates are so very valuable. Telling your story of our story helps many hear who would never listen to a gay person.

Keep pushing!

Paul said...

Fortunately, I do believe that this country -- and many other parts of the world, are indeed on the cusp of a major turn-around in how they view homosexuality.

I guess the thing that bothers me the most is the HATE for homosexuals that is spoken in the name of "the Truth."

"One step at a time" seems sensible. Until you realize that many individual lives suffer totally because steps are so small.

Birdie - thanks for responding to my questions. I'm glad to know more about your background. I'm proud of what you're doing.

Birdie said...

I understand that not all are on the same path as I, Greg; I will be a bridge for those who wish to cross. We can all still raise a glass together, virtual or otherwise, and enjoy these dragonfly summers and more.

(And yes, I did speak up about my feelings in the role play. Several attendees who are gay approached me later to talk. Very enlightening.)

Birdie said...

Flip, I’m finding your experience is pretty common. It is my hope that those who wish for it will find God again, perhaps in seeking out those in ministry who make you like who you are when you’re with them. That is the grace of my God, the One I know without a doubt loves you for who you are right now, unchanged. If you wish to talk about it, I’m here. If that never happens, I’m still here.

Bear, just try and stop me. ☺

Paul, I think we are in the beginning stages of the next civil victory. I’m hoping it will be a spiritual victory as well. Thank you so much for asking the questions that had me thinking long and hard. Having to put it in writing makes me clarify my thoughts. Keep those questions coming.

bigislandjeepguy said...

what a great post. and what a great ally we have in you!

my brother went thru some sort of corporate training at one point in his career: just after his life partner had passed away. he was trying to process those feelings, yet was not open to the people at work. i remember him saying how difficult it was when other people were talking about their spouses and private lives, and he was dying inside because of his loss which he could not (or would not) share...out of fear. fear of people's reactions. fear of being "found out." fear. period.

everyone at my old job found out i was gay...when they saw me with my then-partner at my mom's funeral. my boss took me out to lunch afterward and asked, "why didn't you tell us?" and he stammered and stuttered when i said, "all of the anti-gay comments EVERYONE has made thru the years scared me to death. for such a supposedly open-minded, creative organization (ad agency) we have, you are the most close-minded individuals i have ever met." he did not even REMEMBER the remark he made not too long after my brother passed away from AIDS; when there was an earthquake in san fran, he said, "well, that will take care of the rest of the gays." and people LAUGHED. at the time, i did say, "you know, that comment really sucks considering my gay brother just died from AIDS." and he was suitably embarrassed. but of course he had selective memory in ever making the comment later on down the line. i had already stopped loving that job long before that and did not last much longer after mom's death, but i remember the comments that were made. i wished i had not been scared to say something...but i was. fear of rejection or of being "part of the crowd" is very powerful sometimes.

sadly, every day i hear another story of religious zealots and their hatred, it drives me further away from religion. yea, i still have my own private relationship with a higher power, but it is so different now that i am not involved in what i now felt like was some sort of cult "following." i cannot condone what some pope in rome says or does when what he is preaching is outright hatred. how he backs his words with a book that was interpreted, by men, thru the ages. and that book is constantly used as ammunition against us.

my statement i have made time and time again: i have prayed and prayed and prayed NOT to be gay. and *nothing* changed. no higher power took away the feelings. and when people say, "well, being gay is a CHOICE," i tell them: "why would i choose to be persecuted and hated for who i love?" and what is so wrong about love? i want the same things any straight couple wants. before the boss previously mentioned knew i was gay (and we were talking in generalities about gay people), he said, "well, it's not *bad* to be gay. they just shouldn't practice on it." WHAT? what he was saying was that it was ok to have *feelings* of love for someone of the same sex, but you should just never. ever. have. sex. yes, let's deny people one of their most basic needs.

even at my age, i take baby steps to come out to more people, because it is the only way that teaches people: wow. i like him. i respect him. he's a good guy. and he *happens* to be gay. i still hear stupid remarks from people i work with but i notice how THEY notice when they make them in front of me. if i laugh, they breathe a sigh of relief. if i don't, they apologize.

even this weekend, coming out to the bf's realtor, we both had thought, "she HAS to know." and she didn't. and she was entirely cool with it, but what seems like it is written in huge magic marker across our heads (to us) is sometimes not even remotely obvious to other people. because i'm not a "typical gay"? hell if i know.

anyway: to make a very long response to your post a little longer (hehehe)...thank you. for all your do!

Birdie said...

Jeepguy, your story is why I must follow my call. I cannot sit by while such hurt is inflicted upon innocent men and women, whether physically, emotionally or legally. I would take your pain if I could. But sorrow shared is sorrow divided. Be at peace with yourself, sweetie. You are who you’re supposed to be.

Dantallion said...

This series of posts becomes more and more compelling with each installment.

Which way should you go... Cool question, that.

I think that the simplest answer to that is "Whatever direction circumstance, opportunity, and in particular your instincts guide you in".

I feel safe in speaking for many of the people here when I say that, based on what I've come to know of you,I trust completely in your instincts, and your open and honest desire to accomplish wonderful & constructive things for those who you feel have struggled with being treated as "lesser" in the world. Anyone who you choose to help and support would be incredibly fortunate to have you on their side...

Keep being such a kind and generous soul... All things being equal, I believe you'll reap what you sow 10-fold.

Birdie said...

Wow, Dan. Be careful—I am afraid of letting you down, because I am only human. (Remember the incompleteness of the Internet persona, even from me. You don't get the whole picture from my blog.) But I will do everything in my power to earn the trust you have given me.

bigislandjeepguy said...

you know birdie, it's all good. i consider myself very lucky compared to many other people who experience discrimination based on who they choose to love. my friends and family are TOTALLY cool with who i am, and honestly, i am damn comfortable in my skin.

i know there have been points in my life where i thought: if there was a pill to be straight, i would take it. but face it, straight/gay/ is exactly what you make of it. give up the awesome bf i have now? HELL NO!

Greg said...

Birdie, I think I go with Dan on this one: you've got great instincts and you're heading down the path you're on for a reason. Even just based on your visible internet persona, I think it's safe to put a little trust in you. : )

Not many would go to the lengths you have to ask and learn and build bridges and we love you for that! I will always happily raise a glass of one kind or another with you.

Dantallion said...

Birdie, I understand the danger of the internet persona - and I also understand human limits and failings. But I stand by the idea of placing trust and faith in people of genuine compassion who sincerely wish to help others - doesn't matter if they hit their mark or not - I'll always stand squarely behind the individual whose sincere desire is to make a situation better for people, regardless of outcome. MY instincts are telling me that you'll succeed in whatever path you eventually choose.

Besides, you seem to have passed the Patrick and Java litmus tests - and thats good enough for me.

Java said...

Powerful stuff, Miz Birdie. I would like to experience that seminar myself.

I know that passion, the need to get the message across that, simply put, Gay is OK.

I have some of the same questions about direction that you do. What's next? How can I best exercise my passion? You seem to know your mission, to help your church move to a position of being accepting and affirming. I know your overall mission is bigger than that, but you have a project to work on for now. Right now my biggest "project" is blogging. Hmmm. I need to move more.

I love your commenters, too! You seem to have made all of us think with this post. And for that I thank you.

Indigo said...

Indigo Incarnates

I'm one of the people who prayed a LONG time to somehow become straight. It didn't happen. I've been gay as long as my incarnation has had sentience.

What struck me as cruelly unfair is the idea that YHVH would hate gays and yet not respond to my very ferverent prayers to be straight. It's like YVHV said "I have created you simply to be hated."

Well... that kind of crap can go on only so long. I discovered that the Wiccan gods (that being the Goddess and the God) do love me, they don't hate gays, and don't chuck anyone into everlasting damnation. My life has changed for the better ever since I became a Wiccan.

that was how my church crossroads worked out.

Birdie said...

Java, my clarity was a LONG time in coming. I just continued to keep my eyes and heart open. You're doing fine, and you have plenty to keep you busy. And yes, I do have the best commenters (yourself included)!

Indigo, those who say that God hates gays misunderstand the Bible. They mistake modern literal translations as the only way to read the words. What the Bible reads is not the same as what the Bible truly says when you understand the context of each author's time and culture and the limitations of our own language. The Bible says that God loves you exactly as you are. There is no need to "pray away" who you were born to be. You are loved—with overwhelming, unconditional grace—no matter what.

I am so glad you have found peace and acceptance in your life.

David said...

After reading this post I wasn't sure I understood everything correctly. It seemed like you knew exactly what your next step was, but then at the end you seemed to say that you don't know what your next step is.

You say you want to be the catalyst at your church for creating a welcoming environment for all. It sounds like you have all the tools you need right there in your head and heart. Just go for it. Meet with the people you feel will be allies, then meet with the people who are agents of change at your church. Hopefully there will be some overlap in that group.

Also, if you don't already have this as your mantra, be sure to internalize Ghandi's famous saying of being the change you want to see in the world.

That's really all you need. 90% of life is just showing up.

NB: While the books you reference are probably excellent tools for those of the Christian faith, if you run into any who are Jews, you can recommend the following to them as a more sympatico text:
Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition by Steven Greenberg

Birdie said...

David, I guess it feels like my direction is one-way right now. Yes, I do have a feel for where I'm going with my church, even though I'm not sure exactly where those steps are right now. I know where to look.

But how can we eventually get this message out? Congregations are by their very nature insular. All this good intent will get nowhere unless the LGBT community is aware. I'd bet my salary—such as it is—that the vast majority of gay people in my church are married with children. No matter how welcoming we may be, they're not coming out of the closet. While they are just as important as any, what can I say or do to open both ends of the bridge to the communities at large? Am I premature in asking this?

Thank you, too, for starting a conversation I wanted to have with you about the Jewish community. I will investigate your recommendation.

tornwordo said...

Perhaps I'm a bit cynical about all this, not your situation, but the problem of religion and homosexuality being in/compatible. In my view, I was rejected by the church and learned to live without it. There are a thousand ways to know GOD, and accepting or rejecting homosexuality has the most minimal of impacts. (for me)

Birdie said...

Torn, it saddens me that you were forced to find your relationship with God in solitude and that you are hardly alone in that fact. I think you are right in believing that one's sexuality is a nonissue in knowing God.

I find it compelling to have that instant intimacy of a spiritual connection with others. Not all will seek that. Each of us does ultimately find his own way in faith, even in community.

Y | O | Y said...

"But sorrow shared is sorrow divided." Love this. I've never heard it but be sure I will start using it!

In your comment to David, you mentioned that you figure that most of the gay people in your church are married with children. Be prepared that these folks may be the most inclined to resist your efforts for fear that they might be discovered.