September 15, 2008

Stole-n Identity

Last week I had lunch with a man who is a former pastor and currently a mental health counselor. I know him from my work at the AIDS support center. Jonathan is intelligent, kind, and gentle; and he was willing to talk with me about my current journey in leading my church to be open and affirming.

He happens to be gay. I say it this way because in the big picture of who he is, being gay is so far down the list that it loses significance. Or at least it should. He left the ministry when he realized that he could never be true to himself if he stayed. Chalk up one more loss to the misguided interpretations of Christians.

“Gay pastor.” When have you ever heard any pastor described as straight? As such, does a pastor’s sexual identity have any impact on the call s/he has to serve God? Is it any business of mine or yours?

During the Welcoming Church conference I attended in August, we were shown a display of pastors' stoles. A stole is a slender scarf of decorative fabric which is draped around the neck and worn over a robe. It lends identity to the event and to the pastor. While most are commercially made, many stoles are custom made with special significance to its wearer. All of them are beautiful for the meaning they carry.

The stoles we saw are a part of a larger, permanently mobile display called “Shower of Stoles.” Each of them comes from a priest or pastor who has either been defrocked or is in the closet due to sexual orientation. We were invited to select a stole and wear it for the duration of our conference in honor of the clergyperson who could not.

I chose one that looked identical to those worn by pastors in my church. Attached to the underneath was a pocket which contained a story about the stole I wore. I repeat a portion of it here:

“After 32 years of faithful ministry to this church, I am not about to start answering questions that should never be asked in the first place.

…I will never openly lie about who I am, but neither will I fully reveal the truth about me and risk losing the ministry to which I have devoted my life.”

What a terrible choice to have to make. What an injustice that a man or woman called to serve must do so in secrecy or not at all. Jonathan chose truth.

He was gracious in helping me take more steps in my journey. One of the stumbling blocks I will face further down in this process is having small groups form to discuss how to be welcoming. We will need input from the LGBT community for several reasons, not least of which is to put a “face” on the community. Since I am unaware of a single out person in our congregation, where am I going to find these individuals?

Jonathan gave me the names of three churches in our city, three different denominations, which enjoy primarily gay congregations. I will be approaching their senior pastors to “borrow” some congregants for our small groups. I find it fitting that this might be an ecumenical process possibly involving four different denominations. God welcomes all.


David said...

Interesting. Those stoles are the Christian evolutionary version of the Jewish "tallis" that all men wear at morning services.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

I once watched a news clip about a church that was started by gay people, it was growing so fast they kept having to build new buildings to meet the needs of the people. The thing that surprised me was there were a lot of straight people joining. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that the church started out as being open and accepting, so everyone can feel welcomed without judgement, meaning no one is there who dislikes gays so there is no split in belief systems. Everyone felt like it was a big family. I also remember they said they had to build because when they tried to buy large older churches that were not in use, the people left in those churches said they would rather burn down the church than let a gay positive church have it.

bigislandjeepguy said...

statements such as that scare the hell out of me: "would rather burn down the church than let a gay positive church have it."

and these are CHRISTIANS????

i guess they skipped the part of the bible that spoke about how accepting a man jesus was. sheesh.

Ur-spo said...

I have a t-shirt that says

God Bless the World
No Exceptions

David said...

ur-spo: I love it!

Patrick said...

I'm excited to see that you're continuing on with your journey, Birdie, and finding help and fellow travellers along the way. Borrowing the congregants from other churches will indeed be a wonderful way of expanding the community/ies. I hope it helps you feel less like you're having to do it all alone.

Java said...

The Shower of Stoles is a poignant display. I'm so sad that is this way. I'm so glad you are working against this trend, working to include and accept gays into your congregation. Good luck!! May God be with you. (Which works much better than good luck :-) )

Also, what Patrick said. (Isn't he a darling?)

Me Online said...

I think wearing the stoles is a really neat concept. How much better would we all be if we could feel what it is like to walk someone else's walk.

Greg said...

I love that the stole you selected had a secret story pocket to it. Did they all? Whether or not, it's fascinating and a little heart-rending to know the story behind the one you selected.

I had a friend years ago, we might have even had the potential to be more than that, but being a priest made that impossible for him. I was sorry we lost touch after he transferred, but I knew how much he loved his work and the ways he ministered to his congregation were beautiful. I always think of him and hope that he has found happiness in that work.